A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 7 - Autumn 2015

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You Never Can Tell or Dad Is Missing: The Reception of George Bernard Shaw in the Greek Theatre at the Beginning of the 20th Century

by Vania Papanikolaou

In September 1899, George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte left England for a six-week cruise in the Mediterranean, which Charlotte thought a success but Shaw hated (Gibbs 144). At the end of September the couple arrived in Athens and stayed for a few days. Shaw did not enjoy it. On October 12th, he sent a letter to Ellen Terry moaning about the “stupid classic Acropolis and smashed pillars” and his wife’s insistence on “going to hear the bellowing donkey, Mounet Sully, as Othello” (Shaw Collected Letters 109).1 Unfortunately, there is no other information on Shaw’s first visit to Athens. Journalists did not pay any attention to the unknown - to them - middle-aged playwright. But when, in the early ’30s, Shaw and his wife visited Athens again, during his four-week tour of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land, the situation was completely different (Gibbs 280). Journalists informed their readers of the arrival in Greece of the now-famous Nobel laureate and wrote lengthy articles on Shaw’s visit (“Shaw is coming” 1). The steamboat Théophile Gautier arrived at the port of Piraeus on the morning of 24th March 1931. There an old Greek friend awaited him: Platon Drakoulēs. The two men spent some time together and in the evening they had a special vegetarian dinner (“Shaw and Drakoulēs” 2). This paper examines how George Bernard Shaw became popular with the Greek public and what part Platon Drakoulēs played.

Drakoulēs was one of the forerunners of the socialist movement in Greece. His fundamental conceptual framework was a peculiar mix of utopian socialist, Christian, theosophical and anarchist ideas. He was born on the island of Ithaca in 1858 and died in London in 1934. He studied law at the University of Athens but never worked as a lawyer. From an early age he was recruited as a columnist for major newspapers and reviews. In 1885 he edited one of the first Athenian socialist-angled newspapers, Ardēn (“Radically”). After the regular publication of the newspaper was interrupted in 1887, Drakoulēs left Greece and settled down in England. There, he elaborated his doctoral thesis and taught Greek at the University of Oxford (1884-1887). At the same time he was involved in intellectual, socialist and theosophical circles. He gave lectures at Oxford in July 1897 on Modern Greek Language and Literature, andwas a member of the Theosophical Society in London and publisher of the leftwing periodical Erevna (“Research”) in Oxford (Benakēs 7-29).2

We know nothing as yet about Shaw and Drakoulēs’ very first meeting. Neither in Shaw’s correspondence nor in his journals has any hint of their friendship been found. However, in 1931, some journalists mentioned, without providing any other information, that the two men had met in the mid-1880s. Indeed, in the opening issue of Ardēn, in 1885, Shaw was recorded in the list of subscribers (Noutsos 320). Years later, Drakoulēs stated that when he published Ardēn Shaw sent a contribution encouraging him to continue his socialist efforts in Greece (“Bernard Shaw” 111).

Regardless of how or when they met, on reading Drakoulēs’ articles it is clear that he was familiar with the ideas of the Irish socialist and was deeply influenced by them. Perhaps the most significant example is Drakoulēs’ article on Henrik Ibsen, published in March 1891. Being in London, he sent a report to an Athenian review entitled “The Labour Question. Ibsen’s Dramas”. The Norwegian dramatist was presented as a fervent Social Democrat, a dedicated revolutionary and, above all, a defender of female emancipation. Moreover, Drakoulēs analysed, in brief, the technical novelty of Ibsen’s plays: “The central meaning of Ibsen’s poetry is that instead of facing and healing the horrible corruption that is simmering under the surface of our social life, we insist on overlooking it […]. The perfection of Ibsen’s art lies in the meaningful phrases, in the understanding of the human nature and heart […] as well as in the perception of social laws” (“Ibsen’s Dramas” 2).

