Criticism: Arms And The Man (1894)

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

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[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...

(The entire section contains 3182 words.)

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