Here is a play about – and I hope this is not a spoiler – three people who are the best of friends, mostly taken from the letters they wrote to each other. You see the problem immediately: friendship is ennobling and a great bulwark against the world’s cares, but unless it is tested in some way, it is not the stuff of great drama.
This is true even when the three people – Dame Laurentia McLachlan (Kathleen Flye), Sir Sidney Cockerell (David Bryan Jackson) and George Bernard Shaw (Bill Largess) – are enormously accomplished and one of them is world-famous. Dame Laurentia, a Benedictine nun (the honorific is a religious title, not a sign of temporal nobility) and expert on Gregorian Chant (a much-admired medieval form of religious music; you can hear some here) met Shaw through the offices of Cockerell, the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. Because Dame Laurentia was an “enclosed nun”, unable to leave her Abbey except under extraordinary circumstances and compelled to converse with visitors only through a mesh gate, she had an immense correspondence with Shaw and Cockerell, who also wrote dozens of letters to each other. Hugh Whitemore has mined this correspondence to put together the bulk of this play.
Whitemore, who has written some terrific stuff (Breaking the Code is probably his best) thus here serves more as a compiler than as a playwright. Since all three of his subjects are smart folks and good writers, there is some lively language and profound ideas, but this is not the same thing as having a lively play. With one brief exception near the end of the first Act, there is a total absence of conflict, and with nothing to propel the play forward, it lurches awkwardly from subject to subject. We hear Shaw reject his Nobel prize…Cockerell discuss his visit with Tolstoy…Dame Laurentia talk about how she discovered her religious vocation…Shaw and Cockerell discuss their (apparently tepid) views on sex…Dame Laurentia describe her prayer-filled life at the Abbey…Cockerell describe his wife’s illness (she had multiple sclerosis) and the affect it had on their marriage…Cockerell and Dame Laurentia reminisce about the day she had a miraculous reprieve from her confinement to the Abbey and was allowed to explore the British Museum with him…the three of them sing, beautifully, an old folk song upon news of the death of Cockerell’s wife. These conversations come up with very little provocation, and when they are done they mostly float off into the ionosphere without affect on the rest of the play.
Shaw spent most of his professional career railing against religion, but here he comes off as an acolyte, humbly beseeching Dame Laurentia for her prayers and those of her fellow nuns. Dame Laurentia, a highly intelligent, broadminded woman bathed in a faith which approaches absolute conviction, comes to look at her friends as two bad boys (Cockerell was an atheist) who she knows will eventually find the truth. It is only when Shaw publishes his insulting anti-religious short story “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God” (which he describes at excessive length toward the end of the first Act) that Dame Laurentia loses patience with him. They break off correspondence, only to revive it after the colossal, and amusing, blunder which opens the second Act.
Though there is some great fiction based on imaginary letters (John Barth’s novel “Letters” comes to mind immediately), in real life, correspondence between friends serves principally to advance the friendship, and is generally full of enthusiastic agreement and other soothing ointments. So it is here, as the three characters assure each other of their wonderfulness and celebrate their rich times together. It is a bit wearying at times, and the Washington Stage Guild’s earnest production, under the competent direction of Alan Wade, does not exceed the limitations of the script. The gentleman next to me gave himself over to noisy slumber early in the production I saw, and while I regretted the rudeness, I understood its origin.
Of the three actors, Flye clearly has the best of it, capturing both Dame Laurentia’s soft burr and the assurance she brings to the table as an intellectual and a woman of faith. She is radiant with conviction as she talks about the joys of her semi-cloistered life, and the generosity of spirit which animates her relationship with Cockerell and Shaw is palpable. Jackson reproduces Cockerell’s gentleness and conciliatory instincts faithfully, but in the production I saw he was fighting the lines to a degree which was ultimately distracting.
I regret to say that I did not buy Largess as Shaw, although I must note that he is handicapped both by the script and by the fact that Shaw, unlike Cockerell and Dame Laurentia, is a well-known public figure. George Bernard Shaw was a difficult man all his life, acerbic, pedantic, and prone to an almost unspeakable self-regard. Largess’ Shaw, on the other hand, is mostly mischievous – an unserious scamp, even when delivering a serious pronouncement. Toward the end of his lengthy life, Shaw was forced to resort to a cane, but when Largess uses one here he looks more like a vaudeville trouper than an old man.
Great drama is about passion, conflict, and high stakes. The Best of Friends is like an afternoon tea with some smart guys. Toward the end of the play, Cockerell mentions that Shaw’s wife carried on a scandalous correspondence with T.E. Laurence, a/k/a Laurence of Arabia. It made me wish that Whitemore had mined those letters for his play, instead of these.
The Best of Friends
Written by Hugh Whitemore
from correspondence among George Bernard Shaw, Sir Sidney Cockerall, and Dame Laurentia McLachlan
Directed by Alan Wade
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
THE BEST OF FRIENDS