When Life Imitates Art—or the Other Way Around

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

In nineteenth century California, divorce was on the rise, available on the basis of any of six marital “conditions”: adultery, cruelty, abandonment, neglect, intemperance, or felony conviction. On the basis of information we can glean from George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, at least four of these six requirements would have satisfied the courts in the case of the Crampton family. Yet Fergus Crampton and his wife have stayed married, though apart, for the past eighteen years. Why? A five-letter word: shame. It was shameful to have divorce proceedings begun against you, and Mr. Crampton has the dignity of family and reputation to uphold. So he has remained, married in name only, for the best part of two decades. And his wife has not even remained “married in name”. She has adopted, and published her treatises under, the name of ‘Mrs Lanfrey Clandon.”

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(background, l-r) Michael Torres as Fergus Crampton, Elizabeth Carter as Mrs. Clandon, Lance Gardner as Philip, Khalia Davis as Dolly, (foreground, l-r) Sabina Varela Zuniga as Gloria, and Matthew Baldiga as Valentine in YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

Cal Shakes audiences, meet the messed up Crampton/Clandon family of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, one of his bizarrely named ‘pleasant plays’ because of its strong strain of farce. In many ways this dysfunctional family we meet in California is indeed Shaw’s family, imported over the Atlantic from Ireland and England. His Irish father was in his 50s when he married a woman he thought to be of means. But he was in for bitter disappointment – his wife brought in little money, precluding him from retirement and necessitating his acquisition of a second career (as a corn merchant) after being dismissed at his job as a civil servant. George Bernard Shaw (Bernard) was the last of their children. When he was fifteen his mother, who had fallen in love with her voice teacher, took off after him when he moved to London, taking her two daughters with her and leaving Bernard with her dissolute, depressive, alcoholic husband. Bernard left Dublin a year later to join his mother in London. There he would remain under the same roof, while continuing the distant relationship that he and his mother had shared since his infancy, for the next 26 years before his own marriage.

And the dysfunctional resemblance doesn’t stop there. Shaw, like his character Valentine in You Never Can Tell, met and came to love a strong, socialist (not socialite!), wealthy woman called Charlotte Payne Townshend: but he was loathe to marry her. Like Valentine, he was impecunious, and didn’t want to be seen as a fortune hunter.

Well, to see what happened to Shaw, come see You Never Can Tell. You’ll get a pretty good idea without ever having to consult Wikipedia…

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