Widowers’ Houses is the the first of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, produced when Shaw was already a celebrated literary critic. Published along with five other plays, Widowers’ Houses was grouped with three other “unpleasant plays,” as opposed to the three “pleasant plays” in the collection. Of the six, perhaps The Devil’s Disciple is the most well known. They all share examples of the fascination Shaw had with exposing the inequities in social life through his acid humor.
The widower of the play’s title is a wealthy man, traveling with his daughter and their retinue on a cruise in central Europe. Also on the cruise is a recently graduated physician, a young man of means but little “breeding.” So little, it appears, that he needs a man of tact to guide him through the social hubbub he might find himself in while on holiday.
The crux of the play is that eligible young bachelor and widowers’ daughter meet and, in secret, become friendly (this is Victorian England after all). At the same time the young bachelor’s man contrives for the widower to meet the physician, become aware of each other’s class, and begin the process of striking a marriage bargain.
The play would end in the first act, but the young man finds out that his would-be father-in-law makes his wealth by renting substandard housing to poor people. He is a slumlord. So aghast is the naive young man that he goes straight to his beloved and tells her he still wants to marry her, but he doesn’t want her (father’s) money. They will just have to live on his income (he has an annuity of 700 pounds annually).
This is the point for true love to assert itself, for the two to fall into each others’ arms, declare eternal love, and, if all goes well, convince the father to give all his ill gotten gains to charity. If that happened, it wouldn’t be Shaw. What does happen challenges our assumptions about the roots of wealth and power in our society. Along the way, we recognize similar issues we face a century later, issues of gentrification and public housing, privatization and profiteering.
The May 13th performance of this play is a special event of the Labor and Arts Festival. Tickets, normally $25, are discounted to people who mention the Festival. The special price for Festival attendees is $20. In addition to the savings, theatergoers will have the opportunity to attend a post-performance discussion with community activists and analysts well aware of the housing and income issues working class people face today. We’ll hear from them their views on the relevance of the play and we’ll have an opportunity to offer our own takes on the play and the issues raised.
- Fran Tobin, who currently works as Midwest Regional Coordinator for Jobs With Justice, and has years of experience throughout Chicago dealing with issues of affordable housing;
- Beauty Turner, assistant editor for the award winning newspaper of and by public housing residents in Chicago, Residents Journal;
- Maria deJesus Estrada, PhD, a professor at Harold Washington College, and editor of the Tribuno del Pueblo, a bilingual newspaper that concentrates on poverty issues;
- Willie “J.R.” Fleming, Cabrini Green resident/ organizer/ documentarian/ website designer and researcher with the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. Fleming Presented Testimony before the U.N. Office of the High Commission on Human Rights this Year. He is currently the Chairman for the Hip Hop Congress Community Chapter in Chicago which deals with issues of social and economic injustice using music as a platform to unite the people.
Check out Timeline Theater’s website to learn even more.
Remember to mention the Chicago Labor & Arts Festival when purchasing your tickets! See you at the performance. . .