2017 has seen the downfall of a few extremely powerful men. We have reeled in horror at the stories, volunteered our own, and questioned our complicity in the culture that enabled them. As more victims speak up and more titans crash down, we have all, it seems, come to a unanimous agreement: this must end here. We are witnessing a watershed. This will never happen again.
But the truth is that, unless we are vigilant, it probably will. It probably is. The culture of abuse, exploitation and fear that fostered those toppling titans will not be dismantled cleanly. Its roots are far-reaching and took hold long before our current cacophony of shock and outrage. For every Spacey, CK and Weinstein, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, who remain inviolate, untouched. We need only look as far as the White House to see just how impervious the mighty machine of power can be.
Reading Bernard Shaw's 1909 Misalliance in 2017 is both an uneasy and a galvanising experience. John Tarleton, underwear magnate and self-styled 'superman', would probably be very much at home in 2017, where facts have been discarded in favour of emotional appeals to our most craven fears. “Plain John” can manipulate the truth with dizzying, often charming, alacrity, and is able to explain away his many failings as a parent and husband via a cavalcade of oratorical tricks. His sexual appetites are simply the result of his “superabundant vitality”; his ageing body merely “the repulsive mask” that shields the youthful heart within. Truth, in Tarleton's slippery hands, is as unstable as the aircraft that crashes through the conservatory roof.
The family beneath that roof is fraught with anger, desire and frustration, chafing against the rule of their genial jailer. “Men like conventions because men made them,” his daughter Hypatia astutely observes. Locked in a desultory engagement with a feckless aristocrat, she longs to be “an active verb” or for them all to be “blown to bits”.
Her revolutionary zeal is rewarded. The dramatic arrival of a Polish acrobat in a shower of glass disrupts not only the family, but the whole structure of the play itself. Suddenly, this amusing drawing-room drama starts to look like something much more anarchic, and much more confrontational. It is not the gun-toting young man who silences Tarleton, but a juggling, Bible-reading feminist. Lina Szczepanowska is a bright and brilliant comet of hope. Her parting words are scorching in their simplicity: “I am strong: I am skilful: I am brave: I am independent: I am un-bought: I am all that a woman ought to be”. Those man-made conventions just might be torn down for good. The future, in this play, belongs to the women.
Post-Weinstein, post-truth: where do we go from here? We may have smashed the glass in the roof but that is only half the battle. The status quo has a horrible habit of reasserting itself. We mustn't let the “talk, talk, talk” of the powerful derail us. We have to be like Lina and get back in the plane and look danger square in the face. Otherwise the roof will magically repair itself and the Weinsteins, Spaceys and Tartletons of this world will creep back into their thrones. We have to wrestle the narrative from their hands, smash it, and find a new story. A better story. We must, as Hypatia says, “make a fight for living”.
Elinor Cook is an award-winning playwright. Her play Out Of Love had its London premiere at the Orange Tree in January 2018.
Bernard Shaw's Misalliance was revived at the Orange Tree by Artistic Director Paul Miller in December 2017.