Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
George Bernard Shaw knew he was a difficult character - as he felt were the characters created by all of his favorite playwrights, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Shaw.
Donal Donnelly has with great effort proved this in "My Astonishing Self," a one-man play on Shaw which will be at Catholic University's Hartke Theater through tonight before going to the Astor Place Theater in New York.
Shaw once wrote: "It does not concern me that, according to certain ethical systems, all human beings fall into classes labeled liar, coward, thief, and so on. I am myself, according to these systems, a liar, a coward, a thief, and a sensualist . . . and if any creed or system deduces from this that I am a rascal incapable on occasion of telling the truth, facing a risk, forgoing a commercial advantage, or resisting an intemperatate impulse of any sort, then so much the worse for the creed or system, since I have done all these things and will probably do them again."
In Michael Voysey's play, Shaw is convicted of only one sin: egotism. And, so much the worse for him, he is convicted by his own words.
The one-man show has gotten to be such a common genre - when Shaw keeps referring to Oscar Wilde in this play one suspects it as a colleague also on the road now, rather than someone he knew in life - that certain standards have developed. Not more than nine-tenths of the hero's sentences should begin with "I". And there must be some character development to go along with the use of powder in the hair.
Donnelly's second act, the one with the white hair powder, is interesting. This is the Shaw who was captured in film and we can appreciate Donnelly's conscientiousness. The wit is delivered with rakish self-enjoyment and a habit of catching the tongue between the teeth that seems eminently right.
Perhaps Shaw was always meant to be an irascible old man, or perhaps there is simply no one left who can imagine him as a young man. But Donnelly's youthful Shaw is smug and shallow. His attacks on the social system and the medical profession are accompanied with such exaggerated smirking that they seem to be comedy routines rather than critiques.
The techniques to get around the absence of other actors are often awkward. In the first half of the play Shaw reads his own letters aloud; in the second half he addresses an imaginary biographer.
Some fascinating material has been collected here. The Ellen Terry letters are readily available but his early speeches are not.
A pre-war BBC speech, in which he warns that the divine providence only encourages us to kill one another because there will always be plently more of us, in which he warns that we are already "up to our necks in a class war," and in which he recommends the golden rule because "I who have been a much-hated man have been doing this all my life and I can assure you there is no better fun," is Shavian masterpiece.
This is well-delivered, but for the most part Shaw seems to lack stature, which was not considered to be one of his sins.