Geneva (play)

Last updated

George Bernard Shaw 1934-12-06.jpg
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered25 July 1938, (in Polish translation)
1 August 1938, (in original English)
Place premiered Teatr Polski, Warsaw (Polish)
Malvern Festival (English)
Original languageEnglish
SubjectFascist dictators are brought to court
Genrepolitical satire
SettingGeneva in the 1930s

Geneva, a Fancied Page of History in Three Acts (1938) is a topical play by George Bernard Shaw. It describes a summit meeting designed to contain the increasingly dangerous behaviour of three dictators, Herr Battler, Signor Bombardone, and General Flanco (parodies of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco).


Because of its topicality in the run up to World War II, the play was constantly rewritten by Shaw to take account of rapidly changing events. Though initially a success, the play's flippant portrayal of Hitler and fascism have limited revivals in later years.


At the offices of the "Committee of Intellectual Cooperation" in Geneva, the only person present is a hopelessly overwhelmed secretary called Miss Begonia Brown. Various people turn up demanding redress of grievances: a Jew who complains of oppression in Germany; a colonial politician who had been denied the right to take his seat and a South American woman who objects to the politics of assassinations and vendettas. A British vicar and a Russian Bolshevik also complain about the respective influence of their competing ideologies. The vicar promptly dies of shock after realising he has been friendly with a Communist. The Jew says that the major culprits are the fascist dictators Battler, Bombardone and Flanco. He suggests that they should contact the International Court in The Hague, which the secretary does. A Dutch judge accepts the case, summoning Battler, Bombardone and Flanco to the court.

To everyone's amazement the dictators all obey the summons. They are put on trial, which is broadcast internationally on television. Battler, Bombardone, and Flanco all defend themselves with grandiose speeches. The judge comments, "It turns out that we do not and cannot love one another—that the problem before us is how to establish peace among people who heartily dislike one another, and have very good reasons for doing so: in short, that the human race does not at present consist exclusively or even largely of likeable persons". Sir Orpheus Midlander, the British Foreign Secretary, threatens Battler that if Germany invades another country, Britain will take military action.

As the situation seems to be escalating, news arrives that the earth has jumped out of its orbit and all humanity is threatened with freezing to death. Political differences no longer seem significant. But now all the leaders have a different plan to deal with the problem—or to ignore it. It is soon discovered that the report was false. Will this moment of shared, albeit illusory, danger help to bring the nations together? It's doubtful. But the play ends on a note of hope: "They came, these fellows. They blustered: they defied us. But they came. They came."


Shaw's friend and biographer Archibald Henderson says that he had suggested to Shaw that he could write a play about Mussolini, saying "It may be that Shaw was thereby influenced to consider all the totalitarian leaders and dictators brought together into a single play." The play's British ambassador is a composite figure based on British politicians of the day, including the aristocratic Eric Drummond, 16th Earl of Perth and the brothers Austen Chamberlain and Neville Chamberlain. According to Henderson,

Geneva was the inevitable and logical outcome of his studies of the League of Nations. Two of the leading characters, the secretary of the League and Sir Orpheus Midlander, are drawn from his observation of Sir Eric Drummond and the two Chamberlains as a composite statesman. The actor, Ernest Thesiger, who played the rôle of Sir Orpheus Midlander, bore a striking resemblance in make-up to Sir Austen Chamberlain. [1]

Shaw spent two years working on and revising the play after first drafting it in 1936. An early version was sent to Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild in New York. Langner was not impressed, and refused to put on the play. He was especially dismayed by Shaw's apparently sympathetic attitude to the dictators. He wrote, "Your influence has been exactly the opposite of that of the dictators...Yet you seem to justify Fascism with its intolerance, racial hatred, economic slavery, fanning of the war spirit...mainly on the ground that...Dictators are 'supermen', and the supermen 'get things done'." Shaw said he had already rewritten it to adopt as more critical stance: "Musso let me down completely by going anti-Semite on may now put the copy I sent you in the fire as useless." [2] As political events unfolded, Shaw had to constantly rewrite the play. According to Michael Holroyd, in the end "Geneva was played and printed in eight different versions". [3]


