I love books about books, books about reading, books about authors, and all the sorts of books that are coming to your mind by those descriptions. Find me a book about books about books please, world. And, alongside that, I love the sort of niche books-about-authors that you can never quite believe anybody thought profitable to publish – whether that be memoirs by authors’ friends, personal essays about reading reflections, or books like Richard Huggett’s 1969 work The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’, which apparently I picked up in London a couple of years ago.
The Pygmalion in question, it probably won’t surprise you to learn, is George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, rather than the myth after which the play is named. (I think it’s fair to say that the play has outstripped the myth, in terms of popularity?) The title makes it sound like there might be a scandal at the heart of this book, but there is no enormous truth to uncover – rather, it is web of behind the scenes relationships, rivalries, and friendships that Huggett unveils. For Pygmalion brought together three of the biggest names of Edwardian theatre: George Bernard Shaw, Mrs Patrick Campbell, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
I’m not sure how well known this trio are now, so forgive me if I explain what is already widely understood. I’m going to take Shaw’s continuing popularity as read, but the other two were amongst the foremost actors of their generation – neither of them in the first flush of youth at the time of Pygmalion. Indeed, Mrs Patrick Campbell was several decades too old to play a flower girl but this, Huggett tells us, didn’t much matter to the theatre-going public of 1913. She had her adoring fans, and had first come to fame twenty or so years earlier – everything I knew about her related to her famous and mildly scandalous role in The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Arthur Wing Pinero (a role she would continue to revive for much of the rest of her life). Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a much-loved actor-manager, used to directing his own plays as well as producing, starring, and pretty much everything else. As Huggett demonstrates in this enormously entertaining book, Pygmalion was a meeting of three titanic egos.
Shaw bluntly refused to entrust his brainchild to the splendid but capricious talents of the great actor-manager, let alone those of his leading lady. He insisted on directing Pygmalion himself. The seeds of discontent were thus planted, preparing the way for a really magnificently explosive situation. The duet of personalities was now a trio, and the music which thundered and screamed round the Dome of the famous theatre was as dramatic and as colourful as the play which inspired it.
It’s hard to categorise The Truth About ‘Pygmalion’. Is it fact or fiction? It certainly can’t be considered absolute fact, for Huggett continually dramatises conversations that nobody could possibly have recorded (and which Huggett makes no claims to have witnessed). Certainly real letters between Shaw and Mrs Pat are used, and used to excellent effect, but we are asked to continue our credulity to detailed, witty, often affectionate antagonism at every rehearsal.
The account is fairly simple, really. After some angst about whether or not she should star in a play about a Cockney flower girl, and even more angst about which man should play opposite her, the rest follows the storms and tempests as they try to rehearse and produce the play. Shaw insists on keeping his version; Mrs Pat and Tree have their iron-cast, often selfish, visions of how the play should be performed.
The main scandal of the time, which is hardly scandalous to us now, was the use of the word bloody. As Shaw pointed out, it appears in Macbeth – but hearing it on the modern stage was apparently a whole different matter. Though it actually passed the censor without any issues, it was the talk of the press – would she say the word (they could not bring themselves to print what it was – except, Huggett mentions delightedly, the Church Times)? And, when she did, was this the sort of filth that the public should be exposed to? It’s a fascinating sidenote to a cultural landmark.
What makes this book more than an intriguing curio – and that would be quite enough for me – is Huggett’s style. His structure is a bit odd, opening with a portrayal of destitute Mrs Pat in her old age that never feels quite justified or relevant to the rest, but after this he is a wonder. The writing is infected by the rhetoric of the period of which he is writing; it feels bombastic, slightly wild. And it works perfectly. The gossip column has solidified into fine writing without sacrificing the intrigue and slight exhilaration that make this sort of thing so exciting to read. It isn’t remotely academic – not a reference or footnote in sight – but it does illuminate many fascinating details concerning an enormously famous play; at the same time, it brings three titans of the theatre completely to life. And I can’t resist ending this review by saying that Huggett, as with the myth of Pygmalion, has created personalities that, though real, could never have been quite as heightened as he forms them – and, yes, along the way both he and we fall in love with them all, monstrous though they can be.