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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
‘Candida’ shines in its conventionality

Mystery, thy name is woman

By Leigh E. Rich

Originally penned in 1894, George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida: A Mystery” is aptly named. It is a timeless commentary on man’s (often misguided) obsession with women. Whether he views her as a heavenly creature of divine inspiration or the sinful object of his sexual desire, Shaw’s message, so elegantly delivered in the Arizona Theatre Company’s current production, is clear: the fairer sex “can appreciate [a woman’s] qualities far better than any man can.”

“Candida” is both wonderfully humorous and painfully insightful. Its comedy is found in the proscriptions of Shaw’s all-too-English characters who occupy and inhale the stale air saturating St. Dominic’s Parsonage in London. There’s the reverend himself, James Morell, a confident and complacent leader of the community enchanted with his lovely wife, Candida.

He revels in the fact that “everybody loves her. They can’t help it.” But he is threatened when a young poet, Eugene Marchbanks, openly declares his love for her, and “Candida’s” lesson emerges from the ensuing chaos entrenched with jealousy, fear, and desire. The mysterious world of women is nothing more than “a fine asylum for a man to find himself in.”

Collapsing the allegorical “woman as goddess/woman as sinner” paradox, “Candida” is an emotional journey and an awakening, mostly for the men in the play and especially for Reverend James. As his secretary warns, it’s “time to take another look at Candida, before she grows out of his knowledge.”

Shaw molds all his characters with the delicateness of the 19th century. Candida encompasses both maiden fragility and that eternal feminine strength which has endured prolonged labors and the childlike demands of men. She dominates every scene, even when she is not present. Every character—from the poet to the parson’s secretary—marvels at her.

While Candida is one of Shaw’s strongest and wisest female characters, he gives most of the play to the men—the husband, the poet, and the father—and presents her through the obfuscated male vision. She is, however, the motivation of every interaction. During the denouement, she informs her male counterparts, in a deus ex machina fashion, “I know what you have done as if I’d been here the whole time.”

“Candida” is so far the crowning production of the ATC’s 1995–1996 season. The set, intricate in its conventionality, outshines the modernized stage dressings of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Fires in the Mirror” (both of which tried too hard) and leaves the artistic exploration up to the actors. Robin Goodrin Nordli portrays Candida with ease and grace and Raymond L. Chapman, Eugene’s neurotic and poetic insight. And while Terri McMahon (as Morell’s secretary) dominates much of the play’s humor with a Shakespearean fool-like flair, it is Reverend Morell’s transformation which captures Shaw’s revelation concerning the mystery of Woman.

In a powerfully moving performance by Mark Capri, the reverend’s facade as the stoic authoritarian fades over the course of three acts. Candida exposes her husband’s weakness and childlike dependence. The only character not afraid of the truth, Candida explains, “I make him master here, though he does not know it.” Simultaneously, she transforms Eugene, a “little, snivelling, cowardly whelp,” into a man “as old as the world now.”

Shaw’s play, however, is far from a type of “feminist rhetoric.” His enigmatic heroine embraces contradiction without the internal conflict plaguing the men who idolize and elevate her. She is at times cruel, thoroughly passionate, excessively reasonable, exceedingly maternal, and always human. She embodies what “every poet that has ever lived has put … in a sonnet.”

Shaw’s genius delves much deeper than the mere relations of men and women. He explores what it means to be human in all its complexity. As James states, “I like a man to be true to himself ? even in wickedness” and, for Shaw, especially in love.

And although the playwright never deconstructs the meaning of love, his characters and his audiences over the last hundred years have come to appreciate Eugene’s honest appraisal of it: “It is the first need of our natures, the first cry of our hearts. I see the affection I’m longing for given to dogs and cats … because they ask for it. It must be asked for.”

Rich, L.E. (1996, February 23). ‘Candida’ shines in its conventionality. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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