- "More Looked at than Listened To":Shaw on the Prerevolutionary Russian Stage
The year 1905 opened disastrously for Russia with a humiliating defeat in its war with Japan and with the assassination of the governor-general of Moscow. It went on through widespread strikes, bloody pogroms, and uprisings as bloodily put down, culminating in an abortive Revolution that did succeed in instituting a parliamentary Duma. The year 1905 also marked the start of the Silver Age of Russian art, literature, and theater, the year when Stanislavsky appointed Vsevolod Meyerhold to create an experimental studio to explore new approaches to acting, when Pavel Gaideburov and his wife founded the Itinerant Theater to bring high culture to the masses. And in 1905 the most popular British playwright on the Russian stage was Jerome K. Jerome.
Today remembered chiefly as the author of Three Men in a Boat (Not to Mention the Dog), Jerome was a leading exponent of the so-called New Humor, grounded in irreverence, iconoclasm, and a knowing use of slang. Russians considered him the epitome of British wit, by which they meant a certain poker-faced, understated sense of the absurd. He is even quoted in Chekhov's Seagull. Jerome plays a great deal with many of the same social concerns as do Shaw's "Pleasant Plays"—but from the philistine's vantage point. His successful comedy Miss Hobbs (1899), updating The Taming of the Shrew, chastens a man-hating New Woman by making her fall in love and succumb to marriage. It enjoyed decent runs at the two leading Imperial theaters, the Alexandra in St. Petersburg and the Maly in Moscow, even though the Russian critics were bemused by its "bourgeois morality" and stale farcical devices.1
Jerome's reputation as a wit and the need for diversion in dire times may account for a topical West End comedy appearing on a state-subsidized Russian stage, the equivalent of the Comédie Française putting on No Sex Please, We're British. Throughout the nineteenth century, the only English-language playwright to be performed in Russia had been Shakespeare. In the 1890s private managements began to draw heavily on the hits of Western European capitals, primarily Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Warsaw.
When the millionaire publisher Aleksey Suvorin had first suggested founding a theater in St. Petersburg in 1895, his friend Anton Chekhov recommended staging Maurice Maeterlinck: "If I were the manager of your theater, in two years I would have made it decadent or tried to do so. The theater, perhaps, would look strange, but all the same it would have a distinct profile."2 The closest Suvorin came was to produce Edmond Rostand's La Princesse lointaine, which proved to be a runaway hit; but, when it came to foreign imports, he and the rest of the impresarios stuck to proven boulevard hits. London was looked to for costume drama. Capitalizing on the popularity of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis? Suvorin imported Wilson Barrett's Sign of the Cross for his Literary-Artistic Society Theater in 1897; it was copied in Moscow at Korsh's Theater the next season. Suvorin also staged Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca in 1901 and Sidney Leslie's Ancestors the following year.
Shaw was ignored (see Figure 1). A project by the great actor Aleksandr Lensky to put on Candida at the Maly came to naught.3 By 1905, however, the intellectual climate had changed. A relaxed censorship permitted socialist doctrines to circulate; messianic symbolism permeated the arts, and experimentation burgeoned in the theater. An intellectual public, willing and eager to entertain modernist conceptions, enthusiastically welcomed not only Maeterlinck but Hauptmann, Sudermann, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Przbyszewski.
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A belated billow of this wave swept in Wilde and Shaw as well.4 In the wake of Jerome K. Jerome, they were both assumed to be English, not Irish, and viewed primarily as humorists. Their paradoxes were regarded as amusing and ornamental excrescences on farcical comedies, not to be taken seriously. On those terms...