HARLEY Granville Barker introduces sex into politics in his "Waste," far from a novel idea at our end of the century (thank you, JFK, Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Bob Packwood, etc.). Public display, however, was abhorrent to official Edwardian sensibilities, so the play was banned -- banned in public, staged in private.
That was perfectly ironic, for one of the ruling notions behind Granville Barker's plays is the investigation of how public and private spheres co-exist, mutually influence, interact, and quite often at the most awkward moments, bang into each other.
Granville Barker's plays, a comparatively small body of work, are not on the tip of everybody's tongue. They are not nearly as familiar as Bernard Shaw's plays, but the Shaw Festival has become instrumental in reintroducing them to theater audiences. It has made a project of reviving the work.
The plays are very good; they are significant. They are very good in both the way they were written and their subject matter. They were bold and ahead of their time. In them Granville Barker is at great pains to capture atmospheres that all by themselves don't mean much but that contribute in mysterious ways -- that's the art part -- to the reality of what he is writing about.
"The Marrying of Ann Leete," which the Shaw Festival did, is a particularly good example. "Waste" from 1907 and now in the Court House Theatre is another. In his plays Granville Barker sets the public and private worlds on collision courses. There is of course interplay between them, but nearly everyone subscribes to the idea that there exist areas of private life off-limits to public scrutiny.
Sex, for one, used to be a private matter. That our tabloid world doesn't allow for that any longer doesn't entirely erase the social memory of when these things were kept apart. In "Waste" a seduction at a political weekend comes and goes hardly rippling the surface of power-brokering over a British cabinet. A brilliant, idealistic politico named Henry Trebell (David Schurmann) is being wooed by the conservative Tory cabinet-in-the-making. Most of the talk circles around that.
The political seduction is successful. He agrees to serve, with the aim of ultimately reforming the British education system. Recreationally, in a darkened library, he is the seducer of Mrs. AmyO'Connell (Fiona Reid) and she the seductress (it is mutual).
The Shaw's chief interpreter of Granville Barker is the director Neil Munro. He puts his stamp on the moonlight encounter, and thus propels the play forward. This is no symbolic embrace -- like the ersatz clatter of stage dueling. Schurmann's Trebell and Reid's Mrs. O'Connell do a polite pas de deux and then throw themselves on one another like World Federation wrestlers. They grope, paw, kiss, moan and bounce off walls.
The point is serious. This tiny scene is the fire that lights the play's long slow fuse.
Politics are the chief item on the table. Will the church's champion, Lord Charles Cantilupe (Robert Benson), deign to listen to an argument to disestablish the church and free up funds for education? Will surly old Russell Blackborough (Peter Hutt) give in to Trebell's liberal inclinations? Can Cyril Horsham (Roger Rowland) wring compromises to form a cabinet? It's touch and go. But attention is seriously distracted by private events.
Mrs. O'Connell, who hasn't seen her husband in a year, turns up pregnant. The meaning for Trebell is clear enough. The trouble is, their affair went nowhere. Now what? He concedes their affair was loveless; he is fully prepared to see to the welfare of her and the child. She refuses and leaves. Back to more politics. Then crucially, all learn that Mrs. O'Connell has died, along with the unborn child, from a botched abortion.
The private and public lives wobble into each other. There's an explosion of cynical political maneuvering and private anguish.
It ends in suicide, a "waste."
Munro clearly has great confidence in Granville Barker's play, and keeps a low profile. The seduction scene is his idea, and a good one, of boosting the reality of the play, of jump-starting the string of events that follow. His choice of music, Michael Nyman's contemporary rigging of classical sounding pieces, is typically quirky, and perfect. His tiny detour into surrealism at the end works (he has Trebell seated in a dark corner, hands on knees, immobilely listening to reports of his suicide).
His actors are splendid in their roles. The play centers on Trebell and what happens to him, which Granville Barker cradles in a larger context, a strong sense of political and private reality, of worlds spinning in their own orbits, influencing one another's movement and a little out of control. Schurmann as Trebell is the model of the quietly thorough actor who nourishes a role rather than mounting it like a soapbox.
His Trebell is realized slowly and surely like one of those backward-run films in slo-mo of a shattered teacup reassembling. What he does can be mistaken for blandness. He manages the Teflon veneer of the practiced politician with seeming great ease, but it isn't long before you feel how deeply he has worked himself into the character of Trebell. Fiona Reid is wonderful as the woman who doesn't quite fit it, who is needy and finds herself looking to Trebell to fill that need.
Drama by Harley Granville Barker about sex and politics.
Directed by Neil Munro, featuring David Schurmann and Fiona Reid.
Performances in repetory through Sept. 23 in the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.; (905) 468-2172 or (800) 267-4759.