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Selective perception and time-lag as cultural parameters:
Society drama and well-made play on the Vienna stage in the inter-war years

Rudolf Weiss

One of the most striking phenomena in the context of the reception of plays in English in the twentieth century is the delayed transfer of stage works from the London to the Vienna stage. This comprehensive project aims to explore the circumstances of this significant time-lag with regard to Edwardian and interwar plays. Another major factor in this cultural transfer is the selective perception of theatre managers. While the dramatic fare in the tradition of the well-made play, comic as well as serious, attracted the attention of agents and managers in Vienna, more intellectual, political, and aesthetically challenging works for the stage hardly ever arrived in the Austrian capital.

Although the extent of this delay varies from theatre to theatre, it is a peculiarity common to all stages in Vienna. One characteristic example is the work of J.M. Barrie. Most of his plays were written and performed in the Edwardian and the post-WWI eras. Always regarded as a minor dramatist, his plays, apart from Peter Pan, did not make a major impact on the theatrical scene in Britain. Although the Burgtheater produced three of his plays in 1908, 1914 and 1925 with limited success, it staged another Barrie in 1961, at a time when his plays had found their place on the dumping tip of theatrical history. Moreover, Barrie was first put on at the Josefstadt in 1952 (Mary Rose, first performance in German), while the Volkstheater even contributed two productions (Johannisnacht in 1955, as a first performance in Austria; Was jede Frau weiß in 1959). In the same year, another interesting latecomer at the Volkstheater was James Joyce's Exiles (first production in Austria; written in 1914, published in 1918, first performed in 1928). While Barrie's old-fashioned fantasy plays essentially belong to late Victorianism, Joyce's only drama thematizes modernist key issues. That the aesthetically diametrically opposed Barrie and Joyce were presented at the Volkstheater in the same year cannot only be attributed to the time-lag but may also indicate a haphazard choice of foreign repertoire.

A further case in point is Frederick Lonsdale, yet another minor dramatist. The Burgtheater ventured a first production of Lonsdale's Aren't We All? in 1928 and staged two more plays in 1947 and 1952. On the other hand, Lonsdale's career at the Volkstheater appears to have some analogies to that in Britain: three productions in 1925, 1926 and 1930, one more after the war, in 1949, when the Volkstheater's interest in him ended.

The staging of Noel Coward, especially his belated arrival at the Burgtheater, is another intriguing element in the history of the reception of interwar-plays in Vienna. While the Volkstheater (1 production in 1927) and particularly the Josefstadt (4 productions in the late twenties) had something of a Coward tradition, which they recurred to after WorldWar II, the Burgtheater produced its first Coward in 1952, at a time when in Britain his plays were received very unfavourably on account of their time-worn dramatic technique and their overt anti-intellectualism.

While the plays of William Somerset Maugham, most of them comedies of manners, did not take long to travel from London to Vienna and also managed to hold the Vienna stages for a long time, also after WW II, J.B. Priestley's stage works of the 30s and 40s – not exactly well-made - had to wait until after the war. In the latter case the delay can be attributed to the politically troubled situation in Austria, the era of totalitarian regimes, and the six years of war.

When looking at the theatrical landscape of Vienna and the repertoire of individual theatres in the interwar years one has to take various factors into consideration. After the loss of the empire after WW I, Austria had become a very small state, hardly able to survive economically, at pains to redefine its identity, politically highly unstable, increasingly torn apart by strife among political factions, moving towards civil war and totalitarian rule. The theatre, to a great extent, reflects the troubled situation. The former court theatres, now state run theatres, in our context the Burgtheater plus its smaller stages, had no scope whatsoever, directly financed, controlled, manipulated by the government, or later, by fascist regimes. These problematic circumstances may explain the essential conservatism of Vienna's most representative stage in the years between the two world wars. On the other hand, the major private theatres, Raimundtheater, Volkstheater and Josefstadt, were struggling to survive in difficult times. Nevertheless, they had much more scope in planning their repertoire, especially in introducing foreign plays. Another major factor to be considered is the influence and censorship of the Corporate State and of the Nazi-regime.

Two further relevant aspects of theatrical as well as reception history in interwar Vienna are the agents at the producing and the receiving end, the theatre managers and the theatre critics. The commercial theatres were run by only a few directors, who were in charge of several theatres at the same time, and/or moved from one theatre to the next. On the other hand, the majority of the critics had grown up with the aesthetics of the turn of the century and were irritated by innovative texts and performances. Both factors were hardly conducive to the reception and establishment of a more progressive native, let alone foreign repertoire.

These aspects of a contextualized reception will be investigated within the framework of the processes of intercultural contact, for example the cultural climate, the literary background, the theatrical landscape and the dramatic tradition of the respective cultures. These frames of reference determine the success or failure of cultural transfer in a theatrical context. Two examples of a problematic or even unsuccessful transfer may serve as an illustratation. When first performed in Vienna, Maugham's The Circle, a typical specimen of a modern comedy of manners, was received as a Shavian play by some critics, while a couple of reviewers of a production of Coward's Hay Fever in 1928 focused on the entirely different social traditions in their analysis of what they regard as a failed cultural transfer: Essentially, they argue that Coward's play is a satire on English hospitality and on the typical English tradition of weekend parties, which the Viennese theatregoer is entirely ignorant of. Satire invariably misfires if the recipient is not familiar with the target of the satire.

Ultimately, at the centre of the project will be the fundamental question whether, in what way and to what an extent a play can be international and intercultural. We will explore and, perhaps, challenge the validity of William Archer's assertion that a dramatic work can only be international to a very limited degree.

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