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May. 22, 2022 | Sunday
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Leonard Conolly: A passionate expert on all things Shaw
In another life: Leonard and Barbara Conolly as childhood sweethearts in the late 1950s, long before they embarked on their 55 years of marriage. (supplied photo)

After a career in academia, it’s not surprising Leonard Conolly looks a little like a rumpled professor, albeit in an easy-going summer kind of way.

Conolly is a scholar, a thoughtful man, consumed by English literature in general and Bernard Shaw, in particular.

Some might call him a Shaw-whisperer. When he speaks and writes about Shaw, people around the world take notice. He is the Shaw Festival’s resident scholar.

Conolly and Barbara, his wife of 55 years, moved to town in 2012, after he retired from Trent University. During his tenure, he was an English professor and administrator, rising to become president and vice-chancellor.

He has also held teaching and administrative roles at the Universities of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Guelph. He holds degrees from four universities around the world and his writings include some 60 articles and reviews and 20 books, many about and around Shaw the man, his life and his world.

Conolly smiles easily. He’s easy to talk to. He has a comfortable self-deprecating kind of humour that draws you into the conversation, even though some of it moves faster than your mind can follow. You want to take notes.

Niagara-on-the-Lake wasn’t new to the couple, they had been venturing to town annually since 1976 to get their fill of the Shaw Festival productions. Over the years they attended most all the productions each year, usually staying at the Moffatt Inn.

Conolly admits that his love of Shaw’s works began at the relatively young age of 17 in Birmingham, England, his birthplace. “I read the set text of ‘St. Joan.’ And I got it. I got that notion about nationalism, protestism.”

His passion for the playwright has woven throughout his career. Today, as resident scholar of the Shaw Festival company, he prepares and edits essays for festival programs and leads seminar discussions for the hundreds of Shavian aficionados who hunger for a deeper understanding of the playwright.

His book, Shaw Festival: The First Fifty Years, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011. He is also literary adviser of the estate of Bernard Shaw.

If writing and research is Conolly’s world, Barbara’s world revolves around healthy activity. She swims at Ryerson Park beach and can be found running along almost every local byway. She is also a communion assistant at St. Mark’s Anglican Church. The couple’s five grandchildren are regular visitors.

Conolly chuckles when he thinks how Shaw might view the worldwide scholarly attention to his work: “He would be slightly amused, but pleased. He didn’t like the notion of his plays being studied in schools. He said that would turn schoolchildren off his work forever. He would say: ‘Don’t study the life out of the plays. Let them speak for themselves.’ ”

Man and Supermanwas Conolly’s favourite Shaw production this year. “The language is amazingly provocative, engaging and illuminating. And the issues are so creatively presented one can’t help but get involved in it. The performance by Gray Powell is one of the most astonishing performances I’ve seen here.”

Conolly believes Chautauqua was an inspired choice as a place for them to live in Niagara. “The Shaw company actors are all around us. On the street. Over the fence. Everywhere. We love it.”

He thinks it is a special treat to have the Shaw’s actors living among us. “It adds a lot to our community.”

He smiles when he recalls a post-show conversation between an audience member and an actor: “When you are performing two different shows on the same day, how do you make that transition between roles,” the patron asked, hoping to be let into a deep theatrical secret. “I go home, do the laundry, feed the kids, and then get on my bike and come back to work,” was the answer.

Conolly describes the book he is currently writing as his “grand finale.” It will be called Bernard Shaw and America, a study of Shaw’s relationship with the United States, an important feature in his life. As a Communist, he had great disdain for America. But he earned 10 per cent of gross box office receipts from his plays. “Disdainful is not a strong enough word for his view of America. He hated capitalism. But it was a cash cow. He was never embarrassed by that.”

Conolly claims he is not a theorist. Or a critic.

He compares his academic role to coal mining at the face of the seam. Coal mining was his grandfather’s career, until he died from breathing coal dust. “At the face, you chip away at the coal to create pieces that will be used by others.”

“The work I do is the academic equivalent. Finding the original ‘stuff,’ digging it out and making it available for constructive use.”

He speaks with a sense of wonder about how his career has opened up travel experiences to the four corners of the Earth. As example, he cites his presidency of the World University Service of Canada in the 1990s. During his tenure, he visited projects led by Canadian university faculty providing infrastructure services to developing countries around the world.

Conolly admits he is never far away from thinking about his life’s work. Even in relaxation his favourite pastime is reading a good novel or seeing a play.

“Oh, and I really enjoy chess. Have done since it was a compulsory extracurricular in school. Now I enjoy playing with my grandchildren.”

He is without a doubt an active, engaged, intelligent, almost-80-year-old academic, inspired by his work.

Conolly brings his subject to life in a way that makes you want to go directly to the Shaw box office to buy tickets.