George Bernard Shaw, Wendy Hiller, and Walter Greenwood

There were a number of newspaper reports focussing on the story that Bernard Shaw had seen Wendy Hiller in Love on the Dole and was impressed by her performance as Sally Hardcastle. The Birmingham Daily Gazette reported on the first of August 1936 (p.8) that Bernard Shaw had seen Love on the Dole in London (presumably at the Garrick) and asked Wendy Hiller to play both Eliza Doolittle in his Pygmalion (1912) and the central character in St Joan (1923) at the Malvern Festival productions the following year. On 27th July 1936 (p.6), the Daily Herald, during the course of a piece on Bernard Shaw’s eightieth birthday, praised Wendy Hiller, ‘star of Love on the Dole’ for her performance of St Joan in ‘Lancashire dialect’ at the Malvern Shaw Festival. (1) However, neither of these nor other accounts reported any reaction from Bernard Shaw to Greenwood and Gow’s play. From my Greenwood-centred point of view this seems odd – after all, Britain’s then greatest living playwright surely had some view of the play as well as of its star.

Having done some searching in Bernard Shaw’s writings from the mid-thirties, he did not, as far as I can see, express any public view of Love on the Dole, but he did write one letter in 1935, which in itself may explain the lack of anything more widely-disseminated:

To Beatrice Webb                            4 Whitehall Court, London                                                            15 June 1935

Don’t bother about Greenwood: just tell him to let me know when he is next in London; and I will attend to him some way or other. I have seen his play and read one of his books – not the Dole one; and nothing can induce me to read another, because after the Rhondda book, and the miner’s book and one or two others of the same documentary sort, I have had my nose rubbed in squalor and unemployment to the limit of my endurance. What are these chaps going to do when the subject is exhausted and the last unwritten words of bad language printed? I did too much slumming in Dublin in my infancy (with a nursemaid who visited her relatives when she was meant to be exercising me) to relish reading about it. – G.B.S. (2)

Bernard Shaw clearly had an almost visceral horror not so much of the details or dramaturgy of Love on the Dole, but of its subject matter, poverty, its alleged bad language, and of thirties unemployment documentary as a genre. He came not from a working-class background, but from a by no means secure nor well-off middle-class context in Dublin, largely produced by his father’s alcoholism and his parent’s unhappy marriage. (3) Here he also recalls with distaste his unauthorised visits to poorer Dublin households in the eighteen-fifties with his nurse-maid. The ‘Rhondda book’ is likely to be Jack Jones’s novel Rhondda Roundabout (Faber & Faber, London, 1934), which, like Greenwood’s novel, represented the lives of those living in a depressed area, while if it was recent, candidates for ‘the miner’s book’ might include A.J. Cronin’s The Stars Look Down, Harold Heslop’s Last Cage Down, or (again) Jack Jones’ Black Parade, all three of which were published in 1935. If slightly older, it could well be F.C. Boden’s Miner (Dent, London, 1932). (4) Bernard Shaw has (given the date of the letter) clearly read Greenwood’s second novel, His Worship the Mayor (1934), but not his first, Love on the Dole, though he had, of course, seen the play. He does not seem overly keen to meet Greenwood and I do not know whether he ever followed this up (so far, searches in Beatrice Webb’s diaries and biographies have not turned up any evidence about Greenwood’s contacts with her). Shaw’s letter has not, I think, been previously noticed by Greenwood scholars.

If he lost a chance to meet Bernard Shaw, and knew about it, Greenwood would, I imagine, have been disappointed, since he was certainly an admirer. The caption to a photograph published in the Bystander in 1937 reported Greenwood’s liking for Bernard Shaw.

This excellent photograph of Greenwood in relaxed mood, reading a typescript, records in its caption his admiration for Bernard Shaw, as well as his ownership of a signed copy of Shaw’s early novel, Immaturity, published in 1879 (Constable, London). Image © Illustrated London News/ Mary Evans, and reproduced with their kind permission.

