Widowers’ Houses was Shaw’s first play, staged in 1892, following his unsuccessful publication of five novels. It is an astonishingly assured piece of work, highly effective in performance as a social comedy. It is a comedy, however, with imposing dramatic solidity makes penetrating observations of the causes and consequences of the grinding of the faces of the poor routinely indulged in by hypocritical rich men on the make.
It is also a comedy, which, mutatis mutandis, could almost have been written yesterday. This is signified by the maps from Charles Booth’s Inquiry into Life and Labour in London (1863-1903), which are reproduced on the walls and floor of the set. The streets that we all know well are colour-coded in seven categories: Wealthy; Well-to-do; Good ordinary earnings; Mixed; Poor; Very poor; and Lowest class; vicious, semi-criminal.
As the play opens, in the garden restaurant of a Rhineland hotel, Cokane (Stefan Adegbola), a snobbish know-it-all, is instructing Harry Trench in the art of condescending to the lower classes, despite the fact that Harry himself has aristocratic connections. (It is a masterstroke of edgy casting to hand the role of Cokane to Stefan Adegbola, a black actor. Adegbola seizes the role and presents it exuberantly, without ever overacting.)
I think Shaw would have approved, while finding the casting, on the face of it, as it were, a bit odd.
Cokane’s lectures guide us through the revelations of the various characters’ true motives, which occupy Act 2. This, again, but in an entirely different way, gives unexpected depths to the idea of what, in 1892, you would expect social comedy to be.
It is not just the accounts that emerge of how landlords treat the exigent tenants. These are bad enough, but as, at a cracking pace, these accounts emerge, the educated, civilized, cultivated men involved turn on each other in very nasty ways. If it were not so funny it would be wretchedly upsetting. What a shower! See how they turn on each other––and how swiftly they abandon their pretensions to gentility.
Act 3 takes everybody back onto an even keel. They are getting what they always wanted––and getting it without having to apologise for their treatment of the poor (and of each other).
Alex Waldmann as Harry Trench, Patrick Drury as Sartorius, a slum landlord, and Rebecca Collingwood, as his sweetly smiling, socially and financially ambitious daughter, are all splendid.
And, as Lickcheese, a rent collector with, apparently, a social conscience, Simon Gregor gives a performance of spectacularly hilarious unpleasantness which balances Adegbola’s Cokane in its portrayal of a bounder adjusting his ways and conscience to his pecuniary advantage.
All this, I am pleased to tell you, takes us through just two hours of high octane entertainment and provocation of thought.
There’s a lot to be said for early Shaw.