Trust George Bernard Shaw to get it right and get it early. The old coot delighted in being a know-it-all, but even he might be surprised at how accurately he captured in 1904 the gist of 1996 campaign rhetoric. Shaw’s smarmy politician in John Bull’s Other Island is a political outsider pandering to the nationalism of a crowd near Dublin. Scratch the word “Irish” from his text and substitute “American,” and you’ve got a fair approximation of Pat Buchanan’s stump speeches:
“In every Irish breast I have found that spirit of liberty, that instinctive mistrust of government, that love of independence, that indignant sympathy with the cause of oppressed nationalities abroad and with the resolute assertion of personal rights at home.”
Bunkum? You bet. And all the more effective for being aimed at an alienated populace. Nor do the parallels end there, for Tom Broadbent (Bill Largess) is using these appeals to national pride to extoll the virtues of unfettered capitalism. His supporters are overworked, undercompensated, and disillusioned enough to embrace his vision of a nation where “straightforward business habits” rule, serene forests get developed into golf courses, and “self-help” is the order of the day. His opponents note that the profits from this transformation will be absorbed by a syndicate in which Broadbent is a stockholder. No one, alas, pays them much attention.
John Bull’s Other Island is not one of Shaw’s masterworks, but it’s decently amusing as mounted by Washington Stage Guild (WSG). Sandwiched chronologically between the author’s popular military spoofs, Arms and the Man and Major Barbara, the play struck its early audiences as slight, an appraisal current viewers aren’t likely to dispute. In the nine decades since John Bull’s premiere, unscrupulous real estate speculators and the issue of Irish home rule have hardly gone away, but they’re so much a part of the landscape these days that it’s hard to work up the righteous indignation the author demands.
Contemporary theatergoers are more likely to concentrate on what was, for Shaw, a side issue: the exploding of stereotypes. Besides Broadbent, who is pictured as a peculiarly boisterous, glad-handing Brit with a gift for blarney, the evening’s central characters are Doyle (Vincent Clark), a reserved, teetotaling Irishman who possesses no romantic notions whatever about the Emerald Isle, and Keegan (J.M. McDonough), a defrocked priest who talks to grasshoppers. Broadbent and Doyle are business partners, Keegan the one who sees through their schemes—though of course, once engaged in debate, they are Shaw, Shaw, and Shaw.
Broadbent’s attitude toward the Irish might charitably be described as patronizing. He dismisses the men as idlers and dreamers while treating Doyle’s robust former girlfriend as if she were a sweet sentimental lass with a head full of potatoes. For their part, the Irish take one look at Broadbent and decide he’s a harmless blitherer. Everyone’s wrong, though the Irish end up paying for their misjudgment while Broadbent blithers his way to success.
It’s intriguing to compare the turn-of-the-century attitudes Shaw was skewering with today’s negative stereotyping of minorities. The same paternalistic assumptions keep cropping up: namely that [underclass epithet here] tend to be shiftless, alcoholic dreamers who can’t be trusted to govern themselves. WSG’s press material makes much of the fact that the term “home rule” occurs in the play, and D.C. residents may well see parallels to their own situation. I attended the show with a Hispanic friend who noted that nearly all Broadbent’s assumptions about the Irish had been directed her way at one point or another since she’d arrived in this country.
John MacDonald’s staging keeps the action brisk enough that more than three hours of chat pretty much breezes by. His casting is a bit rough around the edges, but in McDonough, whose acerbic defrocked priest is delicious, and Clark, whose dolorous Doyle anchors the evening, he’s found exceptionally strong leads. Also fine are Jack Vernon as a wearily supercilious valet, and Lynn Steinmetz as Doyle’s long-suffering former girlfriend. Largess’ casting as Broadbent is more problematic. The actor is buffoonish enough for the role’s early sections, but when called on to project an air of implacability toward the end, he wimps out. The evening’s conclusion, in which Broadbent wrongheadedly insists on devoting his life to “the cause of Ireland,” should make patrons queasy. At WSG, it gets a chuckle.CP