It was first performed at the Teatr Polski in Warsaw on 25 July 1938, in a Polish language translation. Its first British production was at the Malvern festival on 1 August 1938. Shaw wrote a pamphlet to accompany the Malvern production. A London production opened on 22 November 1938, [4] with more added scenes. The topicality of the themes, with war looming, attracted audiences and the play ran for 237 performances, [2] closing in mid-June 1939. [5]

Shaw revised the play again for a performance in New York in January 1940, but the atmosphere had changed with war now a reality. According to Stanley Weintraub the jokey and flippant manner did not work for audiences, "the caricatures were no longer clever – if they ever had been was an immediate flop." [2]


Beatrice Webb disliked what she heard when Shaw read passages from a draft of Geneva in 1936, writing "every character depraved in morals and manners and futile in intellect, with here and there a dull dissertation on public affairs". When she saw it on stage, she changed her mind, noting, "the play has come at the best possible occasion: it relieves the terrible tension that we all feel about foreign affairs by laughing at every one concerned." [6] Homer Woodbridge says that "As a dramatized pamphlet or tract, the piece points in too many directions to be effective", but the caricature of Mussolini is witty and convincing. [7] Both parliamentarian and fascist politics are caricatured, with only the Dutch judge representing reason. However, in line with Shaw's pro-Stalinist views, the Russian Commissar is portrayed without satire.

G. A. Pileki notes that early reviewers took the view that Shaw was far too soft on the dictators, being "overly critical of the British and generally sympathetic toward the dictators", but that after the war stated a production in New York was interpreted as "a British propaganda mission." Examining Shaw's revisions to his drafts of the play Pileki concludes that Shaw intentionally made the dictators' cases more rational in order to create a more balanced version of his typical "Shavian dialectic". In the early version the Jew and Battler have an argument in which the Jew claims to represent an intellectually superior, educated people, while Battler maintains that he wants to eliminate sub-humans, poisonous vermin and Jews. In the final version Battler says he was only trying to remove foreigners from his country, comparing his plans to the White Australia policy that was accepted in the British empire. [8]


Shaw wrote his preface to the play ten years later in 1946, after World War II was over. He looked back on his portrayal of the failings of both dictators and of parliamentary democracy, reaffirming his often-repeated view that "Civilization's will to live [is] always defeated by democracy", arguing for a form of technocratic and meritocratic government. He said that Hitler had proved to be "a pseudo-Messiah and madman". [6]

Related Research Articles

George Bernard Shaw Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, influential in Western theatre

George Bernard Shaw, known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Neville Chamberlain Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940

Arthur Neville Chamberlain was a British politician of the Conservative Party who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from May 1937 to May 1940. He is best known for his foreign policy of appeasement, and in particular for his signing of the Munich Agreement on 30 September 1938, conceding the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany. Following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which marked the beginning of World War II, Chamberlain announced the declaration of war on Germany two days later and led Great Britain through the first eight months of the war until his resignation as prime minister on 10 May 1940.

<i>The Great Dictator</i> 1940 Charlie Chaplins comedy film satirizing fascism

The Great Dictator is a 1940 American political satire comedy-drama film written, directed, produced, scored by, and starring British comedian Charlie Chaplin, following the tradition of many of his other films. Having been the only Hollywood filmmaker to continue to make silent films well into the period of sound films, Chaplin made this his first true sound film.

Munich Agreement 1938 cession of German-speaking Czechoslovakia to the Nazis

The Munich Agreement or Munich Betrayal was an agreement concluded at Munich on 30 September 1938, by Nazi Germany, the United Kingdom, the French Third Republic, and the Kingdom of Italy. It provided "cession to Germany of the Sudeten German territory" of Czechoslovakia. Most of Europe celebrated the agreement, because it prevented the war threatened by Adolf Hitler by allowing Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, a region of western Czechoslovakia inhabited by more than 3 million people, mainly German speakers. Hitler announced it was his last territorial claim in Europe, and the choice seemed to be between war and appeasement.

David Low (cartoonist) British cartoonist

Sir David Alexander Cecil Low was a New Zealand political cartoonist and caricaturist who lived and worked in the United Kingdom for many years. Low was a self-taught cartoonist. Born in New Zealand, he worked in his native country before migrating to Sydney in 1911, and ultimately to London (1919), where he made his career and earned fame for his Colonel Blimp depictions and his merciless satirising of the personalities and policies of German dictator Adolf Hitler, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, and other leaders of his times.

