Anne Summers: The lesson of a Polish production of 'Pygmalion'

From a talk given at the Middlesex University by the curator of 20th-century political papers in the department of manuscripts
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The Independent Online

Why was George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion first produced in German, in Vienna? The question arose in the course of my work at the British Library. As a curator of modern political manuscripts, one of my commitments has been to a published catalogue of the library's holdings of the papers of George Bernard Shaw.

The bulk of the correspondence we hold consists of letters to Shaw. I could not help but notice that when it came to identifying a non-anglophone correspondent, few of the Shaw reference works offered much help. Thus I have been able to index many French, German, Swiss, Italian, Hungarian and Russian correspondents largely by name and residence. I do not know who they were; and cannot gauge the nature of their relationship with Shaw.

Does this matter? I think it does, even if one is dealing merely with a scattering of fan letters. But the fact is that Shaw's writings were an international phenomenon, on a scale which is not appreciated, and which is unlikely to be matched in our day. His career, if researched in this dimension, would throw a sharp light on the transmission of ideas, questions, jokes and narrative tropes across national and linguistic boundaries.

To give just a few examples of Shaw performances in translation, The Devil's Disciple was performed in Vienna and Lwow in 1903, in Berlin in 1904, in Budapest in 1906, in Prague in 1907, in Japan in 1927; Man and Superman in Stockholm in 1907; Arms and the Man in Cracow and Russia in 1904, in Italy in 1909, in Spain and Turkey by 1920; Mrs Warren's Profession in Italy in 1909, in Paris in 1912; Pygmalion in Vienna and Berlin in 1913, in Warsaw, London and Moscow in 1914, in Venice in 1915. First performances in translation include Pygmalion in German in 1913, and The Apple Cart in Polish in 1929.

Few writers have been as lionised, researched, edited and written up as Shaw; yet, as one of the most indefatigable workers in this branch of literary industry, Stanley Weintraub, has pointed out: "Shaw's experiences with his translators remain a large area still untreated by scholars."

The British Library's Shaw collections include many albums of photographs, several of which are devoted to productions of Shaw plays. Thus we have images of the Polish production of Pygmalion within a few months of the British première in 1914; a series of shots of a wonderfully Gallicised Higgins and Eliza in the first French production in Paris in 1923; a fascinating set for a Russian production of the 1930s. There was no country which didn't have its own "take" on the subjects of class division and social mobility, and it's as enjoyable to view these subtle differences in settings and costumes as it is to imagine translators wracking their brains for their own equivalent of "Not bloody likely".

Such images suggest quite strongly that theatre is a genuinely internationalising art form, and cinema, even with subtitles, a globalising one.

Most scholarship has reduced Shaw to an anglophone phenomenon, and has left us almost unaware of the existence of a dense network of international conversations, correspondences, shared enthusiasms, and arguments about meaning. It has also confirmed us in our view of the 20th century as a period of Anglo-Saxon cultural ascendancy. Yet of all people, Shaw, an Irishman, from the edge of an empire, possessing little of an English classical education but a great deal of the languages and idioms of the Europe of his day, should be able to lead us to a different view.

We need to think again about the links between Britain and the Continent, and between the Old World and the New. The revival of My Fair Lady has been heralded by some fascinating accounts of its origins; but they've missed the wider story. It's not, after all, a paradox, but entirely fitting that the composer, Frederick Loewe, should have been an emigrant to the US – and, moreover, born in Vienna.