Can you imagine that there was a playwright George Bernard Shaw envied? Better still, that he would admit there was a playwright he envied?
Shaw was so impressed with the talent – and success – of post-Victorian era leading light Harley Granville-Barker that he actually wrote Misalliance as an answer play to Barker's then hit, The Madras House, about family, courtship, marriage, marital separation, commerce, greed, sexual politics and harassment.
It seems Shaw had the last laugh. Though he outlived G-B by only four years, we are more than acquainted with his body of work through numerous revivals. We haven't been so fortunate with Granville-Barker, who's been shamefully ignored in the area of theatrical revivals for years. However, he's having a banner season of rebirth Off Broadway with two of his better known plays, The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House, being presented to rave reviews by two award-winning companies, the Atlantic Theater Company and the Mint Theater Company. The end date to catch them is Sunday, March 25th, 2007.

ATC is staging Pulitzer Prize/Tony and Drama Desk-winner and co-founder David Mamet's adaptation of Voysey Inheritance at its mainstage (336 West 20th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues), while the Mint (311 West 43rd Street, just off Eighth Avenue) has director Gus Kaikkonen's slightly abridged Madras House.

Granville-Barker pioneered the "discussion play," often focusing on the struggle for female equality and such then-taboo topics as prostitution and abortion. As was the theatrical custom, his plays were four-acters and boasted large casts. For Voysey, Mamet, as Charles Isherwood wrote in the NYTimes, has "cleanly refitted" HG-B's play "for a new theatrical century" – trimming speeches of some secondary characters and eliminating others – for a crisp running time of two hours with intermission. The Mint, which earlier produced the entire Voysey, has done only minor Madras trimming for a length of two hours and 50 minutes.

Harley Granville-Barker, barely remembered today but who is one of the most influential figures in the history of the modern theater, was born in London in 1877. He began his stage career at 14 performing with English leading lady Mrs. Patrick Campbell. His first play, The Marrying of Ann Leete, was produced in 1900 when he was 24. That same year, Shaw personally cast him as Eugene Marchbanks in the premiere of Candida.
A 15-year professional and personal relationship developed between HG-B and GBS that went beyond mentoring. In fact, many thought the handsome Barker was GBS's illegitimate son.

With a partner, HG-B founded London's Court, the first modern repertory theater. Among his innovations were open staging (going beyond the proscenium arch) and doing away, for the most part, with the star system. Instead, he concentrated on excellence in the entire ensemble. He was also a champion of a national theater for Great Britain and the first to call for subsidized theaters.

As a director, Granville-Barker staged plays by Euripides, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Galsworthy and such playwrights as John Masefield and the prolific Arthur Schnitzler. In the early 1900s, he not only produced and directed but also performed in ten of Shaw's plays, single-handedly establishing GBS as one of the world's foremost playwrights. Among his roles in Shaw vehicles was Frank Gardner in Mrs. Warren's Profession, John Tanner in Man and Superman, Dr. Valentine in You Never Can Tell, Major Sergius Saranoff in Arms and the Man, General Burgoyne in The Devil's Disciple and Adolphus Cusins in Major Barbara.

In 1909, HG-B was having difficulty finding a satisfying ending to his quite lengthy Madras House. He did a reading of his script-in-progress, attended by Shaw and other playwrights. GBS came away with the idea for his next play, Misalliance.
Tonight at 7:30, at a Mint dinner and cocktail gala, you can see how Shaw was influenced as the company presents a reading of Misalliance.
The Guardian recently wrote about HG-B: "We are all in debt to Granville-Barker. His ideas were prophetic and extraordinary."

In his later years, Granville-Barker lived a wealthy life in Paris where he wrote popular volumes of "Prefaces to Shakespeare," which revolutionized the approach to staging plays by the bard. He died in 1946.

The Voysey Inheritance, set in 1905 as England emerges from the strictness of the Victorian Era, is directed by David Warren. HB-G explores the issue of morals vs. money as an upper-middle-class family all but falls into crisis when it's revealed that the patriarch, portrayed by veteran actor and Tony-winner Fritz Weaver, amassed the family fortune by embezzling money from clients. On his death, son Edward, played by Tony-nominated and Drama Desk-winning Michael Stuhlbarg (The Pillowman), is faced with attempting to put things right against others in the family who want continue the father's scam rather than sacrifice their comfort and luxury.

Also in the play are Rachel Black, Christopher Duva, Steven Goldstein, Peter Maloney, Tricia Paoluccio, Judith Roberts, Geddeth Smith, Samantha Soule, Todd Weeks (The Full Monty) and CJ Wilson.

The Madras House, which debuted in 1909 and is being revived here for the first time since the 20s, is episodically-styled in the way of an 19th-Century potboiler novel. It centers on the family of fashion emporium magnate Constantine Madras' family who have been deserted by their designer patriarch (George Morfogen) to live a polygamous life as a Muslim in Iraq. When he returns to England for the sale of the business, which has been run for years by his son Philip (Thomas Hammond) to an American tycoon, the business and family is thrown into disarray.
A reunion between Constantine and his wife [film and stage star Roberta Maxwell], who has yearned in vain for his return, doesn't go well. Other conflicts, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, arise.

Alexander Woollcott, writing in the NY Times in 1921, reported, "The Madras House is a dramatization not of a human being, but of a human problem. The protagonist that wanders through its four abundant acts is not a person. It is a question."
The Madras cast also includes Mary Bacon, Ross Bickell, Lisa Bostnar, Jonathan Hogan, Laurie Kennedy, Allison McLemore, Pamela McVeagh, Mark Montgomery, Angela Reed Scott Romstadt and Kraig Swartz.


Key Subjects: 
Harley Granville-Barker, Voysey Inheritance, Madras House, George Bernard Shaw
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
March 2007