Appeasement diplomatic policy of making political or material concessions to an aggressive power in order to avoid conflict

Appeasement in an international context is a diplomatic policy of making political or material concessions to an aggressive power in order to avoid conflict. The term is most often applied to the foreign policy of the UK Governments of Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and most notably Neville Chamberlain towards Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy between 1935–39.

Samuel Hoare, 1st Viscount Templewood British Conservative politician and Lieutenant Colonel of the British Army

Samuel John Gurney Hoare, 1st Viscount Templewood,, more commonly known as Sir Samuel Hoare, was a senior British Conservative politician who served in various Cabinet posts in the Conservative and National governments of the 1920s and 1930s.

Horace Wilson (civil servant) British civil servant (1882-1972)

Sir Horace John Wilson, was a senior British government official who had a key role with government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the appeasement period just prior to the Second World War.

War cabinet crisis, May 1940 Dispute within British government about whether to negotiate with Nazi Germany.

In May 1940, during the Second World War, the British war cabinet was split on the question of whether to make terms with Nazi Germany or to continue hostilities. The main protagonists were Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax. The dispute escalated to crisis point and threatened the continuity of the Churchill government.

Manifesto of Race racist manifesto, published on 14 July 1938, which prepared the enactment (in October 1938) of the Racial Laws in the Kingdom of Italy

The Manifesto of Race, sometimes known as the Charter of Race or Racial Manifesto, was a manifesto published on 14 July 1938 which prepared the enactment, in October 1938, of the Racial Laws in the Kingdom of Italy. The antisemitic laws stripped the Jews of Italian citizenship and governmental and professional positions. The manifesto demonstrated the enormous influence Adolf Hitler had over Benito Mussolini since Italy had become allied with Nazi Germany.

Nevile Henderson British diplomat

Sir Nevile Meyrick Henderson was a British diplomat and Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Nazi Germany from 1937 to 1939.

The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century is a book by British-born Germanophile Houston Stewart Chamberlain. In the book, Chamberlain advances various racialist and especially völkisch antisemitic theories on how he saw the Aryan race as superior to others, and the Teutonic peoples as a positive force in European civilization and the Jews as a negative one. The book was his best-selling work.

<i>In Good King Charless Golden Days</i> play written by George Bernard Shaw

In Good King Charles's Golden Days is a play by George Bernard Shaw, subtitled A True History that Never Happened.

Benito Mussolini Italian dictator and founder of fascism

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was an Italian politician and journalist who was the leader of the National Fascist Party. He ruled as the Prime Minister of Italy from the fascist coup d'état in 1922 until his deposition in 1943, and Duce ("Leader") of Italian Fascism from the establishment of the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento in 1919 to his execution in 1945 during the Italian Civil War. As dictator of Italy and founder of fascism, Mussolini inspired far-right totalitarian rulers such as Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, and António de Oliveira Salazar.

Events in the year 1938 in Germany.

Godesberg Memorandum

The Godesberg Memorandum is a document issued by Adolf Hitler in the early hours of 24 September 1938 concerning the Sudetenland and amounting to an ultimatum addressed to the government of Czechoslovakia.

The following events occurred in October 1940:

The following events occurred in February 1938:

The following events occurred in September 1938:

The following events occurred in October 1938:


  1. Henderson, A., Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century. p.651.
  2. 1 2 3 Weintraub, Stanley, "GBS and the despots", Times Literary Supplement, 22 August 2011.
  3. Holroyd, Michael, Shaw, 1991, p.406.
  4. 'The Saville: Geneva on Tuesday, November 22', The Stage 24 November 1938, p 12
  5. 'Chit Chat', The Stage 8 June 1939, p 8: "Bernard Shaw's Geneva will be withdrawn from the Saville on Saturday, June 17."
  6. 1 2 Tracy C. Davis, George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre, Praeger, Westport, CT., 1994, pp.140-6.
  7. Woodbridge, Homer E., George Bernard Shaw: Creative Artist, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, IL., 1963, p.146.
  8. Pilecki, G.A. Shaw’s Geneva, London: Mouton, 1965, passim.