Friday, May 6, 2011

"Bernard and Bosie"

I love it when a satisfying theatrical experience also tells me something fascinating that I didn't know.

That was the case last night at a reading of the play, Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship, at the Episcopal Actors' Guild hall, which is part of New York's "theater church," The Little Church Around the Corner, more properly known as the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration.

The play, by Anthony Wynn, is a dramatization of a series of letters between George Bernard Shaw and "Bosie," and if that name means anything to you at all, you recall he was Lord Alfred Douglas, the young man who had a relationship with Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. Douglas' father, in writing, accused Wilde of being homosexual; Wilde sued for libel, lost the case and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor.

Anthony Newfield and Paxton Whitehead in "Bernard and Bosie"

"Bosie" Douglas
Directed by Elowyn Castle, president of the Guild, the performance featured two masters of the craft, Anthony Newfield (recently seen on Broadway in The Royal Family) as Bosie and Paxton Whitehead (currently on Broadway as Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest) as Shaw.

The letters begin in 1931, when Bosie is in his 60s and Shaw in his late 70s. The most famous photos of Shaw show him with white hair and a full beard, but Bosie, in the popular imagination, always seems to be the beautiful youth stuck in time. How revealing to hear him as an older man, a bit pouty and querulous, but deeply devoted to Roman Catholicism and to poetry.

Yes - poetry. Douglas was a remarkable poet - another revelation. Here are some of his extraordinary images: "Love that weaves the years on time's slow loom" ... "The hunter's cry wounds the deep darkness" ... "To clutch life's hair, and thrust one naked phrase/Like a lean knife through the ribs of time." After I read that last one, I almost had to walk about the room a little to calm down.

George Bernard Shaw
Shaw, in the letters, is the writer we know from his plays -- irascible, brilliantly witty, sharply observant -- but also kind and almost a father-figure to Bosie. He lends Bosie money, spars with him about religion, gives him advice about his writing -- but never tells him to get lost. Douglas clearly had a great deal of charm and Shaw regards him with much affection, although the two often spare no words when they get cross with each other. 

Wynn has edited the letters beautifully and in the hands of two wonderful actors, the play is enthralling. The time period spans 13 years and the most affecting aspect of the work is how the two men, in the comfort of their "unlikely friendship," face old age and impending death.

As a theatergoer and writer of many years, I feel as if I already knew Bernard Shaw; I was glad to make the acquaintance of Bosie Douglas.

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