Drakoulēs’ claims regarding the modern image of woman, as well as Ibsen’s dramatic art, reflected Shaw’s ideas as they were expressed in The Quintessence of Ibsenism.The provocative tone of Shaw’s book also permeated Drakoulēs’ article. The fact that the book was published in September 1891, six months after Drakoulēs’ article appeared, allows us to suppose – though not, of course, without reservations – that he may have attended the lecture at the Fabian Society in July 1890, or that he had at least read about it (Kelly 32-34). Thus, the Greek public, without realising it, came into contact with Shaw’s central political and theatrical ideas from the last years of the 19th century. They read about the most famous European playwright of the day, Henrik Ibsen, through the point of view of the Irish socialist.

Almost twenty years were to pass before the Greek audience came “face to face” with Shaw’s theatrical ideas and his plays. In November 1907, a newly formed theatrical company, founded by the former director of the Royal Theatre of Greece, Thomas Oekonomou, performed the four-act comedy You Never Can Tell under the title Dad Is Missing (Glytzouris 214). The performance was a flop. It was staged for only two nights and immediately replaced by another. We cannot be certain why the director chose this comedy, but we can assume the reasons for the failure of the performance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Irish playwright was not very well known in Greece. Although the Greek public was familiar with the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Brieux (Shaw’s favorite dramatist), and even more so with the theatrical works of minor French playwrights, almost forgotten nowadays, Shaw’s plays were barely known (Papanikolaou 163-167, 171-173, 209-215). This is quite understandable if we consider that Shaw’s first theatrical collection, Plays Unpleasant, was only printed in 1898 (Kelly 39-47). During the first decade of the century, the Irish playwright was only known in a closed circle of ardent socialists because of his political writings and his participation in the Fabian Society, or to some intellectuals who were aware of European theatrical life. Moreover, there was the threat of censorship. The police had already kept back and checked a Greek socialist play that Oekonomou wanted to produce (Glytzouris 215). Given that Athenian theatergoers were not prepared for the political comments of the Irish writer, and of course under the threat of theatrical censorship, some remarkable changes were made by the director and the as yet unknown translator.

Having the opportunity to study the manuscript of the translation at the Athens Theatre Library, I was able to compare it with the original. Following contemporary Greek theatrical practice, the title of the play was radically altered, possibly in an effort to make it funnier or closer to the titles of the French boulevard plays so beloved of Greek audiences. Furthermore, excerpts concerning socialism and feminism were omitted or translated and later deleted. For example, the dialogue between Mrs Clandon and her lawyer, Finch McComas, in which she exposes her Darwinist and feminist ideas, was left out (Shaw Dad Is Missing). In other words, any kind of political echoes were removed and finally the comedy was presented as a conventional typical farce with all its misrecognitions and maskings. It goes without saying that the spirit of the play was betrayed. The very few spectators, who went to the theatre those two days, did not attend the true Shavian political and theatrical spirit but an adaptation of the play.

However, only a few years later, the Greek public not only enjoyed the play without any omissions but, more importantly, had the opportunity to gain an idea of Shaw’s thought. As already mentioned, Drakoulēs was the editor of the leftwing periodical Erevna in 1901 in Oxford. The articles were written in Greek by Drakoulēs himself. Most of them aimed to familiarise the readers with the various strands of socialism especially through the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, Leon Tolstoy, William James and George Bernard Shaw. There were also articles about feminism, vegetarianism and theosophy, as well as comments on the artistic and theatrical life of Europe and Great Britain in particular (Mergoupi, Papanelopoulou, Tzokas). When, in 1908, Drakoulēs returned to Greece, the periodical remained in publication (Benakēs 28). In the issue of July 1908, Athenians read the first extensive article on “the most brilliant dramatist since Shakespeare”, in Greek. Drakoulēs presented and analysed Shaw’s social, political and vegetarian ideas. He also referred to the study by Shaw’s personal friend Henry Salt, “Bernard Shaw as Humanitarian”, just published in Humane Review in April 1908. Drakoulēs called it the only “true and perspicacious” biographical article. At the end, he informed his readers of Shaw’s latest theatrical success in Europe and declared his intention to translate some of Shaw’s dramas (“Bernard Shaw” 111-112). The first play was You Never Can Tell. The comedy was published, from January to September 1909, in the pages of Erevna (Shaw Pote den xerei kaneis).The differences between Drakoulēs’ translation and that of Oikonomou were significant. Drakoulēs translated the title mot à mot. But, most importantly, he kept all the feminist and socialist elements and stretched the Shavian humour, presenting a translation faithful, by and large, to Shaw’s original.

