- Bernard Shaw’s Contributions to the Culture and Politics of Fin De Siècle Vienna
Three days before the opening of The Devil's Disciple at the Viennese Raimundtheater (25 February 1903), the first production of a play by Shaw in German, the Viennese paper Die Zeit published Shaw's witty self-advertisement "A Devil of a Fellow. Self-Criticism." In this article, he presents himself as a progressive and unconventional playwright, whose plays violate traditional drama and do not meet the expectations of an audience wishing to be entertained by sensationalism and melodrama. He concludes the article, which is also a defense of his translator, Siegfried Trebitsch, by making clear that he repudiates conventional melodrama:
I suspect Vienna of being romantic and artistic: two things which are to me the abomination of desolation. Happiness and beauty are said to be almost as highly esteemed in Vienna as they are in London. I am not particularly fond of either. . . . One thing at least I can promise to the Viennese playgoer. He will not be pestered in my plays with beauty, happiness, goodness, badness, romance, or any such nonsense. My work has only one subject: Life; and only one quality: the interest of life.1
Of course, Shaw seizes the opportunity to drop a critical remark on the theatrical conventions of London, where happiness and beauty proliferated in the numerous sensational plays that dominated the stages. But he also depicts Vienna as a city in which happiness and beauty are highly esteemed. The literary and cultural field in fin de siècle Vienna was certainly shaped to a very large extent by aestheticism, but there were also many writers and intellectuals at work who would totally agree with Shaw and who would characterize their own contributions to the cultural field as concerned with "Life," with the social and political issues of the time. [End Page 135]
Yet, thus far, research on Shaw's reception in the German-speaking countries has not paid much attention to the social reformers, politicians, economists, and writers who knew of and were interested in Shaw in the 1890s, a decade before his plays were performed on stages in Berlin and Vienna and many other places in Germany and Austria.2
This essay focuses on those agents in the cultural arena of fin de siècle Vienna whose work bridges the gap between art and politics and who were interested in Shaw not only as a playwright but above all as a socialist, as a political commentator, and as a witty intellectual who made considerable contributions to the current social and political debates. First, I draw attention to the reception of the Fabian Shaw in German-speaking countries in the 1890s, an issue that has so far been largely neglected. Second, I highlight the importance of Shaw's contributions to political debates in Vienna at the time, and, third, I discuss the efforts of some critics, theater managers, scholars, and commentators to establish Shaw as a political playwright, whose plays were not only entertaining but served a political purpose and purported socialist views. Finally, I briefly consider Shaw's significance as an intermediary for English culture in fin de siècle Vienna.
The information presented is primarily based on letters as well as theater reviews, essays, and articles in contemporary Austrian, particularly Viennese journals and newspapers. One of the most important sources of information on the topic of Shaw's reception in German-speaking countries is, of course, his correspondence with his translator and literary agent, Siegfried Trebitsch, edited by Samuel Weiss, which contains valuable bibliographical information.3 However, it was not only Trebitsch who drew attention to Shaw and who was influential in establishing him as a major artist and public figure. Others did so as well. Within the framework of research on cultural transfer, in particular between the German-speaking and the English-speaking worlds, it is essential to highlight the importance of such cultural intermediaries as editors, publishers, translators, and journalists for making writers like Shaw known to a German-speaking audience.
After the premiere of Ein Teufelskerl (The Devil's Disciple) on 25 February 1903, the critic of the Arbeiterzeitung...