Jitta’s Atonement, Bernard Shaw’s 1922 adaptation of his German-language translator Siegfried Trebitsch’s best-known play, Frau Gittas Sühne (1920), stands apart in the Shavian oeuvre as Shaw’s only translation. Yet this twice-written tale of marital infidelity, death, mourning, and atonement commands little space in the volumes of Shaw scholarship, perhaps because, as Myron Malaw observes, “it is . . . the least known of Shaw’s full-length plays.”1 The few critics to have considered the play all agree on the thrust of its metamorphosis, in Shaw’s hands, from a bourgeois “Victorian melodrama” to a Shavian comedy characterized by irony, wit, and comic realism. 2 Shaw himself, in his introductory “Translator’s Note,” claimed he had produced a “comedic British version” of an originally “romantic tragedy” pervaded by a Viennese-inflected “melancholi[a].”3 In addition to the play’s often commented-upon move from tragedy to comedy, several critics have further noted Shaw’s higher degree of emphasis on the erotic and especially the psychological dimensions of the play, the latter acknowledged by both Elisabeth Knoll in her German-language monograph, Produktive Mißverständnisse, and by Peter Gahan in his article, “Jitta’s Atonement: The Birth of Psychoanalysis and the ‘Fetters of the Feminine Psyche’”—works that respectively constitute the lengthiest analyses of the Shaw-Trebitsch collaboration, and of the play, to date.4
Yet no critic so far has examined Jitta’s Atonement within the context of Shaw and Trebitsch’s complex personal and professional relationship. “It is safe to assume that no text of Shaw’s was written entirely disinterestedly,” Gahan observes, noting that Shaw “was interested in the task quite apart [End Page 95] from the challenge of translating the theatrical genre of romantic tragedy into that of serious Shavian comedy.” Gahan’s effort to explain Shaw’s reasons for choosing to translate this of all of Trebitsch’s plays considers Jitta in the context of Shaw’s own work at the time, his interest in psychoanalysis (in which milieu the play is set), and his desire to examine this emerging science through a Shavian lens.5 It is the concluding section of his analysis, however, in which Gahan sketches out the argument that Shaw’s play represents an effort to perform a literary act of transgression (via translation) akin to Frau Gitta’s marital transgression of infidelity, upon which the present essay seeks to build and expand.
Much as Gitta, in the play, cheats on her husband (a plot synopsis follows), so Shaw “cheats” on Trebitsch’s original text by changing its ending. In so doing, this essay argues, Shaw exacted belated revenge on Trebitsch, whose own translation of Pygmalion, their last major collaboration prior to Frau Gitta’s Sühne, had similarly changed the thrust of that play’s ending. Indeed, the German-language Pygmalion, Shaw felt, obscured the fact that Eliza and Higgins part ways at play’s end, instead leaving the audience at the 1913 Vienna world premiere with the impression of an impending romantic union.6 This misperceived happy ending, which still haunts Pygmalion today, vexed Shaw for the rest of his life.7 His analogous violation of Frau Gittas Sühne’s ending—from tragic to happy—evened the score. Moreover, Gitta, during the period of its translation and its later English-language production history, also served Shaw as a vehicle for vicarious revenge against others who, he felt, had wronged him in the context of Pygmalion. These wrongs ranged in magnitude from contractual disagreements over the film rights to Pygmalion to the greatest emotional affront he ever suffered: Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s rejection of his romantic overtures during the rehearsals for the first English-language Pygmalion, in 1914.
Frau Gittas Sühne
At face value, little seems to connect the frothy Pygmalion and the maudlin Frau Gitta. Yet given the various violations Shaw felt his own play had suffered, Gitta’s themes of infidelity and breach of faith make the two plays interesting, if unlikely, companion pieces.
Set in an unnamed “major city . . . [in] the present,” according to...