Director’s Notes on Misalliance

In the opening of his hundred-page preface to Misalliance, written between 1909 and 1910, Shaw writes, “on the subject of children we are very deeply confused… If you must hold yourself up to your children as an object lesson (which is not at all necessary), hold yourself up as a warning and not as an example.”
This issue of poor parenting was one with which Shaw was intimately familiar.  Shaw’s father, George Carr Shaw, was a failed corn merchant with a drinking problem and a squint, and his mother, Lucinda (whose name Shaw gives to Gunner’s deceased mother in Misalliance), was a mediocre singer who abandoned the family when Shaw was just sixteen so that she could move to London with her singing teacher and lover, Vandeleur Lee, a man widely regarded as a charlatan.  Considering his early years, it comes as no surprise that so many of Shaw’s plays, including You Never Can Tell, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Major Barbara, and Misalliance involve children somehow estranged from their parents.
In Misalliance, the gulf between parent and child feels particularly wide.  “I tell you there’s a wall ten feet thick and ten miles high between parent and child,” John Tarleton tells Lord Summerhays.  “Depend on it, in a thousand years it’ll be considered bad form to know who your father and mother are.”
The depth and subtlety with which Shaw explores the theme of parents and children in Misalliance seems to suggest the he is using this theme as a way of examining the state of England and Europe in 1909.  In England, the opening decade of the Twentieth Century was a period of immense social and political change.  The death of Queen
Victoria in 1901 and the succession of her son, Edward VII, led to changing social values.  Edward, known as ‘Bertie’ to his friends, had such a reputation for philandering that some referred to him as ‘Edward the Caresser,’ while his voracious appetite earned him the alternate nickname, “King Tum-Tum.”  The era that bears his name was one of fashionable parties, immense luxury, and shifting attitudes — a trend aided by the ascent of a wealthy merchant/industrialist class (of which the Tarletons are a part), whose wealth often dwarfed that of the aristocracy despite the aristocracy’s technically higher social status. The fight for women’s rights and suffrage, already an issue of interest in the late Victorian period, gathered momentum with the 1903 founding of The Women’s Social and Political Union, which organized highly visible pro-suffrage demonstrations.  The Fabian Society, of which Shaw was an active member, was one of several Socialist organizations that experienced huge growth during these years.  Colonialism was also coming under question.  The Boer War of 1899 to 1902 in South Africa brought stories of English abuses back home, and led some to question to virtues of the Empire.  Internationally, as England feared that it did not have the military strength necessary to defend its vast empire, the rise of Germany as a military and industrial power bred fear throughout Europe and Asia.
Thus, the generation gap that separates parents and children in Misalliance is also a gap of history, a gap between the inhabitants of wildly different worlds.  Shaw saw his universe changing, its values transforming, and Europe spinning almost out of control. 

Out of this chaos, he created parents and children that seem barely even to know one another, each driven by a different ideology, each holding dear what the other despises.  In Tarleton’s conservatory, Shaw created the world as he saw it — a world of useless moralities and characters who willingly deceive themselves and those around them — a world destined for cataclysm only hinted at by the crashing of an aeroplane into a greenhouse.  Shaw's brilliance lies in his ability to do all this while keeping his audience laughing.  Conveying these profound themes through humor, through biting wit and delightfully acerbic dialogue, Shaw uses delicious comedy to help us digest his often bitter pills of thought.