Greenwood’s memoir, There Was a Time (1967), also recalls that he read Shaw as a young man. The Greenwood family’s socialist friend, James Moleyns, lends Walter his copy of Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite from among his complete collection of Shaw in ‘the paperback edition’ (Moleyns took the precaution of recording the loan in writing, p.173).

However, the main impact for Bernard Shaw of going to see Love on the Dole was clearly that he saw Wendy Hiller act and at once, as the papers anyway later reported it, thought she would be perfect in two of his own plays. In short, Greenwood and Gow’s play was not the lead player for Shaw. Actually, Shaw’s correspondence with his friend and collaborator the theatre producer Barry Jackson (1879-1961) suggests a slightly less straightforward process. In a letter to Jackson sent from Durban, Natal, on 4/5/1935, Shaw refers to Wendy Hiller, but could not recall her name. He thought she would be good in the leading role of his newly revised play The Millionairess:

The characters are ultra-modern. It is, however, a star play in respect of its dependence on a single actress with a very heavy part and a termagant personality; either Edith Evans or the young woman in Love on the Dole, whose name I forget. (5)

It was clearly Hiller/Sally’s independence and determination which stuck in Bernard Shaw’s mind, though I would not myself apply the word ‘termagant’ to the character Sally has developed to face her environment. The date of the letter also incidentally tells us that Shaw had seen Love on the Dole sometime between its opening at the Garrick in January 1935 and early April of that year, when he set off on his cruise to South Africa. A letter from Jackson to Shaw dated 27th December 1935 is more specific about wanting Hiller to play St Joan, but also shows some anxiety that Hiller will not be able to perform at the Malvern Festival due to a recent serious illness (perhaps the reason why Ruth Dunning deputised for her as early as August 1935? See: https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/love-on-the-dole-the-actors-1934-1937/). (6) By May 1935, it seems to have been confirmed that Hiller would act at the Malvern Festival that year. (7) In fact, a letter from Shaw to Hiller dated 17th August 1936 makes quite clear that he did not at all approve of her interpretation of St Joan, and felt no qualms about giving the actress a very detailed critique in a letter of about six hundred and fifty word in length. The following quotation is wholly representative:

My Dear Wendy,

I had another look at St Joan and saw you trying your pet stunts for all you were worth. They failed completely, as I told you they would; but I saw what you were driving at, and can now explain to you why they failed … In future, when you want to put something into your part that is not in the play, you must ask the author – or some other author – to lead up to the interpolation for you … (8)

The author claims complete authority and priority over the interpreter of his work.

Still, that was not (perhaps surprisingly) the end of their professional association. Shaw’s going to see Love on the Dole, had a number of further consequences for Hiller’s career, and for his own, for it played a part in the translation of Shaw’s drama into film in the late thirties and forties. (9) On 22 January 1938 (p.7), the Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette reported that Shaw had changed his mind about not permitting any further film adaptations of any of his plays (stated according to the paper four years earlier), and that production of Pygmalion would soon begin. The article was headed by an assemblage of photographs of Shaw, Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard, with a caption describing them as the ‘three principals connected with the making of Pygmalion’. In fact, as the article makes clear, there was a fourth principal, the film-producer Gabriel Pascal, who had set up his own production company to make the film, which he estimated would cost £150,000 to complete. The reasons given for Shaw’s change of mind are said to be that he viewed the co-directors chosen by Pascal as highly capable: Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard (who was also to take the male lead of Professor Henry Higgins). (10) However, the third factor was that after Shaw allegedly rejected some forty British and American actresses for the role of Eliza Doolittle, Pascal impressed upon him how good Wendy Hiller, whose rise to fame in Love on the Dole is stressed, would be as Eliza. Hiller herself is quoted as saying that she is ‘naturally … terrible grateful to Mr Shaw and Mr Pascal for having given me this wonderful chance’. The film was a success, winning an Oscar for the best screenplay of 1938, and receiving good reviews in both Britain and the US. (11) For example, the Belfast Telegraph reported under the title ‘U.S. PRAISE “PYGMALION” FILM. NEW YORK’ that:

Rarely has a British-made film received such an ovation as Pygmalion was given by the New York critics this morning after its Broadway premiere last night, wires the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post correspondent. Leslie Howard is warmly praised for his fine performance, but chief honours go to Wendy Hiller, hitherto little known in the United States, who is described as a new discovery and destined to rocket straight to Hollywood stardom. ‘Miss Hiller is so perfect that we wonder whether Mrs. Patrick Campbell or Lynn Fontanne could have touched her,’ says the New York Times. Other typical comments are: — ‘One of the most distinguished pictures of the year’; ‘Shaw has taught American filmmakers something’; ‘Seldom has a stage play been transferred to the screen with such unerring skill’. (9/12/1938, p.14).