Furthermore, at the end of the same year, he also translated and published part of the “philosophical comedy” Man and Superman; “the masterpiece of Shaw’s dramatic corpus”, as he called it (Drakoulēs “Man and Superman” 184). The spectacular scene between Don Juan and the Devil, a combination of sharp irony and theatrical poetry, was selected by Drakoulēs as the “quintessence” of the Shavian theatrical spirit.

Drakoulēs was a literature and theatre connoisseur. Since the 1890s he had written multi-page essays on Percy Bysshe Shelley and Leon Tolstoy. Moreover, articles on Shakespeare and ancient Greek theatre were published in the pages of Erevna. His observation that Getting Married “was purposely written against all the rules of dramatic art” reveals Drakoulēs’ knowledge of the European theatrical tradition, as well as his awareness of Shaw’s intention to create a new drama that would criticize the dramatic form of the past, both in general, and specifically that of the well-made play (Drakoulēs “Bernard Shaw” 112). Furthermore, the translation of You Never Can Tell was accompanied by a prologue and epilogue in which he analysed the basic dramatic qualities of Shaw’s theatrical works. Drakoulēs recognised Ibsen’s influence on the reconstruction of Shaw’s dramatic dialogues: “Shaw’s characters speak in short and jerky phrases like Ibsen’s heroes,” he observed (Drakoulēs “Bernard Shaw’s plays” 11). Nevertheless, he noticed that the dramatic heroes of Shaw were different from Ibsen’s because they were not real characters but “harlequins and jesters”. This phrase is reminiscent of what Shaw wrote in the Prologue of Three Plays of Puritans: “my stories are the old stories; my characters are the familiar harlequin and columbine, clown and pantaloon (note the harlequin’s leap in the Third Act of Caesar and Cleopatra); my stage tricks and suspense and thrills and jests are the ones in vogue when I was a boy, by which time my grandfather was tired of them” (Shaw xxxvi).

To that harlequin’s leap we should add the frenetic dancing of Philip and Dolly in the third act of You Never Can Tell,when, dressed like harlequin and columbine, they burst into the room, drawing the rest of the heroes into their dance (Shaw Plays Pleasant 308-312). Historians and scholars have mentioned this aspect of his theatrical work. Analysing You Never Can Tell,Anthony Matthews Gibbs noted:“If the fashionable surface of the play belongs to the late 19th century, its roots go down to what are thought to be the primitive origins of comedy” [qtd in McDowell 64]. However, Drakoulēs did not view this roleplay as an open dialogue with theatrical tradition, but as a way for Shaw to express his social ideas more eloquently. According to Drakoulēs, Shaw’s main aim was to provoke a great social revolution. His heroes are the mouthpieces of his political and feminist principles. His charming theatrical speech and his bright witticisms were the perfect weapons in his attempt to reform capitalist society. In the introductory note to Man and Superman, Drakoulēs mentioned that it was one Shaw’s most important plays because he radically subverted outworn moral ideas such hypocrisy and injustice (“Man and Superman” 184).

In Shaw’s theatrical theories, Drakoulēs found what he was looking for in theatre. As we know, Shaw believed that the primary aim of art should be didactic: “the dramatist can change us from bewildered spectators […] to men intelligently conscious of the world and its destinies”, Shaw wrote (Prefaces 205). At the same time, Drakoulēs held that the dramatist should touch spectators’ feelings, trying to activate their thinking. In an article on the task of the “Theatre of Ideas”, Drakoulēs concluded: “The aim of the theatre is to strike the chords of the heart and through feeling to strike the chords of the mind. The philosopher aims straight at contemplation and awakens feeling. The dramatic writer, on the contrary, points to the heart awakening contemplation” (40).

