Saturday, October 3, 2015


My previous post, discussing The Hate Breeders, raised my interest regarding the events at the onset of World War One that led to the German army marching through Belgium to reach France.  I began to research the history of how long Belgium had been a neutral country. This post outlines these historical events prior to discussing another play that I found related to Belgium’s tragic events.
The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed in an 1839 treaty signed by France, Russia and Great Britain. This document stipulated that no belligerent nation had any right to claim passage for its army across the territory of a neutral state.  This treaty was designed to ensure the neutral position Belgium held between Germany and France.  In 1911 the Belgium Minister in Berlin received assurance from Germany that the Treaty of 1839 would be observed.  In 1913 Germany stated it planned to respect Belgium’s neutrality and again on July 13, 1914 the German Minister in Brussels provided assurances that the German Chancellor’s promise in 1911 would be respected.  On August 2, 1914 the situation changed when Belgium received notification from Germany demanding passage for its army.  This demand was effective immediately since refusal would be an instant declaration of war.  King Albert I of Belgium (1875-1934, he became King in 1909) refused the demand.  On the evening of August 3rd, the German troops began to enter Belgium.
The play written by Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919), a renown Russian novelist and dramatist, is titled in English The Sorrows of Belgium.  It was written quickly after the invasion of Belgium commenced and the play was completed by October of 1914. The play was translated quickly into English and published in June, 1915 by the Macmillian Company of New York City.
The Sorrows of Belgium, a play in six scenes, provides a glimpse into events during the first few days of the war.  Scene One is a garden near the villa of the foremost Belgium poet, author and thinker, Emil Grelieu.  He is regarded as the conscience of the nation. It is this quiet, peaceful scene with the elderly, deaf gardener clipping roses that immediately gives the sense of peace, beauty and calm.  This sense of tranquility, the beauty of environment and the serenity of the mood quickly evaporates as information about the invasion become known. This moving scene makes one realized how war instantly changes everything once it contacts the soil of one’s homeland.
The remaining five scenes reveal how Grelieu and his family deal with their situation. It also illustrates how Grelieu’s wisdom is sought by his government to help deal with this direr dilemma. Several United States newspaper articles from 1915-16 mention that Grelieu’s character is a thinly disguised version of Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) a Belgium born dramatist, who is usually related to French theatre.  On August 27, 1914, Andreyev wrote to Nemirovich-Danchenko (1859-1943) one of the founders of the Moscow Art Theatre: “I intend to write a play--whose heroes are, subrosa, Maeterlinck, Vandervelde, and others. . . .” Emile Vandervelde (1866-1938) was a Belgium Statesman who served as a Minister of the government during World War One.
“Sorrows” was staged in Moscow in 1914 as well as in several other major cities in Russia.  It was also made into a silent film in Russia in 1914 under its Russian title “Korol’, zakon I svoboda”.  In the United States, the play was considered a “book drama”. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed a review on July 31, 1915 about the play under the heading “The New Book Drama of Leonid Andreyev.”  The review is positive throughout and concludes with the following sentence: “It is a play which can read, read again and remembered.”  All the American newspaper reviews that I read were positive, but there were no suggestions to present this play on stage.  The Advocate of Peace reviewed the play in November, 1915 and expressed that Andreyev “. . . depicted the victims of the war with profound sympathy.”  On May 9, 1915 The Sun, a New York City newspaper, stated “It is considered the most important dramatic work thus far inspired by the war in Europe.”  The Sun published several parts of the play in that issue of the newspaper.
When the play was translated into English by Herman Bernstein (1876-1935), an American who was a prolific author and journalist, it appears he changed the title of the play from the Russian “Korol’, zakon I svoboda” which translates into English as The King, the Law and Freedom.  Bernstein, by December of 1914, titled his English version of the play as The Sorrows of Belgium.
Scholars of Andreyev that I read do not referred to a play titled “Sorrows”.  They refer to Andreyev’s 1914 play about the invasion of Belgium as The King, the Law and Freedom.  McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, 1984 lists “The King” as Andreyev’s twentieth play and “Sorrows” as his twenty-second play. Both plays depict the tragedy of the German invasion into Belgium and are structured in six scenes.  It seems obvious to me that Bernstein took the often used American and British newspaper phase “the sorrow of Belgium” as a title that would attract more readers of English than “The King, the Law and Freedom”.
There is another interesting point to be mentioned.  Andreyev seemed to be apologetic about this play in his late 1914 letters to friends. He believed the play was more informational and served as propaganda rather than bear artistic and philosophical qualities.  In April, 1918 his diary entry states that “King” and another play of the same time, War’s Burden were “weak things. . . .”  Thus opinions about this play differ greatly. Since the playwright belittled his creation, the books I consulted, published between 1929 and 1973, about Andreyev and his work also dismiss this play.  But “Sorrows” appealed to American readers, during the early years of the war, since it provided a sympathetic understanding of what the Belgian citizens experienced in the opening days of the war.
NOTE: if anyone is interested in reading about the German invasion of Belgium. The British government in 1914-15 had an independent report prepared by James Bryce and a committee.  The entire findings of  The Bryce Report is available

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