Stage Door Review

Too True to Be Good

Sunday, May 29, 2022

✭✭

by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Sanjay Talwar

Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 29-October 8, 2022

The Elder: “The only trustworthy dogma is that there is no dogma”

The Shaw Festival is currently presenting its fifth production of George Bernard Shaw’s surreal comedy Too True to Be Good from 1932. Having seen this production and the those in 1994 and 2006, I can aver I have come to appreciate this Shaw rarity more with each viewing. Because of the events of the past two years and past three months, Too True now feels more relevant than ever. Shaw writing of the loss of direction and the growing political dangers in the wake of World War I, captures the same thoughts and emotions that people today are experiencing. Shaw saw through all the received wisdom of his own period and in so doing helps us see through the same in ours.

I noted in my review of the 2006 production that “In his Preface, Shaw described the three-part structure of the play as funny in the beginning, serio-comic in the middle and ‘a torrent of sermons’ at the end. This self-awareness, including Shaw’s knowledge of his own penchant for sermonizing, is one of the many playful aspects of the piece that make it seem so modern.  Starting with the title, the play is based on series of reversals of expectations. The play begins with the speech of a Microbe who has become sick from the illness of his nameless host Patient.  The ‘sickly’ Patient has become ill and remains so because of the ‘care’ of her mother, Mrs. Mopply, who has already lost several children to illness. The Patient’s night nurse (aka Susan Simpkins aka ‘Sweetie’) turns out to be a thief and lets in another thief (Aubrey Bagot aka ‘Popsy’) who plans to steal her jewels”.

Rather than being alarmed, the Patient immediately falls in love with Popsy, who realizes that he and Sweetie could increase their gains by kidnapping the Patient, now known as “Mopsy”. Popsy is perspicacious enough to see that Mopsy is so anxious to get away from her smothering mother that she will be willing to go along with the plan and split the takings. Mopsy sees this will finally be a chance for her to experience life.

The three end up in a sunny, unnamed, far-flung outpost of the British Empire, nominally under the command of Colonel Tallboys, who would rather paint watercolours, but which is actually controlled by the amazing efforts of Private Meek.

Here the two thieves, one an ordained minister, find that leisure is not all it’s cracked up to be and the Mopsy is disappointed by life itself.  None of the three, however, is as cynical as the Elder, Popsy’s father, a confirmed atheist, who appears in the last act and is convinced the world is about to end. As the Elder tells us:  “Nothing can save us from a perpetual headlong fall into a bottomless abyss but a solid footing of dogma; and we no sooner agree to that than we find that the only trustworthy dogma is that there is no dogma”.

Nevertheless, there is a happy ending for everyone except the Elder. Shaw is as radical as ever when he shows that parents and adult children must renegotiate their bonds as equals, husbands and wives should take each other on trial first before marrying and order of command in the military should be based on merit not class.

We should realize that any play whose first lines are spoken by a Microbe is not intended to be realistic. Shaw subtitles the play “A Political Extravaganza”, and we can see that Shaw has used his farcical plot of reversed relationships as a way of satirizing all the forms of order and hierarchy that people take for granted in families, the military, empire, religion, science and society in general.

Because of the global pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine, what will strike audiences as uncannily relevant is Shaw’s satire on health and the military. The global pandemic has made most people aware that there are means of preventing the spread of a viral disease even if there are no means of curing it. In Too True, Shaw satirizes via Mrs. Mopply the means the British used to keep disease at bay – three meat-based meals a day, no fresh air indoors and no exercise – as the very means that invite diseases to take hold.

Mrs. Mopply’s daughter, Mopsy, has a case of the German measles, once known as the three-day measles because of its short duration. Mopsy’s mother is so concerned about Mopsy’s health that she keeps asking the Doctor for new prescriptions and inoculations, even though in 1932, there was no treatment for German measles and the Doctor knows it. (A vaccine against German measles was not developed until 1969 and since then the disease has been eliminated from the western hemisphere.) And yet, Mrs. Mopply wonders why all her other children have died under her “care”.

