[A Devil of a Fellow: Self-Criticism]
[Published in a German translation by Siegfried Trebitsch, as “Ein Teufelskerl: Selbstkritik”, in Die Zeit (Vienna), 22 February 1903 (1:1–4, 2:1–4, 3:1), three days before the opening of The Devil’s Disciple (the first Shaw play performed on the German-speaking stage) at the Raimund Theater, Vienna. [C1419] The original manuscript in the British Library (50694, ff. 52–66) consists of a holograph draft, except for ff. 52, 56–59, and 66, which are partly or principally typewritten, with alterations in Shaw’s hand, captioned (on f. 52) “FEUILLETON FUR DIE ZEIT.”, with note in Shaw’s hand on lower half of the leaf: “One copy of this on thin paper to G. Bernard Shaw 10 Adelphi Terrace W.C. Wanted on Saturday morning (the 4th Feb) before 11 o’clock.” This is the first publication of the original text, emended to eliminate stylistic inconsistencies (mostly of punctuation and use of ampersands) and misspellings.]
Now that I am about to be introduced as a dramatic poet to the German-speaking peoples, I must warn the citizens of Vienna that my plays are not to everybody’s taste. They are what people call “undramatic”: that is to say, they have no murders and no adulteries in them. Somehow, adultery bores me; and so does murder. Most gentlemen think that their lives are more important than anything else in the world; and all ladies are taught to believe that their fidelity is still more important than even their lives. I confess I cannot bring myself to make a great fuss about either the one or the other. The drama of the police news and the divorce court makes me yawn. On the other hand the people who go to sleep everywhere except in the police court or the divorce court do not enjoy my plays. It is a matter of taste. [End Page 247]
It may be asked why I, a foreigner, should trouble Vienna with my plays instead of keeping them for my own country. I can only say in reply that I am quite guiltless in the matter. One day when I was away from home a Viennese gentleman called on my wife with an introduction from my friend William Archer. On his visiting card was inscribed the name Siegfried Trebitsch. He demanded an authorization to translate my plays into German. My wife politely explained that there were difficulties—difficulties raised by the copyright laws and the course of business. The impetuous Trebitsch replied that he was surprised to hear a woman of sense talking in such a manner; that such excellent plays as mine were wasted in the foolish English theatre; that Vienna alone could do them justice; that he must, could, should and would translate them; and that he had not come all the way from Austria to listen to quibbles about the copyright law. My wife was crushed. To propitiate him she invited him to lunch. He came, and crushed me.1 I never resist a man who is in earnest. He professed strong conviction that I am a writer of European importance, a stimulating thinker, a fascinating playwright, with a magic touch in the theatre and a profound insight into human character and destiny. In this I most fully agreed with him. Such an opinion seemed to me to stamp him as a man of rare and penetrating judgment. He has my fullest authority to propagate his views about me in all the German-speaking countries and elsewhere. I am too modest to say such things about myself; but when I find another man intelligent enough to say them, I am far too polite to contradict him.
In the matter of the translation, Trebitsch has been as good as his word. Like all really able men I am congenitally incapable of acquiring foreign languages; but I have been so steeped in German music, and consequently in German poetry, all my life (having indeed learned more of my art as a writer for the stage from Mozart than from Shakespear, Molière or any literary dramatist) that I cannot help believing that I know German. I sometimes speak it; and my German friends are all agreed that nobody else in Europe speaks it in quite the same manner. I can understand Schiller because I can remember feeling and thinking exactly as he did when I was eight years old; and I feel sure that if I had met Goethe I should have found him an apt disciple. Beethoven and Wagner, of course, I know inside and out. Therefore when Trebitsch’s translations reached me there was nothing foreign to me about them except the mistakes (of which more presently). Good translation is a matter, not merely of knowledge of a [End Page 248] language, but of divination. However skilled a man may be as a linguist, he cannot translate a work which he would be incapable of conceiving in the original. And if he cannot write dramatic dialogue he cannot translate another man’s dramatic dialogue. Trebitsch has succeeded in both points. By divination and dramatic faculty combined he has assimilated and reproduced the meaning of the plays, dramatizing himself for the occasion as Bernard Shaw, and actually becoming a different person from the author of Genesung, Weltuntergang and the rest of his own works.2 Sometimes a certain refinement and charm in his own style adds itself to the occasionally rather raw pungency of mine; so that there are parts of his translation which are better than the original. For example, the second part of the second act of The Devil’s Disciple (Ein Teufelskerl) pleases me more than my own version, and is far easier to speak on the stage. What astonishes me is that one who can write so well should neglect his own work to translate that of a foreign author.
