George Bernard Shaw

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Criticism: Arms And The Man (1894)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3182

SOURCE: Quinn, Michael. “Form and Intention: A Negative View of Arms and the Man.Critical Quarterly 5, no. 2 (summer 1963): 148-54.

[In the following essay, Quinn explores the disconnection between Shaw's intentions in Arms and the Man and the form of the play, concluding that it is “a very good play of its kind, but it is not the kind of play one might have expected from Shaw's preface.”]

One of the difficulties with Shaw is that too often, like Mistress Quickly, “a man does not know where to have” him. Largely on the basis of his own noisy claims, he still retains much of the prestige of a ‘great thinker’, standing, in somewhat heretical and clownish garb, at the end of the line of what John Holloway has called ‘Victorian sages’, a latter-day Carlyle whose aim also was “to make his readers see life and the world over again, see it with a more searching or perhaps a more subtle and sensitive gaze”. But, as Holloway insists and demonstrates at length from the works of his selected sages, “everything depends on their interpretation in detail”, without which one cannot be sure of the “exact meaning” of the sage's message. In the case of Shaw the difficulty is greatly increased by a common confusion, deliberately encouraged by the author himself, between the polemical pamphleteer, whose favourite form was the preface, and the successful dramatist. That there is a confusion and that it hinders an adequate assessment of Shaw as a dramatist needs, I think, to be emphasized. It is surely not accidental that none of Holloway's sages presented his message mainly in dramatic form, for drama resists more strongly than any other medium the intrusion of new ideas. As Arthur Miller wrote in the Preface to his Collected Plays,

Where no doubt exists in the heart of the people a play cannot create doubt; where no desire to believe exists, a play cannot create belief.

Shaw was fully aware of this difficulty, recognizing, with his views, “how impossible it was for (him) to write fiction that should delight the public”. But he pinned his hopes on the fact that

It is quite possible for a piece to enjoy the most sensational success on the basis of a complete misunderstanding of its philosophy: indeed, it is not too much to say that it is only by a capacity for succeeding in spite of its philosophy that a dramatic work of serious poetic import can become popular.

(Preface to Plays Unpleasant.)

If one could be sure that no one took Shaw's prefaces seriously, this might be laughed off as a pleasant enough piece of witty nonsense; but often the prefaces are taken very seriously indeed and in this particular case I am not at all sure that this comment does not reflect an odd disjunction in Shaw's own mind between form and content.

That Shaw was essentially a comic dramatist hardly needs stressing today. The surprising popularity of Saint Joan, on the stage, in the study, and perhaps most of all recently in the classroom, may have masked the fact for a time, but latterly there have been critics who have dared to suggest that even Shaw's ‘tragic masterpiece’ should properly be regarded as a comedy. But what kind of comedy did he write? It was all very well for him to compare himself to Molière and remind us “that my business as a classic writer of comedies is ‘to chasten morals with ridicule’ …” Comedy, however, cannot easily free itself from its age; not only does it assume the presence of an audience to laugh at its jokes but it requires the agreement of the audience as to what is or is not funny or delightful. And the kind of comedy at which Shaw apparently aimed faced special difficulties in England, where classical comedy has always had a hard row to hoe, the possibilities of the form having been seriously damaged, perhaps even ruined, at the outset of its career by the genius of the predominantly romantic Shakespeare. Jonson made a brave attempt to shape a native classical comedy for the English stage and the special conditions of the Restoration theatre permitted another somewhat idiosyncratic but impressive experiment; but sentiment seems to have too deep roots in the English temperament to be cauterized by the pure comic spirit and keeps reviving, like bindweed, to strangle its enemy. Shaw did not, I think, contribute much to a revival of classical comedy in English, yet his efforts to work out a comic form that would serve his special purposes may throw some light on the nature of the problem facing any serious comic dramatist in this country. His struggle is perhaps clearest at the very beginning of his dramatic career, when his statements of intention are most explicit and his plays show more obviously the influences against which he was fighting; and Arms and the Man may serve as a convenient text, since it was not only his first popular success but has retained its place in the repertory and for many stands as a typical Shaw play.

The English theatre in the 1890's was in a state of transition; that is, it seems to have been changing in a rather more radical and self-conscious way than is normal even for the theatre. In the prefaces to Plays Unpleasant and Plays Pleasant Shaw himself has given us a lively and no doubt biased account of the battle being fought between the ‘theatricality’ of the Irving school and the ‘drama of ideas’, a battle in which Shaw played a leading part both as critic and playwright. He wanted to make the drama ‘serious’, suitable for “persons of serious and intellectual interests”, by writing plays that forced “the spectator to face unpleasant facts” and so dealt “sincerely with humanity”. Arms and the Man, first produced in 1894, was undoubtedly conceived as a home-made bomb for use by the sansculottes and, despite its ‘pleasantness’, its explicit aim was to introduce to the English stage in an English form the attack on ‘Idealism’ which Shaw believed to be the quintessence of Ibsenism. This ‘idealism’, “only a flattering name for romance in politics and morals”, was seen as a serious menace, for it shed “fictitious glory on robbery, starvation, disease, crime, drink, war, cruelty, cupidity, and all the other commonplaces of civilization …” Moreover, Shaw's preface seems to imply that his attack will not only reveal the dangers of ‘idealism’ but will suggest a positive remedy.

