George Bernard Shaw was a famed Irish-born playwright, political activist, and elite debater. The scribe of such pivotal works as Man and Superman, Pygmalion, and Saint Joan, Shaw was regarded as one of the leading dramatists of his era. In fact, he is rated among many British dramatists as second only to William Shakespeare in terms of influence. He also earned an Academy Award for his adaptation of Pygmalion for the silver screen.
Gene Tunney was the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1926 until he retired in 1928. He lost only one match in his entire career, and that was as a light heavyweight. As a heavyweight he defeated Jack Dempsey twice and was Ring Magazine’s first “Fighter of the Year” in 1928, when he retired. Tunney was elected to the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1980 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
It might be surprising to some, in fact to many, that Shaw and Tunney were dear friends who delighted in playful and serious debate alike on subjects ranging from boxing to religion. But really, what should be so surprising?
BRAINS AND BRAWN
The fact that Tunney was a highly intelligent, man who loved reading and was considered a life-learner is often a surprise to the casual boxing fan. The prevailing thought to many is that a man known for his strength and combat abilities could never be a great thinker as well.
Yet Tunney was intelligent, and a gentleman. After retiring from boxing, he became a very successful businessman. His executive resume includes roles running banks, manufacturing companies, insurance firms, and The Globe and Mail – Canada’s leading newspaper. He also authored several books.
Perhaps nothing in his life spoke more to Tunney’s intelligence than his private friendship with George Bernard Shaw, or GBS as he insisted his friends call him.
In today’s world, a champion boxer having a conversation with a famed literary figure would be a spectacle live streamed by Netflix with T-shirt, stuffed animal, and backpack merchandise available for less than modest fees on Amazon. But from their first meeting in 1928, Tunney and Shaw enjoyed a private friendship, along with their wives Polly and Charlotte.
It is that private friendship of Shaw and Tunney that the boxer’s son Jay R. Tunney shared with listeners on the acclaimed BBC radio program The Master and the Boy. Response was huge.
Based on the overwhelming response to the BBC radio interviews, Jay R. Tunney cultivated the stories about his father and the famed man of letters into a touching and fascinating book: The Prizefighter and the Playwright. That book has drawn rave reviews both in the US and internationally. The praise for the book is best summed up by Andrew Partner in the periodical The View from Here wherein he calls it “a beautifully written book on a fascinating and little-known subject.”
STEPPING ON STAGE
The next step in the evolution of the story of Gene Tunney and his friendship with GBS has debuted in Chicago in the form of the moving dramatic stage play Shaw vs Tunney.
Written by Douglas Post, Shaw vs Tunney introduces audiences to the deep and enduring unexpected friendship between the two great men in a three-person, two act drama that enlightens, educates, and entertains to great effect.
The play brings to life three of the times Tunney and Shaw met in person, starting with their first introduction.
Early in Shaw’s writing career he had published the 1882 novel Cashel Byron’s Profession about a smart, clean-cut, young boxer of Irish heritage who becomes heavyweight champion of the world. Although not one of his most successful literary works, the book did grab the attention of Tunney.
Already eyeing post-boxing career options, in 1926 Tunney contacted producer Lawrence Langer about the possibility of acquiring the rights to the Shaw book and turning it into a stage play to launch an acting career. Shaw declined the request, leaving a bad taste in Tunney’s mouth.
This set the stage for a cantankerous in-person meeting in 1928 when the freshly retired boxer was on his honeymoon with new wife Polly. But the initial heat between the two quickly dissipates as they discover a true affinity for each other that would last for the rest of their lives.
Jay R. Tunney attributes how well the two got along to more than just a shared level of intelligence, they also both had devilish senses of humor – and a love of the science of boxing. Indeed, one of the delights of Shaw vs Tunney is Shaw’s childlike excitement of talking boxing with one of the sport’s all-time best fighters.
TALENT THAT IMPRESSES
The three performers in the play are Richard Henzel, Sam Pearson, and Maddie Sachs, who are all wonderful individually and together form a concert of exquisite genius on stage under the direction of Nick Sandys and produced by Charles Grippo for Grippo Stage Company.
Henzel is absolutely delightful as Nobel Prize-winning writer George Bernard Shaw. Despite being in advanced years, the character is a ball of energy – both cognitively and physically. His eyes sparkle and dance as he and his prize fighter friend engage in debate, life stories, and discussions on the science of boxing and the importance of literature.
Pearson fits the role of Gene Tunney to a T. He has the tall, muscular frame to believably play a 1920’s era boxing champion. He also has the handsome features that could have made Tunney a leading man in films instead of a champion of business in his post-boxing endeavors. And, Pearson has a smile that captures hearts, something that adds immeasurably to making the character of Gene Tunney just as engaging as the real man must have been.
Maddie Sachs as Polly Tunney is the glue that holds the Douglas Post script together. Polly’s health plays a pivotal role in the story, and she also steps out of the action of the play to serve as a narrator at times. Sachs has the warmth and kindness of spirit to make Polly an endearing character that audiences will fall in love with, the same way the real Polly captured the boxer’s heart.
LOOKING FOR FLAWS
The script is very strong. One area that could be improved would be for Tunney to display more character flaws early so that we see a definite change in him. Characters going through change and overcoming their flaws can often be important for the audience to fully embrace them as a hero. And, Gene Tunney is definitely a hero.
Sound design and musical compositions by Christopher Kriz are excellent. Lighting design is by Diane Fairchild, set design is by Abbie Reed, props design is by Isabella Noe, and costume design is by Rachel Lambert.
The world premiere of Shaw vs Tunney plays at Theatre Wit through July 8. The play performs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 PM, with 2 PM matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For ticket information visit www.TheatreWit.org or call the box office (773) 975-8150. All-in-all it is a wonderful production.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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