As in reviews of the play of Love on the Dole, Hiller is singled out for particular praise for her performance.

Next Hiller went on to play the lead role in another film adaptation of a Shaw play, Major Barbara, also produced by Gabriel Pascal, and completed under difficult circumstances in London during the Blitz in 1940, for release in 1941. It had a distinguished cast, including, among others, Rex Harrison, Sybil Thorndike, Robert Morley, Robert Newton, Emlyn Williams, and Stanley Holloway. Two actors who were in the 1941 film of Love on the Dole also had relatively minor roles: Marie Ault and Deborah Kerr (see: https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/the-film-of-love-on-the-dole-1941/ ).The film was another critical and financial success (12).

Though Bernard Shaw showed little interest in Love on the Dole, there was for a period a small group among those working on adapting his plays onto films who showed an interest in making a film of Greenwood and Gow’s work: Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard. There were a couple of reports about Hiller’s keenness to see a film of Love on the Dole produced in 1938, of which the most optimistic was one by the film reviewer ‘Stargazer’ who made it clear that he drew on inside knowledge from the film industry for his movie-prophecies. Here is his column in the West Middlesex Gazette from 23/4/1938:

PASCAL BOTH SIDES ATLANTIC

Gabriel Pascal, at present producing Pygmalion at Pinewood, plans to carry the banner of English films right into the enemy camp and make two pictures here. then two in Hollywood … After Pygmalion there is the probability of one more picture at Pinewood, and information tends towards Wendy Hiller ‘s ambition — a film of Love on the Dole. Story conferences are taking place and Leslie Howard is keen to direct the picture. After that Messrs. Pascal and Howard are likely to go to Hollywood. Mr. Pascal, more power to his arm, wants to keep his present unit together as far as possible … Mr. Pascal wants to keep his men on if possible, and so, when Pygmalion finishes in three weeks’ time, there may be the immediate prospect of another Pascal picture. (p.15)

This implies that cameras are ready to roll for Love on the Dole at Pinewood – perhaps with Hiller and Howard in starring roles (Sally and Larry, presumably?), and with the added benefit of supporting Pascal’s positive employment practice (as the article explains, it was common to lay off the whole crew at the end of a film and recruit new staff).

The same paper returned to the story again on 20/5/1938, as ‘Stargazer’ reported on a recent conversation he had with Leslie Howard and Gabriel Pascal actually in the interval of a performance of Love on the Dole:

Had a pleasant chat with Producer Gabriel Pascal and Leslie Howard when they went to the Windsor Repertory Theatre last week to see Love on the Dole. Both Mr. Howard and Miss Wendy Hiller, who have had the leading parts in Mr. Pascal’s production of Pygmalion at Pinewood, are keen to make a film of Love on the Dole, and in between the acts I asked Mr. Pascal what about it. He has the film executive’s non-committal smile and diplomatic manner, and he brought both into action. ‘It would have to be done artistically,’ he said. ‘I do not know whether I will make it or not.’ He agreed it had great possibilities and, pressed further, said, ‘If I could get a certain actor, I believe I would make it.’ Mr. Howard had seen the original production in London and described the work as an English classic. Seeing it again, he was struck with the similarity of the work with Shakespeare, especially in the first act. He told me he would like to make a film of the play very much indeed, and agreed that there were few difficulties from a technical point of view, and it could be made quite cheaply. It would have to be done in a very real way, and very well cast (p.20).