To me the tragedy and comedy of life lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history.

Already implicit in this passage is Shaw's optimistic belief in a purposive cosmic energy, the Life Force, with which men must co-operate, but such co-operation is seriously hindered by ‘idealism’ and ‘romance’; the echoes of Carlyle and of the whole nineteenth-century faith in progress mark this as firmly Victorian. Yet the central accusation remains serious and of interest to us: that ‘Idealism’ masks the real issues of the day and allows people to tolerate complacently what should be intolerable injustices and sufferings and that love and war are two areas of human experience where this pernicious evasiveness operates most dangerously. In Arms and the Man he attacked both at once.

What seems quite clear from the outset is that Arms and the Man does not, in any worthwhile sense, fulfil Shaw's stated intention. If a point of view is to be attacked seriously, it must be seriously defended: otherwise, there is no drama, only a massacre. The nature of ‘idealism’ is never defined with any precision and the exposure is presented only through a simple opposition of ‘idealist’ and ‘realist’. Raina, as idealist, hopes

that the world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory and men who can act its romance,

and the key idealist image is of Sergius leading the charge against the Austrian guns. The realist, on the other hand, (and it is surely significant that it is Sergius, not Bluntschli, who speaks), defines soldiering as

the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping our of harm's way when you are weak. … Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms.

The two points of view are set against each other without ever mingling, so that there is no need to elaborate the distinction with any subtlety nor is there any pressure on the spectator to think the matter through to its ultimate consequences. If the dangers of idealism in war were to be exposed seriously, one might have expected some use of particular detail of the kind likely to evoke a strong value-judgement; but the most horrific is the brief account by Bluntschli of the wounded man who was burnt alive in the woodyard. And even the few telling images are quickly robbed of their moral effectiveness by the phlegmatism of Bluntschli or the maudlin generalisations of Sergius. The two viewpoints are, as I say, juxtaposed without intermingling; the resolution on the level of ideas is achieved by the revelation that in fact there never has been any opposition at all. The characters in Arms and the Man are not spokesmen for contrasting ideas as in Shaw's later plays but are all fakes of much the same kind; none of them believes in the idealism that is being attacked, with the possible exception of Louka, with whom we are clearly intended to sympathize. When the masks are stripped off, they all agree with Bluntschli on the value of being practical, despite its “crawling baseness”.

This lack of a real opposition in the play may be traced further to an essentially superficial attitude to the motivation of characters in the play. When Shakespeare wrote his most bitter consideration of the menace of false ideals in love and war, he traced the public folly of military idealism back to the private vice of unrestrained passion: “all the argument is a cuckold and a whore”.

Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

(Troilus & Cressida. I. iii. 119-124)

Such treatment makes the accusation more general and more inescapable in that it roots it in human nature, while the language of appetite allows Shakespeare to convey the pressures behind ‘idealism’ with a fierce immediacy. Shaw, in his preface, suggested a similar relation in his reference to “our half-satisfied passions”, but in the play itself love is a mere game, as innocent of passion as croquet. All we have on the level of motivation is the stripping off of masks, and the revelation that Raina is moved more by womanly pity than by romantic ideals, Sergius more by a pretty face and a pert resistance, while Bluntschli's motivation remains a mystery to the end. Of course we accept, for the sake of the play, that the characters think they believe in these ideals but there is no suggestion, nor any encouragement to consider, why they adopt such a mode of thinking; and that surely is the important question for an attack on idealism. Arms and the Man is not satire, nor does it ‘chasten morals with ridicule’, nor is it serious in the sense that Shaw protested that his plays were to be.

That Arms and the Man does not prove to be a ‘serious’ comedy in the neo-classical tradition is, as one would expect, primarily a matter of form. Yet this is something of a surprise as Shaw himself was very much aware of the problem of form; his dramatic criticism in the 1890's contains many attacks on the current popularity of the ‘well-made play’, which he saw as the formal expression of the innate triviality of the contemporary theatre. In his additions to The Quintessence of Ibsenism he outlined what he believed to be the fundamental pattern of the pièce bien faite: exposition, situation, unravelling. This made for an essentially artificial image of life, presenting to the spectator an unjustified hope that the problems of life could be resolved by a variety of contrivances from a hitherto concealed birthmark to a hitherto unsuspected goodness of heart in the villain. Instead, Shaw advocated a pattern that he maintained he found in Ibsen, a pattern in which the unravelling was replaced by ‘discussion’, the whole point of the ‘discussion’ being that it involved a facing of the truth with intellectual honesty in place of the contrived evasion of it in the pièce bien faite. It remains an open question whether Shaw ever achieved this ideal pattern in any of his plays; certainly, in Arms and the Man, there is very little that can reasonably be called ‘discussion’ and what there is is certainly not confined to a climactic revelation in the last act. Indeed, considering his own frequent assertions of how unorthodox were his ideas, there is a remarkable absence of any sense of the dramatist struggling to adapt the form of his play to the needs of a new kind of expression; in sharp contrast to the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, the dominant impression is of a play dominated and controlled from the start by a well-established theatrical convention.