The creature called The Microbe in the programme is always called the Monster in Shaw’s text. This designation shows that Shaw is satirizing a larger subject than disease. The Monster we see may be the Microbe that causes German measles, but calling him a Monster implies that he is just one of the negative aspects of the world that British people think they can prevent from affecting their lives. Indeed, under her mother’s protection, Mopsy has come to believe she is always unwell and too frail to experience life in the outside world.

Shaw makes his strongest attack against war. In the person of Colonel Tallboys he presents us with the epitome of British colonialism. Tallboys is racist, classist and misogynist and totally inept at his job. Meanwhile, his subordinate Private Meek, who has deliberately refused promotion several times, accomplishes all of Tallboys’s duties without aggravating anyone involved. Shaw completely explodes the notion that the British colonial governments maintained order in the lands they ruled over. It’s their presence that cause unrest.

In a more severe critique Shaw gives us both Aubrey Bagot (aka Popsy) and Sergeant Fielding, who have both been sickened by the horrors or war and can find no way to justify them. Aubrey says, “I was hardly more than a boy when I first dropped a bomb on a sleeping village. I cried all night after doing that. Later on I swooped into a street and sent machine gun bullets into a crowd of civilians: women, children, and all. I was past crying by that time”. Meanwhile, Sergeant Fielding, who has become disillusioned with both the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, is sure evil in the present will be punishedd in the future: “Well, London and Paris and Berlin and Rome and the rest of them will be burned with fire from heaven all right in the next war: thats certain. Theyre all Cities of Destruction. And our Government chaps are running about with a great burden of corpses and debts on their backs”.

For Shaw, there’s no honour in war even if it is soldier against soldier. When, as Aubrey describes, it turns to killing civilians, then it is simply murder and even the term “war” cannot excuse it. As Aubrey says, “You cannot divide my conscience into a war department and a peace department”.

Mixed in with Shaw's critiques of people who live but are not really living and people who kill and try to explain it away, is Shaw’s most overt discussion of sex. Both Aubrey and Fielding see that human being are composed of two parts. Aubrey speaks of “higher centres” and “lower centres”: “In all respectable conversation the higher centres speak, even when they are saying nothing or telling lies. But the lower centres are there all the time: a sort of guilty secret with every one of us ...”. Fielding expresses the same thing in a homelier fashion: “Men and women have a top storey as well as a ground floor; and you cant have the one without the other”.

Basically, Shaw satirizes all those who deny that life is complex. Immuring oneself does not shut out disease but encourages it. Renaming murder as war does not stop guilt and suffering. Focussing on the “higher centre”or the “upper storey” cannot disguise the influence of the “lower centre” or the “ground floor”. Bagot’s father, the Elder, an atheist, put all his faith in the immutability of Newtonian science. But even science is no safe refuge. The advent of Einstein has destroyed what the Elder had accepted as the dogma of his world and now he is left in despair.

All but one of the nine-member cast are old hands at Shaw and under Sanjay Talwar’s perceptive direction and give the best possible portrayals of their characters. Donna Soares is the one cast member who is only in her second year with the Festival. She gives a clear account of all Mopsy says but she is unrelievedly over-emphatic no matter what her character’s mood and really needs to vary her tone in order to be more effective, especially when delivering one of Shaw’s most trenchant lines about humanity: “We are walking factories of bad manure”.

In contrast, Travis Seetoo gives the Microbe (or Monster) such a wide variety of moods that, despite Joyce Padua’s fantastical costume of ruffles and various efflorescences, this creature seems so human that its no surprise that Doctor holds a conversation with him.

