- Bernard Shaw’s Further Letters to Siegfried Trebitsch
In April 1995, Christie’s sold thirteen letters and cards, hitherto unknown to editors, from Bernard Shaw to his Austrian translator, Siegfried Trebitsch. As the catalogue indicated, the letters fell into two groups: 1904–1907, when, we know, Trebitsch was rushing through his translations of Shaw, dramatic and non-dramatic, blundering in his haste and limited mastery of English, contending with his critics and would-be poachers on his authorized preserves—indeed with Shaw himself—and working tirelessly to place Shaw on the German-language stage, while continuing his own modest career as novelist-playwright; and 1923–1925, dealing mainly, the catalogue noted, with Shaw’s adaptation of Trebitsch’s Jitta’s Atonement. In a neat reversal of roles, Shaw as translator-agent sought to place Trebitsch on the English-language stage. Except for some tempting excerpts, the catalogue provided no further clues, and efforts to trace the new owners of the unexpected cache were fruitless.
Nothing in the letters, one could be certain, would alter the familiar polar contrasts between the collaborators in their mutual undertakings: Trebitsch eager for production, ready to accommodate and compromise, respectful of tradition and convention, inattentive to “little things”; Shaw disdainful of privilege and pretension, imperial or artistic, ostensibly indifferent to success or failure, inexorable in his terms, and scrupulously attentive to contractual detail, all within a larger concern for fair treatment of playwrights in general.
In the spring of 1997 the Christie cache turned up unexpectedly in a gift to Colgate University from a distinguished alumnus, Richard S. [End Page 221] Weiner, along with an unrelated letter from Shaw to Trebitsch dated 18 July 1905 that Dan H. Laurence had unearthed some years earlier and reproduced in part with Shaw’s delightful drawings, in his edition of Theatrics (1995), with an apologetic note, “present source unknown.” In sum, there are fourteen missives, which overlap and interweave with the published correspondence, adding details without altering substantively the relevant narratives.
How, when, and why these letters escaped Trebitsch’s treasured collection, it is impossible to say. A plausible conjecture is that in the later ‘20s, Trebitsch, curtailed in his ability to travel abroad by the prolonged postwar collapse of the Austrian krona, quietly traded some of Shaw’s letters for foreign currency in the bull market for Shaviana spurred by bookseller Gabriel Wells. (We know that in 1929, in “strict confidence” Trebitsch reluctantly sold his inscribed proof copies of The Apple Cart and two of Shaw’s war playlets. He had, earlier that decade, arranged with Shaw’s help to publish several of Shaw’s letters for American dollars [see below], and Shaw’s undertaking to translate and place Jitta was also intended to garner dollars and pounds for his friend.) The mystery, however, remains.
Another lucky find at Colgate was Shaw’s letters to F. L. Leipnik, a Dutch friend of Trebitsch, whom Shaw met in the summer of 1914. In August of that year war broke out, disrupting communications between London and Vienna, with correspondence between Shaw and Trebitsch breaking down. In these circumstances, Leipnik, as a neutral, offered to forward mail between London and Vienna through Holland. Shaw accepted, and early in 1915 resumed writing to Trebitsch. But by the end of the year, Shaw concluded that it was neither safe nor possible to write freely to Vienna, and the exchange of letters through Leipnik ceased. Nevertheless, at long intervals Shaw solicited Leipnik to convey messages to and from Trebitsch, and at the end of the war, with sanctions against Austria still in effect, he used Leipnik to reopen limited correspondence with Vienna until regulations were eased.
Had those letters been available in 1986 for Bernard Shaw’s Letters to Siegfried Trebitsch (SLT), they would have blended seamlessly into their respective stories; their issues would have been immediately clear, and annotation minimally necessary. Separated as they are, however, I have, for the sake of ready comprehension, provided succinct backgrounds and outcomes as well as notes that in the published edition would have been supererogatory. I have not hesitated to borrow freely from myself.
Descriptive abbreviations of the letters follow the...