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...
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