In Her Own Words, G.B. Shaw
Dame Wendy Hiller reveals herself in her comments on the famous playwright and others. INTERVIEW: BRITISH ACTRESS
EDINBURGH — IN the summer of 1936, Wendy Hiller was on the Aquitania halfway across the Atlantic from New York heading back home to England. She was learning her lines for the part of ``St. Joan'' in George Bernard Shaw's play. The 24-year-old Wendy's mother was on hand to help. ``She gave a very spirited rendition of the Dauphin, I remember,'' Dame Wendy says. Her voice is unmistakable, a combination of definitive dignity and an undercurrent of amusement at her own expense.
The young actress from Cheshire had achieved stardom very quickly - not something she now thinks was an altogether good thing - as Lancashire girl Sally Hardcastle in ``Love on the Dole,'' the enormously popular play about the Depression. Shaw had seen her in the part. Now he had disclosed his admiration by asking her if she would play Joan at the prestigious Malvern Festival. The honor for an actress with such a very short career behind her was increased because this particular festival was to celebrate the playwright's 80th birthday.
And then another cable arrived on the Aquitania for Wendy: ``Would I like to play Elizabeth Doolittle in `Pygmalion' as well? ... I cabled back: `Yes. Thank you very much''' - though puzzled then, as now, why the cable didn't just call the part ``Eliza.''
Looking back, she now thinks that only ``someone very brave, very stupid, very young - or all three'' would have taken on both parts like that.
What her intrepidity brought her, however, was not only the ``big experience'' of playing Joan and Eliza (which she was later to play on film, at Shaw's insistence, opposite Leslie Howard in 1938). It also brought her the first of what proved to be a series of encounters with the extraordinary ``G.B.S.''
THESE encounters, and the contents of some of the letters and messages Shaw wrote to her, she has compiled into a delightful one-woman show called ``G.B.S. Remembered.'' Two years ago she drew capacity audiences at the Edinburgh Festival. She has repeated the experience for audiences in Cleveland, Ohio, and Chichester, England. Now she has just completed five performances in Edinburgh again. She invited this reporter back to tea at her hotel after one show.
``I sometimes think to myself, in the middle of doing `G.B.S.,' `What on Earth am I doing?' It's not like acting another writer's words.'' Her husband, Ronald Gow (who adapted ``Love of the Dole'' and a number of classics from Henry James to Hardy and Wells in which his wife has acted), said that ``G.B.S. Remembered'' had to be in her words. It is, after all, about her young self, years ago - a person now remote to her. It took her three months to put together.
She did it partly because she is now ``one of the very few left'' who remembers Shaw, and also because she has such fascinating letters. Typically Shavian, they are often quite outrageous. Take the long letter he wrote young Wendy after the rather disastrous dress-rehearsal of ``Joan'' at Malvern.
``I wouldn't have minded,'' Dame Wendy now says with the equanimity of intervening decades, ``if he had only spoken to me about it at the rehearsal. He was quite right: I was gabbling. All he needed to do was tell me.''
That she can also say that Shaw's criticisms - which are far funnier if you didn't happen to be their victim - ``were always constructive; he never just knocked you down,'' probably says as much about the Hiller stamina as it does about Shaw's undoubted delight in the knocking down process that preceded the final pick-you-up.
Shaw's letter arrived with accusations like ``I saw you trying your pet stunts for all they were worth'' (``I didn't know I had any,'' observes Dame Wendy today) and ``they failed completely as I told you they would.'' (``He hadn't!'' asides the actress.)
Her reading of this and other Shaw letters in performance captures he ``great man's'' love of rhetoric and hyperbole, the way he wound himself up verbally. She (he complained) had conceived the part of Joan as ``a cataleptic - a Joan who in her highest moments goes up out of this world into a trance....''
This was not at all Shaw's idea of the French saint. To him, Joan was down-to-earth, a demystified figure, a remarkable soldier. Wendy Hiller (after a mere six rehearsals!) instead produced ``trances'' at just the moments when Shaw wanted Joan most self-possessed and bold.
Joan, Shaw wrote, ``is forcible and sure from beginning to end and never played pianissimo - you pet pianissimo, which, my dearest, you have not yet got the art of making perfectly audible. So deny it to yourself, if you can, in this play.'' He compared her performance with Sybil Thorndike's, which Wendy hadn't seen, calling Wendy's ``worse than disappointing ... infuriating.''
She was also commanded by the playwright (who was, however outspokenly, defending the writer's rights against too much interpretation by the acting profession) to ``kick the chain from step to step instead of dragging it,'' in the trial scene. ``Let the kicks be heard before you come on.''
She mustn't rub her ankles pathetically when the chain is removed, ``but bend your legs at the knees and straighten them as if you were going to take on the whole court at all-in wrestling, and call the man a `noodle' heartily, not peevishly. And now, go your way in the strength of the Lord, but do not wholly despise the instruction of the old bird, G.B.S.''
It seems that this ``legend in his own lifetime'' did not strike the actress dumb by such devastating criticisms: She has gone on to have a highly distinguished career in plays, films, and TV drama. She also went on to have a happy relationship with Shaw until very near his death in 1950.
The show is peppered with wonderful Shavian remarks. He told her (when she thanked him for a gift) that someone else had paid for it: ``I'm a grabber, not a giver.'' Totally misleading. She points out that he was supporting charities for years. She remembers Shaw's comments on the impending abdication of Edward VII to marry the American divorc'ee, Mrs. Simpson. He said he had ``told the young man'' to do what he and Mrs. Shaw had done: ``Go to the Registry Office in the Strand and declare yourselves man and wife and nobody can stop you.''
SHAW was adept at barking up wrong trees. One letter she received from him tried to persuade her at length to play a particular scene in the film (1941) of ``Major Barbara.'' She had never said she didn't want to play the scene. Thinking she had, Shaw begged her to reconsider, adding finally: ``You must have good critical faculties, for your eyebrows are exactly like mine.'' (They aren't, though it is true that Dame Wendy's eyebrows are animated and can make wordless comments of extraordinary significance.)
On another occasion Shaw sent Wendy Hiller a brief doggerel postcard to thank her for a present. It read:
GLOVES AND SOCKS
FROM WENDY HILLER
WHAT A THRILLER.
At tea Dame Wendy Hiller says all kinds of intriguing (and not in the least denigrating) things about some of the remarkable actors she has worked with - Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Ingrid Bergman, and the remarkable young black actor Clarke Peters, who starred with her recently in the London run of ``Driving Miss Daisy.''
And then she said she didn't want any of it in print.
So presumably we must be grateful for at least the Shaw memories. ``I think I'd like the BBC to film it,'' she said, ``so that they can show it after I've gone.'' Then an afterthought, assisted by eyebrows: ``Or before, if I need some money.''
There is something touching about this fine actress, with her remarkable stage presence, distinction, and erectness, only three years away from the age Shaw was when she first met him, paying him such tribute. Talking with Dame Wendy Hiller you seem to learn more about people he admired than you do about herself. And that says something about herself.