Socialism meets Sex Scandal!

the story behind our play

The original cover of George Bernard Shaw's book, "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism."

The corrupt conservative party unites to protect its outlandish wealth. The wimpy liberal party says it represents the 99%. But it too is made up of rich bastards and doesn’t dare propose “radical reforms” like higher taxes on outlandish wealth to fund affordable housing for people sleeping on park benches.  Meanwhile, workers who see those park benches as their future, riot. Some fear conditions are ripe for a fascist dictator who turns the justified anger of the poor into a bloody rebellion. A new reform political movement emerges, led by impatient young people who see a solution: Socialism. 

It sounds very 2020 America. But it’s also England in 1906, where the new Labor Party is emerging to protect the interests of working people from the wimpy Liberals and greedy Conservatives. And instead of Bernie or AOC, the hot new thought leader is H.G. Wells. His new genre, sci-fi, seizes the imagination of a young generation desperate for change as they read about their own oppression in his dystopian fantasies like War of the Worlds. He’s bigger than Stephen King. His non-fiction books about social inequality are also best-sellers, further fueling their anger.

Enter Beatrice Webb! Eager to harness Wells’s power to persuade, she convinces her husband, Sidney, to ride 80 miles to Wells’s house on their brand new contraption — the bicycle! — to talk him into joining The Fabian Society, England’s most respected and trusted Socialist organization. This wife and husband team had already spent years talking and working with many of London’s poorest citizens, and devising economic policies to reduce the massive inequality that impoverished them. They’d just founded the London School of Economics to give working class people the academic tools that only the upper classes had enjoyed,  created magazines like the New Statesman to promote socialist ideas, and formed the Fabian Society with George Bernard Shaw to craft a plan and a path to socialism by influencing political policy. 

Before his mega-star status as the prolific playwright who wrote Major Barbara, Saint Joan, Pygmalion (the source for My Fair Lady) and dozens more, Shaw was England’s greatest advocate for social justice, studying economics and rallying on street corners with impoverished workers. But after 20 years, frustrated by the corrupt political system’s intransigence, Shaw turned to theater. By thrusting onstage his ideas for change and stories about people victimized by the greed of the 1 percent, Shaw hoped he could change hearts and minds — and then policy. He needed Beatrice Webb’s gamble on H.G. Wells to work to allow him to devote his radical visions to the theater - if he could really let go of the Fabians.

But Wells had baggage of his own. He had grand visions and little patience for the compromises and other work of turning them into reality. One of those Big Ideas was Free Love, what we now call polyamory. Beatrice worried that Free Love was going to tank Socialism in the polls. But Wells saw Free Love as part of his broader idea for the liberation of women and protection of families — and also, conveniently, a perfect vehicle for his uncanny attractiveness, and attraction, to young women. 

Wells was also suspicious of the Webbs and their schemes, resentful of Shaw and his compromises and his irritating, know it all way of treating Wells like a little brother who just needed to be steered in the right direction. Wells suspected that Shaw really wanted to keep running the Fabians through him, while also pursuing his burgeoning career in theater.

With egos that colossal, a collision — a war of the worlds — was inevitable. Radicals vs reformers, OG vs new blood, free money vs. free love ... it all went down in a couple of meetings of the Fabian Society as 1906 turned to 1907, a ferocious debate -- punctuated by a notorious sex scandal! -- that threatened to shatter the Socialist movement. But fortunately, an intelligent woman was there to pick up the pieces.... Can the four famous wack jobs who see Socialism as the solution get their s**t together, overcome their egos, and save England from inequality, or even a revolution?

That’s the story we tell in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, which plays at Fertile Ground this Friday and Sunday in a staged reading at Hipbone Studios. We discovered it in researching our previous Fertile Ground show, Posing as Sodomite, which also featured Shaw. From sodomy to socialism -- how much more Portland can you get? Our new play avoids the boring policy debates and  makes that ferocious free-for-all a lot more fun than it really was, while keeping the essential storyline intact.

 

We modernized their words, compressed most of the action into a single imaginary hour in a swanky London cafe, added England’s greatest actress, Ellen Terry (one of Shaw’s old flames who was facing a similar crossroads about whether to make a radical jump into an unknown future), and, in a nod to the author of The Time Machine, made up a fictional Time Traveler, who’s telling the story of one of socialism’s major turning point to a 21st century audience who can learn a few lessons — get a lot of laughs — out of this battle of egos, wits, and mostly good intentions. They even get to join in the action! Come join the riot this weekend.

Alison Rose Wonderland as Ellen Terry, Daniel Rhovan as H. G. Wells, Rebecca Petchenik as The Time Traveler, Karyn O'Bryant as Beatrice Webb, Robb Piggot as George Bernard Shaw.