Review of Lisa Peterson’s Production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer


The Philanderer Speaks to the Contemporary Moment

  • Written by Bernard Shaw
  • Directed by Lisa Peterson
  • Starring Gord Rand, Moya O’Connell, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Michael Ball
  • Company The Shaw Festival
  • Venue Festival Theatre
  • City Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Runs Until Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lisa Peterson’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer (1893) begins with a horizontal screen. The screen, which hangs over the stage, displays the first lines of the author’s written text: “A lady and gentleman are making love to one another….” In the darkness we hear the sounds of sexual pleasure and realize this is a rather brash introduction, especially once we learn that the man and woman are not yet wed.

The two lovers are Leonard Charteris (Gord Rand) and Grace Tranfield (Marla McLean). Charteris and Grace, at this juncture, both wish to wed if the former can be rid of his current lover, Julia Craven (Moya O’Connell). As the story progresses, after frequent remarks about the encroaching “advanced ideas,” namely, the “new woman” (read: independent and intellectual), Grace turns Charteris away. However, fearing he may fall prey to Julia’s advances again, Charteris sets up the conditions for a young doctor to seduce and propose to Julia.

The success of this marriage between Dr. Paramore (Jeff Meadows) and Julia is measured by years: in the play’s final act, some four years later, the Doctor has grown tired of Julia and has found a new love in none other than Grace. Divorce is near impossible given the “pigheaded laws” of England at the time, thus the third act is a rampant and undisguised criticism of government intervention in the beds of citizens. The final scene also reunites Charteris and Julia in a passionate and foolish embrace, an embrace that leads down a path which, we hope, will not end in wedlock. We know that even if the divorce from Paramore is successful, the same fate awaits Julia with her next husband.

There is much to love about Peterson’s production. John Law has articulated this well in his review. Peterson, however, underestimates the play’s applicability to the contemporary moment. In her “Director’s Notes” she writes that we no longer suffer from the same silly laws regarding divorce, but the plight of Shaw’s characters is similarly ours, I would suggest, albeit framed with contemporary “advanced ideas.” There has not yet been a review to address this point. Law, J. Kelly Nestruck, and Richard Ouzounian fail to mention the play’s modern applicability.

Our current social and cultural problem is less the law than it is norms. Marriage rates have plummeted due, in part, to differing forms and structures of romantic relationships. Shaw was keenly aware of changes in romantic relationships and sought to depict them in his play. The playwright’s emphasis was not the divorce laws, though they were bad and Shaw was clearly not fond of them; rather, Shaw was interested in the pressures individuals face when the experiences of their own romantic lives conflict with the narratives of contemporary mores.

Today we are more accepting of various forms of sexual and intimate contact. We are increasingly positive about singlehood, promiscuity, open relationships, non-monogamous relationships, and polyamorous relationships with multiple live-in partners. Shaw’s characters are met with resistance from older generations in their efforts to secure personal happiness with alternatives to long-term marriage – the same is true today, thus Peterson’s production of The Philanderer arrives in a moment of comparable intensity. Despite openness about new romances, we are still in a state of ambiguity and conflict about whether the “advanced ideas” will destroy the moral fabric of society or, as history has demonstrated, will be assimilated into popular morality in due course.

Grace and Julia’s fathers (played by the twin-like Michael Ball and Ric Reid) sensed that the old ways were deteriorating. While they do not condone divorce (Immoral! they say), the future appeared inevitable, and so they pool their resources to aid Paramore and Julia in their fight for romantic freedom. This is the lesson we must learn from The Philanderer: advanced ideas about love, sex, and gender are here and they are here to stay.