The two burglars, Susan Simpkins (aka Sweetie) and Aubrey Bagot (aka Popsy) are made into a wonderful study in contrasts by Marla McLean and Graeme Somerville. The two characters are ex-lovers – she taking it better than he – but they keep this aspect ever-present in their various arguments about who is smarter or more proficient. In reality, as representatives of the “lower” and “higher” centres, the two are a team and only as a team are able to pull off the heist. It is Popsy, the would-be preacher, who convinces Mopsy to collude with their kidnap plan and thus to have a chance to enjoy life for once. But this idea only comes to him after Mopsy and Sweetie have a rather startling physical struggle. McLean and Somerville keep the romantic tension between Popsy and Sweetie going until the third act when Sweetie finds another man for her unapologetically insatiable passion. When Mopsy takes on the disguise of the Countess Valbrioni, McLean does a spot-on imitation of Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Neil Barclay is ideal as Colonel Tallboys, a typical reactionary, jingoistic British military man who later would be caricatured as Colonel Blimp in cartoons by David Low in 1934. Barclay makes sure we see Tallboys as so hidebound that we know Tallboys has no notion how offensive his racist, classist and sexist statements are. Shaw reveals Tallboys as an utter buffoon, but Barclay knows that buffoons are funniest when they have no idea that they are buffoons.

Colonel Tallboys’s ironic parallel is Private Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek, whose first three names show the abilities belied by his family name. Jonathan Tan makes Meek delightfully amusing, like Barclay in playing him with absolute seriousness. No matter how absurd it is how many positions Meek has held in the army, Tan reveals each new position with complete matter-of-factness. Following military protocol, the private speaks only when spoken to, but every time Tan’s Meek speaks in simple, plain fashion he nonplusses Tallboys with an intelligence and invention that Tallboys can’t conceive of in anyone with the rank of private.

Jenny L. Wright is hilarious as the oversolicitous Mrs. Mopply, whose habit of taking noisy baby steps to move about well sums up her restrictive way of thinking. Yet, Shaw allows even this epitome of the suffocating mother a revelation. Wright makes this a great moment and she shows how all of Mrs. Mopply’s annoying habits suddenly melt away as she has to re-learn what being a mother is. In a way I do not recall from previous productions, Mrs. Mopply’s awakening and negotiation with Mopsy to take each other on trial to see if they hit it off becomes the real highpoint of the play. It is as if Shaw suggests that all people should re-examine the bonds that tie them to others with a rational eye and jointly decide what the real basis of those bonds should be.

Martin Happer clearly distinguishes the irritated Scottish Doctor, who tends Mopsy, from the careful, thoughtful, low-class Sergeant Fielding, who, unlike most of his mates, wants to know a woman’s mind, not just her body. Patrick Galligan, presumably made up to look like Shaw, is excellent, as one might expect, at making sense of the Elder’s long tirade about how his world has fallen to pieces. In truth, the Elder’s son, Aubrey, is the real stand-in for Shaw. Shaw makes fun of himself by giving Aubrey an enormous speech during which all the characters depart leaving him to preach to no one.

Talwar has the intriguing idea of having the cast including the Microbe change the set before Act 2 and Act 3 while wearing flourishes reminding us of the Microbe’s costume. Does Talwar want us to see that microbes are really all around us? Does he mean to suggest that people are like the Microbe in that their ideas make infect us just as diseases do? Or does he mean both? In any case, the implication is that disease, or rather dis-ease, in part of the human condition and must be confronted.  

The play is a marvellous critique of all who wish to see the world only from a single point of view. Certainty in one’s beliefs is comforting but certainty doesn’t jibe with the real world. In a time like the present where those on the left and the right are becoming more extreme and farther apart, a play like Too True that questions all dogmas comes as a welcome balm of rationality.

Canadians should feel extremely lucky to have such an institution as the Shaw Festival. No other theatre company in the world would offer such a rarity as Too Good to Be True five times. Yet, it is because the Festival has presented the play so often that audiences have over time been able to see the virtues in the work and to realize how timely and incredibly audacious it truly is.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Donna Soares as Mopsy and Marla McLean as Sweetie, © 2022 David Cooper; Travis Seetoo as the Microbe, © 2022 Emily Cooper; Graeme Somerville as Aubrey Bagot aka “Popsy”, © 2022 Emily Cooper; Marla McLean as Sweetie and Martin Happer as Sergeant Fielding, © 2022 David Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.