Trebitsch has a rival in Vienna in the person of Dr Leon Kellner,3 with whom I may claim personal acquaintance, though I have not had the pleasure of meeting him for some years. In 1898 I had a series of misfortunes. Herman[n] Bahr4 has described how my health gave way under a course of London playgoing. In addition to that I hurt my foot and had to get a portion of the bone removed. Whilst I was still disabled after this operation, I became so absorbed in the composition of The Perfect Wagnerite that I fell down stairs and broke my arm. I thus became doubly an invalid; and it was in this shattered condition that I was discovered by Kellner, who visited me on a day when I was entertaining a well-known London journalist and man of letters, H. W. Massingham, and a famous leader of the labor party in the House of Commons, John Burns, both of whom had come to receive my last words, as rumor had reported me as dying of several incurable diseases, brought on by vegetarianism. Kellner shewed himself a man of infinite resource. He talked English literature (about which he knew more than any of us) with Massingham; and he played billiards with Burns. And as he had been reading my plays, he made himself highly agreeable to me by his discreet flatteries, delivered as if they were the most learned and impartial criticisms.
Unfortunately there is one play of mine, entitled Candida, which produces [End Page 249] the most fatal effect on the mind and character of every German who reads it. It wallows in domestic sentiment: there is a pastor and a poet and an ewigweibliches Hausfrau [Eternal Feminine housewife] and everything that a good German loves. When it is produced at the Burg Theater5—as I have no doubt it will be; for the irresistible Trebitsch adores Candida—all Vienna will smell of kerosine6 and onions; and the women will erect a monument to Trebitsch and trample on their husbands for ever after. It maddens me when people praise me for this snivelling trash, and then treat my Caesar and Cleopatra, which is really a great play, as a mere jeu d’esprit. But the Germans will not listen to me on this subject: every literary German believes that he was created by God expressly to translate Candida. Even the strongminded, well-informed Kellner was no exception; and when Trebitsch snatched Candida from him, he took a hideous revenge. The manner of it was as follows.
Kellner knows London well, both topographically and politically. He has seen the places I have described in Candida; and he understands certain technical references in it to the several municipalities into which London is divided, and the nature of the disputes which arise on these bodies as to “fair wages”. Trebitsch, on the other hand, utterly scorns such prosaic matters, and concentrates himself on the poetic and dramatic qualities of my work. Thereby he has delivered himself into the hand of his enemy. Kellner promptly wrote an article in the Tagblatt7 over which I laughed without stopping for two hours and a half. Although it was based entirely on about half a dozen slips in translating the stage directions to Candida, not one of which would have been perceptible to anybody but the encyclopedic Kellner himself, he contrived to handle them so ingeniously as to convey an impression that the entire translation was one gigantic error, and that Trebitsch was wholly unacquainted with the English language. He took particular exception to Trebitsch’s translation of my description of Pastor Morell, one of the leading sympathetic figures in the piece. To shew how this should have been done, he gave an alternative translation of his own. On examining this attentively, I recognized, not so much my own description of Pastor Morell as a capital description of Kellner himself. Naturally, I then understood the whole affair. Kellner is a Candida [End Page 250] worshipper; and he could not bear to see the hand of another laid on his idol. It was only too clear that he had never looked at the other two plays in the volume. After this experience, I shudder to think of what will happen when all the German-speaking peoples of Europe become acquainted with Candida. Hermann Bahr has already declared his infatuation; and Schnitzler8 will certainly go into holy orders when he comes under its spell. Trebitsch, I hope, will grow out of it: I am doing my best to cure him of it.
Ein Teufelskerl (The Devil’s Disciple) came into existence in the following way. Probably you have not heard in Vienna the name of William Terriss; but he was by far the best actor of melodramatic heroes on the English stage at the end of the last century. He was very handsome, and so popular that he kept alive a certain type of crude but strenuous and effective melodrama long after it had become too old-fashioned to succeed in the hands of his rivals. When he was playing in an immensely successful military drama9 founded on the Dreyfus affair, he sent for me and told me that ever since the production of my play Arms and the Man (Helden) he had regarded me as one of the intellectual forces of the age. (As he had never seen Arms and the Man, and afterwards confessed to me that he never could read anything except books of travel and adventure, I took the compliment for what it was worth.) He then proposed a collaboration between my intellect and his stage experience, and submitted for my consideration one of the most amazing scenarios I have ever seen. It combined all the plots, all the incidents, and all the dramatic situations that have moved audiences since the creation of the world. At the end of every act the hero was arrested on a false charge of murder or felony brought by a beautiful but perjured adventuress; and at the beginning of the next act he began again without a stain on his character until he was arrested just before the fall of the curtain on another charge. Finally he was on the point of being hanged, when a peal of wedding bells aroused him from a nightmare, and he found that he had dreamt the whole play, thus securing the happy ending which is indispensable to popular plays in England. By a chain of reasoning which I need not go into here, I explained to Terriss that there was too much incident and too little character in this scenario for his purpose. He said, “You have convinced me, Mr Shaw” and there and then put the scenario into the fire with the fortitude of a man who knows he has a [End Page 251] copy safe in his desk. Now in hailing me as an intellectual force, and thereby implying that I could not write a popular melodrama, he put me on my mettle. I determined to take all the hackneyed incidents and stock situations which had done duty in melodrama after melodrama at his theatre for the previous ten years, and recast them into a new melodrama which would have all the appearance of a profound, original, and novel modern play. Ein Teufelskerl was the result; but Terriss never played in it. He was assassinated by a madman at the stage door of his theatre at the moment when the success of the piece in America, where it was played by Richard Mansfield,10 had overcome his doubts as to whether it was not, after all, a little too intellectual for the London playgoer.
