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  • On the Jews
  • Bernard Shaw

[Occasionally we reprint something by Shaw that provides a new perspective on some aspect of his work and ideas. In this case, it is a rebuttal to two newspaper articles by once-popular French boulevard playwright Henry (also Henri) Bernstein (1876-1953), part of a lively exchange that appeared in the French press between August and December 1925, and then in English translation in the Jewish press in February 1926.]1

Henry Bernstein was born into privilege: his father was a wealthy financier and his mother the daughter of prominent New York banker William Seligman. Yet he was also a Jew living in an era of widespread, rabid French anti-Semitism promulgated, for example, in fin-de-siècle theater by journalist and art critic Octave Mirbeau, who, in the first number (21 July 1883) of his weekly periodical Les Grimaces, denounced a "théâtre enjuivé" ( Jewified theatre) synonymous with mediocrity and motivated by financial gain.2 Three years later there came a second broadside: the publication in 1886 of La France juive ( Jewish France) by journalist Édouard Drumont, a two-volume, 1,200-page virulent denunciation of Jews on racial, economic and religious grounds, reissued in one volume in 1888 and reprinted 140 times over the next few years. (In 1892 Drumont would found an anti-Semitic newspaper, La Libre parole [Free Speech].) Then, in 1895, when Bernstein was nineteen, the political scene imploded when a Jewish officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of spying for Germany, was convicted of treason. His pardon and release from prison in 1899 and official exoneration in 1906 had little impact: henceforth one was either a dreyfusard or an anti-dreyfusard.

Such is the backdrop to a career that would bring Bernstein national and international renown. Of his thirty plays—the last produced in 1952, the year before his death at seventy-seven—Shaw was probably familiar only with La Rafale (The Whirlwind), his first success, which premiered on 20 October 1905 in Paris at the Théâtre du Gymnase. The play concerns a woman [End Page 16] who asks her father to pay her lover's gambling debts as compensation for having forced her into a loveless marriage. When he refuses, she turns to prostitution—but her lover commits suicide. Shaw's interest was not in the play but in its thirty-year-old female lead, Suzanne Desprès, wife of actor-manager Aurélien Lugné-Poë, founder in 1893 of the Théâtre de L'Oeuvre. Shaw told his French translator, Augustin Hamon, on 22 January 1906, that he very much doubted Lugné-Poë would care to produce Mrs Warren's Profession because his wife "would hardly care to play Mrs Warren, which is the leading part."3 When Lugné-Poë presented La Rafale in London in 1908, Shaw was in the audience. As he told fellow Stage Society council member Sir Almeric Fitzroy that night, he wanted to see if Desprès (Fitzroy recalled) would be able to interpret Mrs Warren to a Parisian audience: "a very few minutes left him in no doubt as to her competence to undertake any role he could invent."4

If Henry Bernstein is remembered at all today, it is not because he wrote masterpieces or even controversial plays on Jewish themes (although he did).5 He is best known for having unwittingly sparked a cause célèbre in the French theatre. On 20 February 1911, members of the "Camelots du Roi" (The King's Street Peddlers, 1908-36), the paramilitary youth arm of the right-wing monarchist movement Action française (founded in 1898), staged a protest at the Comédie-Française at the premiere of Bernstein's play "Après Moi" (After Me). The plot is harmless enough: a husband's bankruptcy drives him to contemplate suicide, a plan he drops upon discovering his wife's infidelity. Instead, he begs the young lover to return his wife, who must now choose between them. The Times on 21 February noted that the wife's dilemma "(with a change of emotional key) is the same as Mr. Shaw's Candida's, and she makes the same choice...


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