George Bernard Shaw had a tricky relationship with fascism.
In the 1920s and ’30s, as the idealism of his youth hardened into an all-consuming disgust over man’s inability to govern himself, and as Europe headed toward a second world war, Shaw allowed his mind and pen to wander into uncomfortable territory. In the leadup to the war, according to an excellent article by Stanley Weintraub in the Times Literary Supplement, Shaw expressed admiration, both tacit and explicit, for the Mussolini regime in Italy and for the political prowess of his mustachioed counterparts in Germany and Russia. In their autocratic approach to governing, Shaw thought he saw the kernel of something noble: a desire to finally arrive at a just and efficient system of government, which democracy in its long history had failed to accomplish.
But when Hitler and Stalin’s efficiency in brutalizing their countrymen finally became clear to Shaw – who turned a blind eye to the suffering of Russians under Stalin’s regime – he found himself having to do some repair work.
The result was a ridiculous variety show act called “Geneva,” a play that evolved along with the unfolding conflict in Europe. It featured an imagined trial of the Italian, German and Spanish dictators: Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. Shaw himself called the play “horrible,” and directors have generally avoided it because of its potential to seem anachronistic, its shaky structure and poorly sketched characters.
For the Shaw Festival’s current revival of the piece, the brave but misguided playwright John Murrell delved into Shaw’s scattershot piece and pulled out the adaptation “Peace in Our Time.” And the result, bold in concept though clunky in execution, may actually be worse than the original.
Murrell’s schmaltzy and often childish attempt to rescue this piece from its peculiar period in history contains some genuine humor and a few polished pearls of Shavian insight. But it ends up as an overblown, overstretched allegory more likely to make us groan than to reveal any useful contemporary lessons.
What’s more, Murrell has taken the liberty of turning Shaw’s minor theatrical debacle into an anti-American screed that goes for all-too-easy laughs at the expense of a cardboard character (played by the gifted Diana Donnelly) who was originally British in Shaw’s version of the show.
Though much of play’s humor is based on ridiculous ethnic stereotypes, giving the U.S.-born Murrell a convenient package for the hostility he holds against his native country, his adaptation turns Shaw’s absurdist send-up of fascism into a creaky modern political statement.
Surely there are ample reasons to lampoon American culture and policy, especially based on the events and headlines of the decade since 9/11. But as it concerns America’s involvement in World War II, it seems purely adolescent to project contemporary dissatisfaction with American policy backward onto a play that is inescapably of its time. It reeks in the worst way of animosity, and it simply doesn’t work.
“Peace in Our Time: A Comedy”
1½ stars (Out of four)
Comedy presented by the Shaw Festival through Oct. 12 in the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.