Stanley Kauffmann on George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell (1896):
I think it is the greatest high comedy in the English language after Sheridan. If I were making a bouquet of high comedies in English, I would pick Much Ado About Nothing, The School for Scandal, The Rivals, and You Never Can Tell. (I omit The Importance of Being Earnest because it’s sui generis.)*
Strong praise, huh? It’s a wonderful play, and I would not have heard of it without Kauffmann’s praise.
The Clandons have returned to England after nearly twenty years abroad, having fled their cruel husband and father. Mrs. Clandon is the author of the Twentieth Century Treatises (e.g. Twentieth Century Cooking, or Twentieth Century Children, “No family should be without them”). Her eldest daughter, Gloria, is a New Woman – she reads Schopenhauer (“Very interesting author, sir: especially on the subject of ladies, sir”) – while the twins Dolly and Philip are hilarious nightmares, noisy, vulgar, clever idiots.
There is a love story, a courtship, between Gloria and a penniless dentist – the first act takes place in a dentist’s office, an innovation right there – and more seriously, the “high” in the high comedy, there is a story about the attempt of the father to reunite with the family. He is an ideal Victorian, unable to understand that his ideal world has been gone for twenty years or more. This family doesn’t need him.
The two acts of dentistry, by the way, occur just before the curtain opens and just after it falls. No dentistry is depicted onstage. Shaw is cruel, but not a sadist.
The reader of Shaw’s plays gets the benefit of Shaw’s amusing descriptions of his sets and characters. “Recognising this as a dental drill, you shudder and look away to your left, where you see…”or how about how the elements of the décor “all combine with the black marble which gives the fireplace the air of a miniature family vault, to suggest early Victorian commercial respectability, belief in money, Bible fetichism, fear of hell always at war with fear of poverty, instinctive horror of the passionate character of art, love and Roman Catholic religion, and all the first fruits of plutocracy in the early generations of the industrial revolution,” which is a lot to infer from the wallpaper and ormolu clock. Likely the poor theater-goer misses a bit of it.
The waiter is a remarkable person in his way. A silly old man, white-haired and delicate looking, but so cheerful and contented that in his encouraging presence ambition stands rebuked as vulgarity, and imagination as treason to the abounding sufficiency and interest of the actual.
Why so much attention to a bit part, I thought, but the waiter has the best part in the play. He is something of an onstage theatrical manager, maneuvering the family members not just through their lunch – although Act II, the lunch scene, is a marvel – but to the play’s conclusion. The title is his catchphrase.
WAITER (philosophically). Well, sir, you never can tell. That’s a principle in life with me, sir. (Delicately sinking the philosopher in the waiter for a moment.) Perhaps you haven’t noticed that you hadn’t touched that seltzer and Irish, sir, when the party broke up.
His son, an attorney, has a different motto: “You think you won’t, but you will.” Both turn out to be truths.
Shaw has the lightest touch here.
* From an interview with Jane Ann Crum published as “Stanley Kauffmann on the Unknown Shaw: You Never Can Tell, Misalliance, Androcles and the Lion, Too True To Be Good” in Shaw, Vol. 7, pp. 31-44, and also published in Conversations with Stanley Kauffmann (2003), where I read it.