Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

Although Shaw’s drama was not generally appreciated or understood in his early years as a playwright, he was eventually recognized for his genius and is now considered one of the most important British playwrights of modern times, second only to Shakespeare in the history of British theater. This change of opinion developed over time as a result of changes in social attitudes and a general maturing of the theater. Once Shaw’s first collection of plays appeared in print, people had the time while reading to unearth the riches of his works. The influence of Ibsen on drama changed the usual fare fed to theatergoers, educating them about the role of drama in telling stories that could instruct and could portray real people and their emotions. These changes made audiences more receptive to the innovations and themes that Shaw conveyed in his plays.

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In the 1890s, however, while critics found Shaw’s dialogue amusing, they found his work difficult to classify. Early critics misinterpreted his characters, finding them inhuman, and concluded that Shaw had a heartless approach to life. Shaw’s attack on the phony idealism associated with war caused him to be accused of trying to destroy the concept of heroism. When Shaw included in Arms and the Man a soldier who carried chocolates rather than bullets, along with descriptions of a bungled cavalry charge and a grisly death, critics accused Shaw of looking only at the baser side of life.

Shaw has had a myriad of books and articles written about him. The following is a brief review of what some of the most eminent critics have said about Shaw’s work as a whole, and about Arms and the Man in particular. These reviews are a reflection of the general opinion expressed by those who have studied his works.

One of Shaw’s biographers was the famous British novelist, essayist, and religious writer, Gilbert K. Chesterton. Although Chesterton disagreed with Shaw on most social policies, he understood Shaw’s dramatic method. Chesterton writes that Shaw “resolved to build a play not on pathos, but on bathos,” the reverse of common practice at the time. In other words, Shaw did not follow the melodramatic convention of appealing to pity or sympathy; instead, he exaggerated the pathos and made abrupt changes from a lofty to an ordinary style. Chesterton adds that in Arms and the Man, “there was a savage sincerity,” a “strong satire in the idea.”

The world-renowned Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges—commenting on the commonplace criticism of Shaw’s early plays, which said that Shaw was attempting to destroy the heroic concept—responds that such criticism “did not understand that the heroic was completely independent from the romantic and was embodied in Captain Bluntschli of Arms and the Man, not in Sergius Saranoff.” Borges adds that the body of “Shaw’s work . . . leaves an aftertaste of liberation.”

German playwright and critic Bertolt Brecht notes of Shaw: “Probably all of his characters, in all of their traits, are the result of Shaw’s delight in upsetting our habitual prejudices.” Certainly this practice is evidenced in the class prejudices depicted by the Petkoffs against their servants and against their enemies in Arms and the Man. Shaw was known to take some radical positions in his lifetime, but he never resorted to any sort of terrorism other than satire. According to Brecht, “[Shaw’s] terror is an unusual one, and he employs an unusual weapon—that of humor.”

Shaw considered Arms and the Man to be a failure when it was first staged, because so few people realized his true message or intent. Within ten years, however, lack of understanding was seldom a problem among his readers and audiences who had grown to understand Shaw and his dramatic realism. Critic Arthur Bingham Walkley, a contemporary of Shaw’s, is quoted by Barbara M. Fisher in George Bernard Shaw as writing: “In the form of a droll, fantastic farce, [Arms and the Man] presents us with a criticism of conduct, a theory of life.” H. W. Nevinson, writing in 1929 for the New Leader, sums up Shaw’s drama by noting that Shaw’s “plays have laid bare the falsities and hypocrisies and boastful pretensions of our . . . time. I can think of no modern prophet who has swept away so much accepted rubbish and cleared the air of so much cant.”

 

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