In asking for parodies of Shaw on Antony and Cleopatra (as against Caesar and Cleopatra), parodies of a man the judge G.W. Bishop knew well, and whom he had interviewed, and was to interview on several occasions, Bishop may have overlooked the fact that Shaw actually had written about Antony and Cleopatra. One or two entrants (James Hall is named and shamed) actually lifted Shaw’s phrases. One of the problems for me looking at this competition is that Bishop, whether rightly or not, dismisses entrants left right and centre because he knows his Shaw better than them e.g. some entrants wrote (as Shaw) in blank verse while claiming it was because it was easy. ‘None remembered,’ says Bishop, ‘that he has also stated that he is “fond of blank verse”.’ A bit of one-upmanship there, I think.
After ‘the gravest consideration’, Bishop gives the first prize to a new name, Robert Speaight:
I wrote ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ for three reasons: to expose the futility of love and the futility of war; and to provide a part for Miss Tallulah Bankhead. The monstrous incursions of the socialist government on private capital have compelled me to some consideration of public taste, and indeed I am thankful to have saved the part from Mrs. Campbell, whose importunate regality of mien, and sovereign disreagrd of her dramatist’s wishes, would have reduced me to the level of Sudermann by the end of the second act. The Cleopatra of this play is a cocotte by nature, and only a queen by accident: I have purposely dispossessed her of her traditional beauty, and given her instead a cheap gipsy allure, which Miss Bankhead has subdued her natural orchidacity and perfect loveliness to interpret. I have proceeded to an attack on popular history, and have used this business of Antony and Cleopatra to explode two common and striking fallacies: that because a man is Roman, he is necessarily noble, and because a woman is Greek she is automatically lovely. It has also enabled me to demonstrate how easily a campaign may be ruined by womanising at G.H.Q. I have shown Antony as an amateur strategist, an incompetent soldier, and a besotted sensualist to boot; and Cleopatra as the dirty, cross-bred, Levantine harlot, familiar to anyone who has travelled East of Stresa. Both are treacherous, sadistic and mean, and those who read the last acts of my play will see how a pair of theatrical exhibitionists very nearly made a mess of an Empire. The uproarious comedy of the battle scenes should sensibly relieve the depression of the final episodes.
People will wonder why I have clothed these ignoble puppets in the greatest blank verse since Shakespeare. The consummate irony of this will be apparent to a public conversant with my plays …
Blimey, that’s 312 words! I can’t tell if it’s very good, because it’s a long time since I read any Shaw (who does seem to have fallen out of favour). It feels as if it’s probably very good. On an autobiographical note, I won, at the age of thirteen, a Large Prize, which meant my having to select a book. My father, confused in any case by anything outside the world of naval engineering, watched in horrified amazement as I selected Shaw’s Complete Plays. Unable to keep quiet, he asked ‘Do you really want that?’ (since his knowledge, although non-literary, extended to knowing that Shaw was a bit of a lefty). Of course that settled any doubts. ‘Yes,’ I said. I still have it. I have still never opened it except to write my name in it. I only wanted it because it was a Very Big Book. Digression over.
Speaight was a radio actor, and his case you can see his image, hear his voice, and read a book he wrote. It is curious how these competitions are turning up such highly successful figures.
Second prize goes to Leonard J.Simons, another new name, and lucky to get his half-guinea, given Bishop’s strictures:
… the truth being that all my other plays have been essentially tragic; but ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (for which I have used iambic pentameters merely because that form of writing is easier than prose) is pure comedy. There is no laughter in it, because there is no need for laughter. In my plays showing life to be essentially tragic there is plenty of laughter, to make the tragedy bearable. Laughter was invented for that purpose. If it were not for laughter, for love, and, above all, for death, life would be unbearable. In ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ there is so much of love and of death there is neither room nor necessity for laughter. When we can laugh at death, life ceases to be a tragedy and becomes a comedy. I am not the original discoverer of this truth. Aeschylus, who also wrote great comedies, recognised that death was the ultimate and highest comedy of life.
In killing herself with an asp, Cleopatra, therefore, achieved life’s greatest comedy. In causing the daeth of Antony she represents a wide-spread feminine principle. Lady spiders often kill their husbands; and it is well known that the gentlemen of the beehives, the drones, are destined to be killed. In the case of the silkworm moth, on the other hand, ir is the female which dies when she has performed her egg-laying destiny. Cleopatra, uniting in herself some of the qualities of the queen bee, the lady spider and the silkworm moth, causes the death of her lover and then kills herself, thus reaching supreme comedy.
When ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was first performed, the critics failed to recognise that Cleopatra was a prude. On hearing of the death of Antony’s legitimate wife, she, like any well-brought-up grocer’s wife …
LEONARD J. SIMONS
I think it’s plain that Shaw was seen by 1930 as an inceasingly megolamaniac merchant of nonsensical paradox. I might have to read him again.
Let us not forget 8B, in which an epitaph was sought for Ruper Brooke, although Bishop would certainly rather forget it. He quotes with dismay the single facetious epitaph: ‘ He wrote a lot of verse./ Which might have been much worse;/ Then ended up in dust/ As every poet must.’ and gives grudging prizes to S. and Noah with these two, apparently characteristically sentimental:
England he loved, and after England, Greece:
The life of one with his own life he blest;
The other holds him clasped against her breast,
And with her body wraps his soul in peace.
Weep not for me. Quiet here the body lies;
For God has heard the mortal “Would I were.”
No more the spirit hungers, echo sighs
Bishop says one curious thing about Brooke – that most entrants only remembered ‘Grantchester’ and ‘Dust’. Surprising that ‘The Soldier’ wasn’t mentioned, and I suspect that ‘Dust’ is long forgotten. Here is a pub trivia detail: a version of ‘Dust’ was recorded by Fleetwood Mac.