This explains why Drakoulēs chose a comedy for his leftwing periodical rather than a more political play. It was the perfect example in order to introduce Shavian dramaturgy to Greek readers. It contains early elements of Shaw’s masterful ability to transform the comedy of manners into a social commentary. It touches the light chord of feelings and challenges the audience at the same time.

The introduction of the Greeks to the dramatic art of Bernard Shaw took place in an unusual and more-or-less unorthodox way. It was not the excellent performance that made Shaw’s plays popular with the Greek public but the translations and the fervent writings of a socialist intellectual. Drakoulēs was not really interested in theatre as an artistic act but as an organ of propaganda. What the Greek socialist appreciated in Shaw, first and foremost, was his political thought. In an article on the leaders of the socialist movement in Europe, Drakoulēs called Bernard Shaw one of the most significant and unconventional socialist reformers of the 20th century and placed him among Karl Marx, William Morris and Louis Blanc (“The Leaders of Socialism” 58). But, on the other hand, he could not omit Shaw’s theatrical skills: “if the art consists of masking the art, then Shaw is the master”, Drakoulēs wrote in an article on the “Dramatic Spirit of Bernard Shaw” in 1916 (35). Furthermore, he proved Shaw’s sarcastic spirit, his skill in communicating intense emotions, and of course his humour: “Shaw shakes the walls of Jericho with his ironic humour”, he stressed in the same article (35).

Drakoulēs was a fervent supporter of the Irish socialist. But his enthusiasm wasn’t enough. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Greek public was not ready to accept the aesthetic novelty of Shaw’s theatre. As mentioned above, the performance of 1907 went completely unnoticed. Nobody remembered it. It is worth mentioning that when Arms and the Man was performed in 1924, journalists advertised it as the first Shavian play ever to be performed on the Greek stage. It took thirty years for Shaw to win over the Greek theatre. In the early ’30s, several Athenian theatre companies produced Shaw’s comedies as well as historical plays (Vasiliou 198-200).

When Shaw and Charlotte visited Athens in the spring of 1931, the Irish playwright was presented by journalists as a great theatrical star. Reporters dogged his footsteps asking for interviews and photographs. One of them made a rough sketch of Bernard Shaw, asking him to sign it. Shaw cast an eye over it and wrote: “Not a bit like me” (“Our Famous Guest” 1). Over the following days, journalists and columnists commented on Shaw’s peculiar sense of humour and described their experience with the seventy-five-year-old white-haired man, who ran like a child over the rock of the Acropolis and discussed his vegetarian diet and the return of the Parthenon marbles with them. In a corner of this picture, we could perhaps imagine the figure of Platon Drakoulēs, waiting for Shaw to stroll around the “stupid classic Acropolis and smashed pillars” and to discuss the didactic aim of the theatre or philosophize on the Fabian reconstruction of society …“You Never Can Tell”…

1 The French actor Mounet-Sully visited Athens, during his European theatrical tour, in September 1899. He performed Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet, Corneille’s Le Cid, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex at the Athens Municipal Theatre (Demetriades 193)

2 In 1889, Drakoules took part in the founding congress of the Second International as a representative of the Greek socialists (Benakes 17).

Works Cited.

Demetriades, Andreas. “Eurōpaioi prōtagōnistes stēn Athēna: He epidrasē tous sto Neohellēnikotheatro tou 19ou aiōna.” [“Foreign Stars in 19th-century Athens”.] In Relations between Modern Greek Theatre and European Theatre. The Process of Reception from Renaissance up to the Present Day. Papers Read in the Second Pan-Hellenic Conference on Greek Theatre Studies. Ed. Konstanza Geōrgakaki. Athens: Ergo Publications and Department of Theatre Studies, University of Athens, 2004. 189-196. Print.

Platōn, D. E. [Platōn Drakoulēs]. “To ergatikon zētēma. Ta dramata tou Ipsen” [“The Labor Question. Ibsen’s Dramas”.] Epitheorisis (Athens) 19 Mar. 1891: 1-2 Print.

Drakoulēs, Platōn. “Erevnimata. Theatro Ideōn.” [“Researches. The Theatre of Ideas”]. Erevna (Oxford) 1.3 (1902): 40. Print

———. “Bernardos Sō.” [“Bernard Shaw”.] Erevna (Oxford) 3.8 (1908): 111-112. Print.