Those who witness the forthcoming performance at the Raimund Theater will, I hope, be too much interested to analyze the piece critically. But once is not enough to see a play of mine: every intelligent citizen should go at least ten times. When the first sensation of the piece wears off, the experienced playgoer will have no difficulty in recognizing the lonely orphan, the reading of the will, the heroic sacrifice, the court martial, the execution, and the reprieve at the last moment, as familiar titbits from the common stockpot of melodrama.
Those critics who, like Dr Kellner, are experts in English literature, will discover that the character of the Teufelskerl’s mother is one of my numerous plagiarisms, being stolen straight out of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, just as the barrister in You Never Can Tell is stolen straight out of the same author’s Great Expectations. I am a great admirer of Dickens; and I hope to steal many more characters from him before I die. But these things do not matter. The real test of Viennese criticism will be its understanding of the character of the Puritan. They tell me there are no Puritans in Vienna; but this is a mistake: the Puritan is to be found everywhere. Only a Puritan can understand Nietzsche. But perhaps Vienna does not understand Nietzsche. 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. I can endure ten minutes[‘] happiness once a month or so, just as I can occasionally eat a bonbon. But I had rather die than live on confectionery alone; and I had rather live on confectionery than face a lifetime of happiness. 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. Shaw offered a variation of his recollection in a program note to Jitta’s Atonement (London, 1925), subsequently published with revision in Translations and Tomfooleries (1926). In the later version Trebitsch’s two visits to Adelphi Terrace are conflated. See Shaw, Complete Prefaces, II (1995), 548 and fn. 1.
2. Trebitsch, like Shaw, began his writing career as a novelist. Genesung (Convalescence) was published in 1902; Weltuntergang (End of the World), a collection of short stories, appeared in 1903. There were more than a dozen novels through 1937.
3. Dr. Leon Kellner (1859–1928), Viennese literary scholar, philologist, and journalist, was a friend of William Archer, who introduced him to Shaw.
4. Hermann Bahr (1865–1934), dramatist, critic, and founder of the Vienna newspaper Die Zeit, published a feuilleton, “Bernard Shaw,” in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, 7 February 1903.
5. The Burgtheater, Vienna, did not produce Candida. It was staged at the Deutsches Volkstheater, Vienna, on 8 October 1904.
6. This variant spelling, preferred by Shaw, would eventually be adopted in Britian in 1925 by the Institute of Petroleum.
7. “Eine verungluckte Ubersetzung” (“An Unsuccessful Translation”), Neus Wiener Tagblatt, 22 January 1903, attacked the translation of Candida, which had just been published (with Arms and the man and The Devil’s Disciple) in Drei Dramen (dated 1903, but issued in December 1902). Kellner returned to the attack in “Bernhard Shaw: Eine Charakterisitic,” Frankfurter Zeitung, 17 March 1903, after viewing the first performance in Vienna of The Devil’s Disciple.
8. Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931), an Austrian phusician turned playwright, was the author of Liebelei (produced 1895) and Anatol (published 1893; produced 1910). he earned his greatest fame when his controversial, much-censored Reigen (1896–97) was staged and filmed decades later as La Ronde.
9. One of the Best, by Seymour Hicks and George Edwardes (Adelphi Theatre, 21 December 1895), based on the 1894 treason trial of the falsely accused Capt. Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935), which Emile Zola in 1898 exposed as an anti-Semitic plot. Shaw reviewed the play, captioned “one of the Worst,” in the Saturday Review, 28 December 1895.
10. mansfield’s production received its first American performance in Albany, New York, on 2 October 1897, and at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York City, two nights later.