As the Second World War entered its final year, our editorial posed a question that seems strangely evergreen.
“Can one, in these days, be a good Briton and a ‘good European’ as well?”, we wondered. “It looks very much as if those of us who would do the right thing after victory not only can, but must, be so. The old insularity has got to be a thing of the past. In spite of all temptation to be what we were in Victorian times, we shall have to recognise that there are other languages, other dramas, other manners deserving our attention.
“To some extent, of course, a charge that we have neglected European drama in the interval would be not so valid. We took our Ibsen in the end at quite a gulp, though the first response of many critics was almost unprintably hostile. At the outset we failed to understand A Doll’s House so completely that its original adaptation by the late Henry Arthur Jones, under the title of Breaking a Butterfly, had to have a happy ending to suit our supposed national temperament.
“We were some 20 years late in accepting Chekhov. Strindberg we have never taken to our hearts. Pirandello amused us and got through fairly quickly: so did the Quintero brothers, thanks to Granville Barker’s translations. Kapek was fortunate enough to appeal with that blessed word robot, which everyone could understand.
“France, happily, we have always had with us, though Coquelin, Bernhardt, and Rejane were what one might call universal personalities. With it all, one is tempted to wonder how much we have really missed. Disraeli used to pretend that he saved much time by never reading a book which was not famous and ten years old. Something of the same test suggests itself for drama. It either emerges or it does not.
“Is there a vast wealth of Continental drama unexplored? Has Belgium produced anything vitally fresh or profound since Maeterlinck, or Holland since Heijermans? Are there many dazzling jewels hitherto unrevealed in the drama of Switzerland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey, or even modern Greece? Hungary has given us Molnar; but whether he is infinitely greater than, say, half a dozen of our own pre-war dramatists remains to be proved. Wvspianski, the Polish genius, challenges conjecture; but if he is so great as all that, one feels we shall know in time.”
If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive