One of his Plays Unpleasant, Widowers’ Houses is typical George Bernard Shaw and typical Royal Exchange fair, but none the worse for that.
Having fallen for the daughter of a Mr Sartorius, excellently played by Roger Lloyd Pack, a naive young minor aristocrat is shocked to discover from where his future wealth is to come: Sartorius is possibly the worst slum landlord in London. Perhaps he and his new wife should make do on the aristo’s relatively modest investment income. But where exactly is his wealth invested…?
Shaw’s determination to show us that we live in an interconnected world, where the reasons some are poor while others are rich are much the same, probably was revolutionary in 1892. Today the hand that delivers its message seems a little heavy, although some in the audience did begin to applaud Sartorius’s assertion that, ‘When people are very poor, you cannot help them, no matter how much you may sympathize with them. It does them more harm than good in the long run.’ That may well have had Shaw spinning in his grave.
Nevertheless, Sartorius is the play’s worldly wise intellectual. He is sceptical that his daughter, the daughter of a self-made man, will be accepted by the high society on whose ultimate behalf he so brutally extracts rent from his tenants. He debates and educates with tired, but good, humour.
Superbly acted and produced, Widowers’ Houses is well worth a look, but ultimately the play is a little dated.