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  • A Dramatist for All Seasons:Bernard Shaw in Vienna, 1933-45
  • Barbara Pfeifer (bio)

In Astoria, a 1937 play by the Austrian playwright and social democrat Jura Soyfer that satirizes fascist dictatorship, Bernard Shaw enters the scene in the following manner:

BUTLER: George Bernard Shaw, one of our most popular cynics.

SHAW: Europe has another twenty-four hours to live. We will be superseded by the Hottentots. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

GUESTS: Oh how cunning and how stunning! Oh how drastic and sarcastic!1

Soyfer's trivialized characterization of Shaw vividly demonstrates how the Irish playwright, critic, and Fabian Socialist was perceived in Austria in the late thirties, during the final days of the country prior to its annexation to Hitler's Germany. In the interwar years, when Austria faced economic problems and political change, Shaw's plays were by no means universally admired, even though the Irishman was one of the most frequently performed foreign writers on the Vienna stages. Nonetheless, Austrian theatergoers and critics were significantly affected by the dramatist's reputation as philosopher and political commentator. Through the firsthand descriptions of Shaw's translator and devoted propagator Siegfried Trebitsch, himself a member of the Viennese literary establishment, the Viennese public became thoroughly acquainted with Shaw's comments on current social and political concerns.

Without doubt, these descriptions influenced the reception of Shaw's dramatic works in Vienna, the principal theatrical center of Austria. Both [End Page 105] critics and audiences entered theaters with preconceived ideas, and their assessment of performances was often exclusively founded on Shaw's public image. Conversely, his ideas and pronouncements were misused to promote fascist ideology. This essay investigates the preconceptions that accompanied Shaw productions in Vienna in light of the major political developments of the time, from the establishment of an authoritarian rule, the so-called Ständestaat, in the early thirties to the Anschluss to Nazi Germany in 1938 and until the end of World War II in 1945. Based on the specific situation of the Viennese theatrical landscape during the Austro-fascist and National Socialist regimes, contemporary theater reviews, newspaper articles, and archival records are employed to illustrate the pivotal points of Shaw's reception during this politically highly sensitive period.

The Rise of Fascism: Shaw and Theater in the Corporate State

Following his annual visit to Shaw in 1931, Siegfried Trebitsch published an account of this meeting in the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse, in which he refers to Shaw's recent journey to Russia: "In view of the current situation, Shaw strongly supports absolute dictatorship of a strong-willed individual who is fully conscious of his responsibility."2 Shaw's views on democracy and dictatorship, thus rendered by Trebitsch, prompted the editors of the paper to assert that they considered the dramatist's statement "an opinion that is most dangerous."3 However, Shaw's strong inclination toward autocratic leaders was soon embraced by the majority of Austrian critics and publicists. After the extreme political tensions and economic crisis of the interwar years, the country was inexorably moving toward the breakdown of democracy and the establishment of an authoritarian form of government. By March 1933, parliament had abolished itself, and Christian Socialist Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, whose political priorities involved support for a dictatorial regime, began restricting democracy.4

In this context, the revival of Shaw's The Apple Cart (Der Kaiser von Amerika ) bears a markedly political significance. Shortly before the play opened at the Vienna Burgtheater over Christmas of 1933, Shaw's conspicuous preference for strong leadership was emphasized in a local newspaper article that recounts Trebitsch's lunch with the Shaws along with Werner Krauss and his wife, Maria Bard, who had played Orinthia to Krauss's [End Page 106] Magnus in Max Reinhardt's staging of The Apple Cart in Berlin.5 As the two were about to perform those roles at the Burgtheater, "the conversation inevitably turned to Austria. Again, Shaw opposed parliamentary democracy and supported dictatorship. He very much admires Chancellor Dollfuss." 6 Unsurprisingly, reviews following the premiere recognized the play as the dramatic representation of Shaw's critique of parliamentary democracy. The Neues...


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