“Independence? That’s middle class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.” ― George Bernard Shaw
Fourth of July on a Canadian village stage, gunshots not fireworks assail the senses. The imagined war, prefiguring the Great War that began 100 years ago this summer, occasions fantastical combat. Humor, wisdom linger in the theater. WHAT MYSTERY! His mind conjures a stinking, filthy runaway from combat scaling the Shakespearean balcony of the privileged flower of womanhood. Byronic beauty, her modesty, her romantic distraction are the soldier’s shield, his protection. Cream chocolates, not bullets, replenishment for the return to war.
What uses are cartridges in battle?
Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak.”
(Act II, ARMS AND THE MAN)
Imagined in an age before the western world became intimate with the sound, images and everyday commerce of the slaughter of war, ARMS and a MAN seduces with comedy. The play is wise. This early Shaw is not yet so enamored of his own voice as to clutter his comedy and stultify his style with the detritus of his didactic ego. Sage appreciation of human emotion combines with a satiric cynicism that still allows understanding.
This relatively early play of Shaw, currently in performance at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario mocks rather than condemns militarism. Sergius, is a “hero”, for the failure of the opponent’s weaponry. The aristocrat, Petroff, the ranking military leader of the Bulgarians, roars, a comic character. Society’s glorification of war and patriotism is pilloried in this play.
‘nine soldiers out of ten were born fools’
Arms and the Man
“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….”
“War does not decide who is right but who is left.”
― George Bernard Shaw
The rapid changes and resulting peculiarities emerging from modernization of society, industry,commerce,and international relations also endure Shaw’s analysis. His “Man”, Bluntschli, the ‘coward’ we initially encounter escaping the battlefield, arrives later in the play, distinguished, handsome, astonishingly efficient. Not only is he headed back to his native Switzerland, appreciative that he holds the high honor of “free citizen,” and accomplished in matters military and administrative, this merchant soldier, unburdened with ideology, but gifted with efficiency, now develops troop movement plans for the Bulgarians, the battlefield “enemy” so recently fled. This task had overwhelmed the aristocratic leadership Petroff and Sergius. Shaw playfully questions whether the benefits of “progress,” from mechanization of households with servant buzzers and buzzing clocks to national armaments truly advances humanity. Or, not?
“We shouldn’t have been able to begin fighting if these foreigners hadn’t shewn us how to do it”
Act II, Arms and The Man
Two other major themes of Shaw’s life and work are realized in this play as well: class politics and sexual politics, in equal measure seen as of an antithetical nature. Shaw parodies the romance between the social equals, the wealthy young woman and her ordained suitor who do and act as each expect the other should, and convince their world,themselves and each other they are deliriously “in love.” Stilted language and exaggerated stage instruction enhance the enjoyment. A cross-class romance, wherein the servant beguiles the master to marry her, amuses although the audience perceives its shocking character in the social constriction of the day. And the pragmatist who has abandoned all romance, philosophy, and blind creed, wins the Byronic heroine, finally, to the apparently inexorable gladness and admiration of all. In the end, Shaw allows us to see the age of the modern days of the “real,” displacing old idealism, but we do so, gently and without pessimism.
“everything I think is mocked by everything I do.”
“I have to get your room ready for you: to sweep and dust, to fetch and carry. How could that degrade me if it did not degrade you to have it done for you?”
“As for her, she’s a liar; and her fine airs are a cheat; and I’m worth six of her. “
“When you strike that noble attitude and speak in that thrilling voice, I admire you; but I find it impossible to believe a single word you say.”
ARMS AND THE MAN (ACT III)