SCRUTINY | Shaw's 'Too True To Be Good' Still Relevant 90 Years After Its Premiere

By Paula Citron on September 2, 2022

The Shaw Festival's 'Too True To Be Good' (Images courtesy of Shaw Festival)
The Shaw Festival’s ‘Too True To Be Good’ (Images courtesy of Shaw Festival)

Shaw Festival 2022/ Too True To Be Good by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Sanjay Talwar, Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, May 8 to Oct. 8. Tickets available here.

Without doubt, Too True To Be Good is one of Shaw’s darker and more difficult plays. The text is heavy with ideas, and Shaw is relentless at hammering home his vision of a world in disarray. One critic described the ambience of the play as “mental gloom,” given the litany of society’s ills that underscore the writing.

It is interesting to note that Too True premiered in Boston in 1932 as part of a pre-Broadway tryout, and the American critics were quick to point out that the play’s negativity must reflect GBS’s own thinking. In other words, the playwright must have thrown over his sunny Shavian socialism as a panacea to cure the world.

GBS was so incensed by this conclusion on the part of the critics, that he felt compelled to write an author’s note absolutely condemning the idea that Popsy, the disillusioned soldier-burglar-chaplain character, was a mouthpiece for himself. He later wrote a preface that more thoroughly brought home this point. For GBS, his socialist beliefs could still save the world.

That being said, audiences must take what they see on stage in the light of their own experience. Given the situation that exists today, where each tomorrow seems to present a fresh horror, I think that “mental gloom” is a good way to describe how I am feeling about the world I live in, along with, I’m sure, many others.

Shaw may have made a point in his author’s note and the preface that he still had hope about the fate of humankind, but that hope is not really reflected in the play, although some of the characters do end up on a brighter, if not glowing, side of things. If, however, you are expecting witty one-liners and a deluge of Shavian wit, think again. They do not factor into this play.

As I sat through Too True, my inner voice kept agreeing with the dark underbelly of the script. Almost 90 years after its premiere, Too True is as relevant to 2022, as it was to 1932. I admit to being infected with “mental gloom” and accept the depressing nature of the script. At the end of this demanding play of ideas, I felt that I had experienced a theatre outing that was deep, intense and thought-provoking. Too True absolutely is a reflection of my present state of mind.

GBS in his author’s note, describes Too True as a “political extravaganza” and details the progress of the plot as moving from comedy, to serio-comedy, to finally, a torrent of sermons, and it takes a director and cast of great empathy to pull it off. The audience has to feel the pain. I’ve stated before that the Shaw ensemble is one of the best in the country, and it is in intricate vehicles like this where that symbiosis really pays off.

Actor-turned-director Sanjay Talwar has ensured that the action is neither too farcical nor too melodramatic, because it would be easy to overblow the text, as it were. In other words, the actors serve the ideas, and it is those very ideas that the audience takes away.

Too True begins with a sick Miss Mopply (Donna Soares), the victim of an overbearing mother (Jenny L. Wright). In fact, it is this suffocating woman who has made her daughter sick, exacting cures of the doctor (Martin Happer). There is also a Microbe (Travis Seetoo), yes, a talking germ, who is a vehicle for Shaw to vent his pessimistic feelings about the medical profession.

It turns out that the nurse (Marla McLean) is the girlfriend of the burglar (Graeme Somerville), and their plan is to steal Miss Mopply’s jewellery. Instead, they convince the girl to steal her own possessions and run away with them to find the good life.

Popsy, the soldier-burglar-chaplain, is the central figure of the play. As a soldier, he was damaged by the horrors of World War l, and has become totally disillusioned. He is also a clergyman, which doesn’t help his world view, caught as he is between faith and reality. He has become a burglar, after all, which is a sin. The nurse Sweetie is also tarnished by her experiences in the war. In a strong cast, Somerville, in particular, gives a passionate and heartfelt performance.

The second and third acts take place in an exotic mountainous country where we meet Col. Tallboys (Neil Barclay) who represents the worst of British colonialism. He does his watercolours while Private Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek (Jonathan Tan) does all the work. The British have no qualms blowing up the local population.

In the meantime, Sweetie has started a flirtation with Sgt. Fielding (Happer again) which allows Shaw to vent his cynical thoughts on the state of marriage. Rounding out the cast is the bitter, misanthropic Elder (Patrick Galligan) who turns out to be Popsy’s atheist father, who disowned his son when he entered the church. Mrs. Mopply also shows up in search of her daughter.

Shaw’s surreal approach ignores any logic of plot, time and place. Clearly his aim was to get his characters on the stage, and organize situations and ideas around them. There is a particularly sombre ending. GBS has everyone drifting away, leaving Popsy sermonizing about the state of civilization with no one listening.

Empty words in an empty world.

We should talk about the title, Too True To Be Good, which has been flipped around from the usual word configuration. As the right way round, “too good to be true”, is a negative in its own right. In the reverse, it becomes even more charged with meaning, alluding to present truths that mask out goodness. In Popsy’s disillusioned world view, there is not much that is right with his life and times.

The Shaw Festival is mounting Too True in the small Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, because, I assume, that the powers that be thought that the play would not be a big draw. In point of fact, this challenging and problematic play does not come our way that often. The last time it played the festival was in 2006.

Nonetheless, programming Too True To Be Good was an inspired choice because it has such relevance for today. Shaw may have been angry that critics thought that the play was a personal reflection of him, but, nonetheless, the writer certainly captured the zeitgeist both of his time and ours.

World War ll was only seven years away in Shaw’s world. Where will we be in seven years? It beggars the mind to think about it.

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Paula Citron
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