In structure Arms and the Man adheres fairly closely to the principles of the pièce bien faite as defined by Shaw himself. The first act presents a blatantly romantic situation that calls forth all the responses and expectations normally associated with Anthony Hope's Ruritania, responses that, despite the preposterously romantic trappings, still retain their appeal, and expectations that are by no means left unsatisfied. There is nothing essentially objectionable in this anachronistic kind of costume drama; it has been used by modern dramatists—Claudel, Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, and even John Whiting—as a convenient device for distancing the action, but in almost every instance there is a pressure towards symbolic interpretation that is wholly absent in Shaw. Moreover, the action of Shaw's play moves unerringly along the lines laid down by the well-made play: the romantic expectation looks forward to a resolution of the differences between Raina and Bluntschli so that the hopes raised by Raina's “poor darling” at the end of Act I may be fulfilled. Romance does not require the heroine to marry her first choice, so that the collapse of the engagement between Raina and Sergius is in no sense a deflation of the audience's romantic expectations. The second act presents entanglements not unworthy of a competent bedroom farce and the third act resolves these complications by means of a ‘discovery’—that Bluntschli thought Raina was only 17—that is more difficult to grasp and hardly more credible than the best concealed strawberry birthmark or the longest-lost letter of revelation. I would suggest then that the play's driving force is directed not towards the exposure of vice or folly, or the chastening of morals with ridicule, but towards a happy ending in the medieval and Shakespearean manner, an ending which, as in so many of Shaw's plays, allows the girl to have both the man and the money. And I find little evidence of any controlling satiric intention which would make of this happy ending an ironic comment.

The gap between Shaw's professed intention and what in fact he achieved is evidence of the perennial problem of the theatre. Shaw was always a practical man and, in the Preface to Plays Pleasant, he shows that he was only too well aware that the battle for the London stage had to be fought not on a polite academic jousting-ground but in the glaring light of economic realities. The audience at the Royal Court in the Barker-Vedrenne period may have had “a lecture-going, sermon-loving appearance”, but certainly in the 1890's any manager who offered a mere lecture or sermon to his audience was in danger of paying heavily for his presumption. The majority of playgoers had to be deceived into entering the theatrical chapel of Ibsen and Shaw and drugged into listening to their sermons; only then did they acquire a taste for that particular kind of entertainment. Shaw insisted at the beginning of his career as a dramatist that “I have always cast my plays in the ordinary practical comic form in use at all the theatres”, and at the very end he still maintained that, in matters of “the incidents, plot, construction, and general professional and technical qualities” of a play, he was “a very old-fashioned playwright”; throughout he seems to have believed that he could persuade an audience to accept new ideas by presenting them in old forms. But the form makes the play; the new wine may not burst the old bottles, but it is unlikely to taste like new wine.

Arms and the Man is a very good play of its kind, but it is not the kind of play one might have expected from Shaw's preface. Far from being a satiric comedy, it belongs in the great tradition of English artificial comedy; like Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, it takes up the form of the “well-made play” and treats the matter with witty intelligence, so that sentiment is kept firmly in check. Indeed, the virtues of Arms and the Man spring largely from those very qualities that tend to make it ineffective as a chastener of morals. For instance, the characters may be provided with little in the way of credible motivation and are not even spokesmen for ideas as in Shaw's unpleasant plays; but they are vividly sketched in strictly theatrical terms, drawing on numerous well-established stage conventions, so that Bluntschli, Sergius, Raina and Petkoff are more likely to stick in the memory than Sartorius, Mr. Warren or even Lickcheese. The comedy in Arms and the Man depends essentially on the consistency of the world presented. There is really no outsider in the play, no voice to point a sickening moral in the manner of sentimental comedy nor a chastening gibe as in satire; Bluntschli triumphs, not because he is different from the other characters but simply because he is better at their own game. All of them live, to a greater or lesser extent, in their own world of professed romance and real practicality and we delight in the incongruity: “the bravest of the brave” converted to a “poor devil pulling at his horse”, “the higher love” proving in practice a “very fatiguing thing to keep up for any length of time”, and so on. Man is not really heroic; he is not even consistent, for he cannot for long hold sentiment and behaviour together. This is matter for high comedy and it is well handled; but it has little to do with satire, chastening morals with ridicule, or with the menacing idealism defined by Shaw in his preface.

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