“John Bull’s Other Island” – No Laughing Matter!

It may be apocryphal, but it’s a good story. When King Edward VII went to see a performance of John Bull’s Other Island on 11 March 1905 he laughed so hard that he broke the chair he was sitting on. The play was running at the Royal Court Theatre, where it had opened on 1 November 1904 as part of the now famous seasons managed at the Court by John Vedrenne and Harley Granville Barker between 1904 and 1907. No fewer than eleven plays by Shaw were produced in those three seasons, cementing Shaw’s reputation as the leading playwright of his day. John Bull enjoyed 121 performances, surpassed only by Man and Superman (176) and You Never Can Tell (149). Not to be outdone by royalty, politicians flocked to John Bull as well. Prime Minister Arthur Balfour saw it five times. Presumably he laughed a lot too, but Shaw himself was not amused by the amusement.

In 1894 he complained that audience laughter ruined Arms and the Man, and twenty years later he sat through uproarious laughter during the opening performance of Pygmalion at His Majesty’s Theatre, “writhing in hell.”

He thought he had made his views on laughter and applause clear at a revival of John Bull at the Kingsway Theatre in 1913. As audiences sat down to read their programme, they found a leaflet inserted in its folds. It was a message—quite a lengthy one—from “your faithful servant, THE AUTHOR.” It consisted of a series of pointed questions. “Are you aware,” asked Shaw, “that you could get out of the theatre half an hour earlier if you listened to the play in silence and did not applaud until the fall of the curtain?” Is not “the naturalness of the representation destroyed, and therefore your own pleasure greatly diminished, when the audience insists on taking part in it by shouts of applause and laughter, and the actors have repeatedly to stop acting until the noise is over?” “Would you dream of stopping the performance of a piece of music to applaud every bar that happened to please you?” The more laughter and applause there is during the performance, he declared, “the angrier I feel with you for spoiling your enjoyment and my own.”

And so, Shaw concluded, “Can I persuade you to let the performance proceed in perfect silence just this once to see how you like it?”

To which the answer surely was, then and now, “Not bloody likely!”

 

Leonard Conolly

Former President of the International Shaw Society (and an unredeemed laugher).

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