Shaw liked to call it “Miss Alliance” in his letters. The affectionate nickname tells us something about his feelings for this play. It is the middle play in what has been called his Marriage Trilogy: Getting Married and Heartbreak Houseare the other two and they really are about misalliances. This play, in spite of its title, is the only one of the three that contains within it a really happy marriage and ends with the prospect of another happy marriage.
And that makes Misalliance a kind of rare bird among romantic comedies; indeed among plays of any kind that deal with marriage. Look at the married couples in the dramas and tragedies that we have done in the last couple of seasons: The Flies, Juno and the Paycock, and yes, Blood Wedding. We’ve done comedies in which a romantic couple figured in a sub-plot and were engaged at the end of the play, and we believe that they will live happily ever after, but only because that is a convention of the form. Arsenic and Old Lace and Madwoman of Chaillot are examples that we’ve recently done.
How about plays where the love stories are the center of the action? Twelfth Night ends with three marriages. Toby and Maria will make it; they have known each other for years and we have every reason to believe in them. But the other two couples: Olivia and Sebastian have known each other for about an hour when they marry, and Orsino proposes to Viola, who he thought was a boy, about five minutes after condemning her to death. Good luck.
How about Bus Stop?It is a charming love story, but if you believe that Bo and Cherie will make it to the end of the bus ride you are very sanguine indeed. Bus Stop is almost the prototype for romantic comedy. A couple meet and are attracted to one another. They quarrel and believe all sorts of bad things about each other but finally realize that amor vincit omnia and they get married. But it is the quarreling that provides the jokes and the action of the comedy.
To paraphrase the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy marriages are alike; every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way.” Obviously, unhappy marriages are more interesting.
Is it possible to write a good comedy about a couple who meet, like one another, love one another, never quarrel, and then get married? Where would you find the conflict? Where would you find the jokes?
All of the stuff of romantic comedy is in Misalliance: the quarreling, accusations and actualities of infidelity and adultery, mistaken identities, death threats, secret panels, even—all are in Misalliance. And all of that melodramatic stuff is presented through some of the best and wittiest dialogue Shaw ever wrote. And most of the wit is there by virtue of all the past and potential and failed misalliances of most of the characters in the play. The successful alliance that ends the play is interesting largely because of its contrast to the others.
Getting Married and Heartbreak House, likethis play, show us a number of past and potential misalliances and end with marriages we hope will last. In Getting Married the couple marry only after writing a pre-nuptial contract designed to make divorce easy should they want one. Heartbreak House gives a heroine who is in love with a married man and engaged to a ruthless plutocrat, a heroine of about 20 who ends up married to an 88-year-old man. That marriage will be happy but short.
Shaw had been married for about ten years when he wrote this play. It seems to have been a happy marriage; it lasted another three decades until his wife’s death in 1943, but the marriage was never consummated. (I am not sure how we know this: but we do.) But if Charlotte Shaw remained chaste, her husband almost certainly did not. He had a number of extra-marital affairs, the most notable being with Mrs Patrick Campbell who played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and was the model and inspiration for Hesione Hushabye in Heartbreak House and Orinthia in The Apple Cart. She said of this play: “Misalliance is out and out surely the best you have done and that I suppose means the best modern play.”