———. “Ta dramatika erga tou Bernadou Sō” [“Bernard Shaw’s plays”.] Erevna (London) 4:1 (1909): 11-12. Print

———. “Anthrōpos kai Meganthrōpos. Philosophikē kōmōdia.” [“Man and Superman.A Philosophical Comedy”.] Erevna (London) 4.12 (1909): 184-186. Print.

———. “Hoi ēgetes tou sosialismou.” [“The Leaders of Socialism.”] Erevna (Lonson) 5.4 (1910): 56-59. Print.

———. “To pneuma tou dramatikou Sō.” [“Shaw’s dramatic spirit.”] Art and Theatre (Athens) 3 (1916): 35-36. Print.

———. To encheiridion tou kalou ergatou ēti oi vaseis tou socialismou [The Manual of the Good Worker, i.e. the Cornerstones of Socialism]. 1893. Intro. Theōdoros Benakēs, Athens: Courier Ekdotikē, 2000. Print.

“Erchetai ho Sō” [“Shaw is coming”.] He Hellēnikē (Athens) 24 Mar. 1931: 1. Print.

Gibbs, A. M. ABernard Shaw Chronology. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Print

Glytzouris, Antonis. “Dēmotikismos kai theatrikē prōtoporia. To ‘Theatro tōn Malliarōn (1907) kai o Thomas Oekonomou” [“Demoticism and Theatrical Avant-garde. The 'Theater of the Malliaroi' (1907) and Thomas Oekonomou”], in Tradition and Modernization in the Modern Greek Theater. From its Beginnings to the Post-war Era, Proceedings of the Third Pan-Hellenic Conference of Theatre Studies, eds. Antonis Glytzouris - K. Georgiadis, Heraklion: Crete University Press, 2010. 211-221. Print.

“Ho epifanēs mas xenos. Ho Bernard Sō kai hoi dēmosiographoi stēn Acropolē” [“Our Famous Guest. Bernard Shaw and Journalists on the Acropolis”]. Proia (Athens) 25 Mar. 1931: 1-2. Print.

Kelly, Katherine E. “Imprinting the stage: Shaw and the publishing trade, 1883-1903”. The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. Ed. Christopher Innes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 25-54. Print.

Mergoupi-Savaidou Eirēnē, Papanelopoulou Faidra, Tzokas Spyros. “Science and Technology in the Greek Press, 1908-1910”. Wed. 20 June 2013.

McDowell, Frederic P. “Shaw’s ‘Higher Comedy’ par excellence: You Never Can Tell.” SHAW. The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 7 (1987): 63-83. JSTOR. PDF file.

Noutsos, Panagiotis. He sosialistikē skepsē stēn Hellada, 1875-1974. vol. 1 (1875-1909) [Socialist Thinking in Greece, 1875-1974, vol. 1 (1875-1907)], Athens: Ekdoseis Gnōsē, 1995.

Papanikolaou, Vania. He symbolē tēs Neas Skēnēs stēn exeliskē tou Hellēnikou theatrou [The Contribution of Nea Skini to the Development of the Modern Greek Theatre.] Diss. University of Crete, 2011. Print.

Shaw, Bernard. Prefaces, London, 1934. Print.

Shaw, Bernard. Collected Letters, 1898-1910. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. London, Sydney, Toronto: Max Reinhardt, 1972. Print.

Shaw, Bernard. Ho apolesthēs patēr [Dad Is Missing=You Never Can Tell.] Athens, 1907. Manuscript.

Shaw, Bernard. Pote den xerei kaneis [You Never Can Tell.] Trans. Platon Drakoulēs. Erevna (London) 4:1-9 (1909). 11-14, 27-31, 42-46, 56-59, 74-77, 91-95, 106-109, 122-125, 138-143, Print

Vasiliou, Aretē. Paradosē ē eksynchronismos? To theatro prozas stēn Athēna tou mesopolemou [“Tradition or Modernization? Theatre in Athens During the Inter-War Years”.] Athens: Metaichmio, 2005