How GTG Valentine Slam
celebrated the Feast of lovers

Plus an account of how Saint Valentine’s Day came to be

By Byron Toben

February 17, 2022

On the recent Valentine’s Day, I had no chocolate, listened to no romantic music, nor sent any cards. I stayed at home, avoiding possible COVID-19 progeny lurking outside, doing some research and checking out the GTG Valentine Slam, loving both.

I know it sounds boring, but “Chacun a son goût.”

Valentine’s Day research

There was not one Saint Valentine, but two – well, three if you count a fragmented reference to a Valentinus mentioned as perishing in Africa along with 24 military companions.

The other two were in what is now Italy during the reign of pagan Emperor Claudius II. Both were early Christian priests, seeking conversions and getting them by performing miracles. One in Rome, by restoring sight to a blind foster daughter of a local official, the other in Terni, healing that lord’s son. The kindly Claudius, hearing of this, had the converts slaughtered and the Valentinuses (Valentinii?) beheaded on February 14, 269 AD. (July 6 for the Eastern Orthodox.)

Saint Valentine and martyrs

Saint Valentine is said to have ministered to the faithful amidst the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire – Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 491 AD, Pope Gelasius I had the remains dug up and a church erected on the roadside. Researchers suspect that there was only one such martyr since the stories were so similar. Most of this research was due to the indefatigable Belgian monks, called the Bollandists, who compiled a huge “Lives of the Saints” compendium over 300 years from 1643 to 1940 – talk about dedication!

How did this history result in February 14 cards?

antique valentine card

Antique valentine card (1909) – Image: Chordboard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1415, the 21-year-old poet Charles, Duke of Orleans, was seized by the English in the famous Battle of Agincourt. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London for 20 years before being allowed to return to France. Lovesick, he sent a card to his wife, pledging his love.

Around that time, Gregory Chaucer, famous author of the Canterbury Tales, wrote a poem called Parlement of Foules wherein he depicted birds gathering on February 14 to mate and create eggs – possibly the early origin of Easter eggs.

Fast forward to 1601, and one William Shakespeare penned his longest play, Hamlet, and we see Ophelia describing herself as Hamlet’s Valentine.

All this is quite a background for a Saint who is the patron not only of lovers, engagements and marriages, but also beekeeping, travel and oddly, epilepsy and the plague! So he is seemingly the go-to guy for divine intercession on COVID variants!

Valentine Slam

Manhattan’s Gingold Theatrical Group (GTG) has been, since 2006, the home of Project Shaw, performing all 60 plus plays of George Bernard Shaw (who I usually cite as G. Bernard Shaw since he hated his first name). These plays have featured, script in hand, monthly concert versions at the Symphony Space, read by talented professional actors to sold-out audiences.

Valentine’s Day 1944

Canadian couple (she, a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps; he, a member of the Canadian Air Force) chalking hearts onto a tree on Valentine’s Day 1944 – Image: Galt Museum & Archives on The Commons, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Shaw, who many consider as the world’s first public intellectual, was anti-war, anti-imperialism, pro-feminism, pro-human rights and democratic socialism and a vegetarian who lived to 94, dying in 1954 from complications falling from a tree he was pruning in his garden. Along the way, he won the Nobel prize for literature and befriended Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and boxer Gene Tunney, among others. His play, Pygmalion, lives on as an all-time musical hit, My Fair Lady.

And, of course, a master of clever quips and quotes, even more numerous than those of celebrated quipsters Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Will Rogers or Groucho Marx.

So, when the GTG announced its free Valentine Slam party, modelled on poetry slams, and invited various theatre folk to an open mike for 3-minute bits of poetry, song, jokes, whatever, to be held on Zoom, I was quick to sign up.

The party was hosted by Project Shaw director, the ever-smiling David Staller, and attracted 23 mini bits until it ended with a group sing-a-long 90 minutes later.

I here list some of the bits of special note, in my categorical order, not the actual chronological order.

Odes to love

Charles Busch sang two songs, Long Ago and FarAway and Beware, My Foolish Heart
Chris Earl recited a poem of Denise Levertov, Oh Eros
Amanda Jane Hoffman chose John Lennon’s song Beautiful Boy
Louise Hirschfeld chose One Hour With Thee by Sir Walter Scott
Jefferson Mays recited Good Morrow by John Donne
Brenda Braxton sang a song of her own composition
Lorraine Lapham chose a poem to call her own
Robert Cuccioli recited a Rudolph Friml poem
Kathleen showed a Doug Arnold poem, written shortly before he died of AIDS, called repetitively “Yes” to truth, to other worthy things

Victorian Valentine card

Victorian Valentine card – Image: Museum of London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Odes to marriage

Walter Dombrowski and Tom Mariconda appreciated their same-sex marriage
Larry and Kathleen Stark survived despite cat pooping and a toilet overflowing

Odes to love gone awry

Renee Taylor voiced two short acerbic Dorothy Parker bits
Comic Eileen Orchid invoked sci-fi May Di Vorce Be With You

Odes to dearly departed

Carol Ostrow sighed two poems for her husband, who had passed away
Ellen Rittberg recited the poem Jean-Jacque in honour of her late mother, an Auschwitz survivor

Ode to foodstuffs

David Lefkowitz added some Jewish humour with Shall I compare thee to… a hot knish

Final sing along

David Staller wisely chose the Irving Berlin song Always with a great backstory which I was familiar with and will reveal in a future article.

My one disappointment – given the GTC’s emphasis on Shaw, none of his quips on this open mike – so here ’tis one I know of:

“Marriage is the most licentious of human institutions… and that is the secret of its popularity.”

Happy belated Valentine’s Day to all!

Feature image: Molly Champion from PexelsBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

More articles from Byron Toben

Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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