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A Dramatist for All Seasons: George Bernard Shaw in Vienna

Barbara Pfeifer

This project aims to investigate the phenomenon of the omnipresence of the plays of George Bernard Shaw on the Viennese stage in the first half of the 20th century, even in times of crisis and in politically highly sensitive periods such as Austro-Facism and National Socialist rule.

Since the performance of Ein Teufelskerl (The Devil's Disciple) at the Raimundtheater on 25 February 1903, the first ever in German-speaking countries, Shaw's works have held a prominent place in the repertoires of Viennese theatres and almost each theatrical season has had its Shaw premieres and revivals. The staging of Frau Warrens Gewerbe (Mrs. Warren's Profession), a banned play which received its first public performance in Britain as late as 1925, at the Raimundtheater on 9 October 1906 took place more than one year before the notorious drama was first performed in Germany (at the Hebbel-Theater in Berlin in November 1907). The production of Pygmalion at the Burgtheater in 1913 (a genuine world premiere) preceded that in London by several months. During the First World War the Theater in der Josefstadt produced three one-act plays by Shaw (1916), while the Deutsches Volkstheater showed Der Teufelsschüler (1916).

Though many plays by Shaw were performed in Vienna, his works were generally met with a mixed reception from critics and audiences alike. Nevertheless, the name of the Irish playwright never disappeared from the theatre bills. On the contrary, a Shavian vogue developed, most particularly after World War I. Shaw's singular position (with the exception of Shakespeare) among English-speaking dramatists in the theatrical landscape of Vienna in the inter-war years is highlighted by the world premiere of Die Millionärin (The Millionairess) at the Akademietheater on 4 January 1936.

When the runs of plays by non-German authors on Viennese stages were cut short after the National Socialist takeover, Shaw remained the only English-speaking contemporary playwright whose works were permitted to be performed. Though his Austrian agent and translator into German, Siegfried Trebitsch, who had ceaselessly and ingeniously promoted the Irishman's and, of course, his own interests, thus securing Shaw's undisputed status in the theatrical scene, became an exile following Hitler's annexation of Austria, Shaw's presence on the Viennese stage remained unchallenged. During the Second World War, the Burgtheater put on Candida (1944), the Theater in der Josefstadt Pygmalion (1942), and the Deutsches Volkstheater Frau Warrens Gewerbe and Die heilige Johanna (Saint Joan) (both in 1943). Another, rather puzzling, key event is the private performance of Man kann nie wissen (You Never Can Tell), a 'Festvorstellung' on the occasion of Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday on 20 April 1939.

In seeking the explanation for Shaw's protected position, the playwright’s insistence on his Irish identity combined with an anti-British and pro-German stance as well as his widely published commentaries on contemporary political affairs clearly served the aims of the Nazi regime. Moreover, the dramatist's life-force theory, which, to some extent, seems to have some affinities with Nazi-ideologems, for example that of the 'Übermensch', may have contributed to this pervasive success.

It will be one of the major concerns of this paper to review these assumptions against the background of the political scene in Austria, focussing on questions relating to play selection and censorship and on the historical role of individual theatres in Vienna.


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