Pascal does not sound wholly committed, as Stargazer quite plainly notices, but does not reject the idea completely. Leslie Howard is much the keener – as is demonstrated by his having seen the play twice, his view of it as Shakespearian, and his active thoughts about how to approach the project. Wendy Hiller is clearly not present, and though her keenness is reported here again, she certainly wavered at one point about the wisdom of her playing Sally in a film version of Love on the Dole (see https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/wendy-hiller-and-love-on-the-dole/ ).

However, though unmentioned, there was still the question of the British Board of Film Censors’ view of the film, which was likely still to be a considerable obstacle, judging from its clear assessments in 1935 and 1936 that a film of this story simply could not be released in Britain. Perhaps the ‘story conferences’ were partly to consider the issue of what elements from the novel and the play might need amendment to remain in a film version? However, as Greenwood later stated, he would never have considered altering any essential elements of the story: ‘over the past seven years I have declined all offers for the film rights of Love on the Dole because none of the many film companies who wanted to buy would guarantee an unadulterated version’ (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27/2/1940, p.6).

It is clear that George Bernard Shaw did not feel the same engagement with the play of Love on the Dole as did many others who went to see it. Nevertheless, his not entirely straightforward engagement with its star, Wendy Hiller, had in the end positive impacts on his own reputation and on her own. Love on the Dole, Walter Greenwood, and Ronald Gow are (unexpectedly for me anyway) footnotes to this story. Still, the story is worth recovering, for it at least explains why there was no public reaction from the dramatist to Love on the Dole, but plenty to Wendy Hiller, even if the version orchestrated for the press was not quite the inside story. Bernard Shaw was one of the few who were not open to the topicality, entertainment value, social engagement and tactful politics of this phenomenally popular play, but going to the Garrick in 1935 did him and admirers of his work some incidental good.

NOTES.

Note 1. Similar reports were carried by the Nottingham Evening Post (30/8/1935, p.6) and the Western Morning News (8/4/1936, p.10), as well as by The Times and the Manchester Guardian (for example, on 15/7/1938, p.14 and 3/3/1938, p.10, respectively).

Note 2. Letter 107, Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw Volume V: Bernard Shaw and the Webbs: edited by Alex C. Michalos and Deborah C. Poff, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2002, p. 227.

Note 3. See, to begin with, his Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bernard_Shaw ; for further insights see the first five chapters of Michael Holroyd’s Bernard Shaw: the New Biography (perhaps most conveniently in the abridged one-volume edition, Chatto & Windus, 1997, available in a Kindle edition by Head of Zeus, 2015).

Note 4. See Wikipedia entries for some introductory material for each of these novelists:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._J._Cronin

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stars_Look_Down

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Heslop

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Jones_(novelist)

Note 5. Letter 71, in Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw, Volume IV, edited by L.W. Connolly, University of Toronto Press, 2002, p.76. On pp.75 and 77, L.W. Connolly’s notes helpfully contextualises the letter. The introduction to the volume, pp.xi-xxxvi, gives an informative account of the intersection of Bernard Shaw and Barry Jackson’s careers. The Millionairess was in fact first performed in Britain at the Malvern Shaw Festival of 1937, with Sybil Thorndike as the central character: Epifania Ognisanti Di Parerga (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Millionairess).

Note 6. Letter 80, in Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw, Volume IV, p.82.

Note 7. Letter 91, in Selected Correspondence of Bernard Shaw, Volume IV, p.90.

Note 8. Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters 1926-1950, Vol iv, ed. Dan Laurence, Max Reinhardt, London, 1988, Letter H.t/I;X/338.e, pp.436-8. The headnote makes clear that Hiller thought the performance was affected by a lack of sufficient rehearsal time, a view with which Bernard Shaw showed no sympathy. L.W. Connolly refers to this letter in his Selected Correspondence, p.82.

Note 9. Shaw had sold some of his plays’ film rights so there had been earlier film adaptations in Germany and the Netherlands, but he had not always been happy with the results. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_(1937_film)

Note 10. For some introductory information on Asquith and Howard see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Asquith and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Howard

Note 11. See the film’s Wikipedia and IMDB entries: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_(1938_film)

,https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030637/

Note 12. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_Barbara_(film).