Critical Context

Arms and the Man was an important play for Shaw because it was the first of his plays to be a public success; it was certainly an encouragement to Shaw to continue his chosen profession. It was also the first of Shaw’s plays to make money. The play is Shaw’s first fairly direct attack upon false idealism, an attack aimed not so much at his audience’s conscience as at its attitudes. This play produced more laughter than any of Shaw’s plays to that point, and perhaps more laughter than any other play of Shaw’s. It is a laughter different from that inspired by his Unpleasant Plays; in those plays, the laughter is often bitter and ironic. In Arms and the Man, the laughter is less bitter, more natural, and more agreeable to a general audience. Part of the reason for this is that Shaw was using so many of the traditional devices of comedy that the audiences felt quite at home.

In terms of Shaw’s career, the play is most important because it marked the shift from the propagandist Unpleasant Plays to his attacks, in the Pleasant Plays, on the romantic, idealistic follies of mankind. The social reformer of the earlier plays has shifted methods (though not goals), realizing that he must first change attitudes before he can appeal directly to consciences. The same method was used by Henrik Ibsen in Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) and other plays, and the view recommended by Shaw himself in The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891). Whether propagandist or anti-idealist, Shaw did not want simply idle laughter. He maintained that it was easy to make people laugh—he wanted to make people think. The desire to make people think through comedy and laughter, however, presents an automatic problem, one not peculiar to Shaw: If the dramatist succeeds in making people laugh in order to make his points, he runs the danger of having the audience being seduced by the laughter and ignoring the ideas. Shaw continually reprimanded audiences and readers for enjoying his plays but failing to see or appreciate what lay behind the laughter.

The most damaging criticism of Arms and the Man, more common in the past but still heard today, is that Shaw was engaging in mere “topsy-turvyism” in the manner of William S. Gilbert, that he was simply turning things upside down to get a laugh from surprise and paradox in the manner of Oscar Wilde. Shaw consistently maintained that he was not, like Gilbert or Wilde, making fun of people who did not live up to ideals, but that he was making fun of the ideals as being impossible to live up to and contrary to the nature of man.