Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Inverted War Hero - Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man

Arms & the Man - A comedy by George Bernard Shaw

Okay, this may not be the first Bernard Shaw play that I have seen performed, however the previous one, Man and Superman, was a performance by the National Theatre that was filmed and then distributed to various cinemas around the world. Okay, while it may not have been live, it was close enough, and seeing Ralph Fiennes performing on stage was an experience to say the least. However, earlier in the year I was perusing the website of the Sydney Theatre Company, namely because I have visited their studios, or at least their bar, and discovered that they had had some interesting plays, such as Waiting for Godot, that I would have wanted to see. With this in mind I decided to check out what was on offer in 2015.

It turned out that one of the plays was Arms and the Man. Well, I knew what I was going to be doing mid-September.

Okay, they are also showing King Lear, my all time favourite Shakesperian play, however I think I am going to have to give it a miss, even though Geoffrey Rush plays the leading roll. Anyway I saw an awesome performance of it by the National Theatre last year so I'll be happy with that (I so love King Lear).

A Young Bernard ShawAnyway Arms and the Man was Bernard Shaw's first commercial success, and also when he discovered that people will see the play differently than what he intended it to be. Mind you, it doesn't matter how much subtlety you put into a play most of the ideas will end up going over the audience's heads. He did attempt a play earlier that was much more forceful with his ideas, but it was a complete flop, so when he created Arms and the Man he obviously decided to make it a lot more light hearted, even though he was mocking the idea of the war hero.

It turns out the Bernard Shaw was actually one of the most popular playwrights of the early 20th Century, and the only playwright who had more plays performed during that time was Shakespeare himself (which I must admit is quite a feat - for Bernard Shaw that is). However it seems that people began to lose interest in his plays around the 1960s and these days you may see the odd one or two performed, if you're lucky (and I've seen two this year, which I'm quite happy about).

The thing is that Shaw wasn't without controversy. He was quite politically outspoken, as one can quickly pick up from his plays, and a strident critic of society at the time. He was a socialist, an atheist, and a supporter of eugenics (though his idea, unlike Hitlers, would come about through selective breeding and his belief, much like Darwin's, was that there is an innate biological urge for a species to mate and produce offspring with the best of the species - which is why beautiful women and jocks seem to pair off in highschool - though as the 20th Century has taught us it is the geeks who become the billionaires, unless of course they are born into it, but then again I would hardly consider those specimens to be a prime example of the human race).

Of his early works prior to this one, The Widower's House, as mentioned, was a complete flop because it was just way too political. The next two - The Philanderer and Mrs Warren's Profession - were censored out of existence (such was the nature of Victorian society - No sex please, we're British). Actually, I probably should also mention that Shaw was a bit (or should I say lot) of a philanderer himself, though it sounds as if his wife was pretty okay with it. If you don't know what a philanderer is (and I have to say that is a heaps cool word, though I won't be running around making a claim to that title myself, no matter how much I would like to) look it up. Mind you, not everybody appreciates the antics of such a person.

A Play Out of Time

The problem with approaching this play is that many of us don't actually realise that it was written prior to World War I which exposed the horrors of war in the industrialised age. At the time war was still the province of the heroes (and in a way it is still drummed up as such, despite the horrors of the Great War sitting in the back of our mind). When this play was written participating, and even leading, a cavalry charge was still considered glorious, even if it was against a machine-gun bunker. In many cases war was seen as a gentleman's game, at least where the generals were concerned. Okay, in the modern world generals still bunker down in tents behind the lines, directing their forces against the enemy, but to participate, and to lead, such a charge was seen as heroic. Mind you, when the play was written the machine gun was still quite a new invention, though fortunately for Shaw there had been a war (the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885) where there was a cavalry charge against a machine gun. What made it even more impressive was that the cavalry prevailed.

Mind you, to us in the modern world the idea of cavalry prevailing against a machine gun bunker is nothing short of absurd, but back in those days it was literally a given. This was cavalry and nothing could defeat a good horseman on the back of a sturdy horse. Sure, they had machine guns, but they were no match against the glorious cavalry. However World War I completely changed that - in fact the cavalry were forced to jump off their horses and to dive into the trenches when the true force of the machine gun came to the fore. Mind you, we still have cavalry regiments these days, however they tend to be tank columns as opposed to people on horses. Just consider the glamour of the United States Cavalry as portrayed in the old Westerns.

As we shall discover as we move further into this play we will begin to see how Shaw turns the idea of the heroic soldier on it's head. In those days a soldier with victories under his belt was considered a hero, and the higher up the ranks you were the more glorious you would become with every victory. Sure, the general would sit in his tent watch the battle from afar while the soldiers and their immediate commanders faced the dangers, but it wasn't the willingness to face the enemy head on that brought them the glory, it was their tactical genius that was the key. However tactics is pointless in Von Clausewitz's Fog of War. In truth many of these victories did not come about through the smart use of tactics, but rather through pure luck. Yet if we consider generals like Napoleon, who would fight with his men as opposed to sitting behind the lines, it may have been his brilliant tactics on one hand, but it was the morale that fighting with his troops generated that brought him the victories. Despite being the Emperor of France, Napoleon still led his troops into Russia (which is more than could be said of the King of England at the time).

The Birth of the Technological Age

The play is set in a nobleman's house in Bulgaria. Bulgaria, in may ways, was still a backward country in those days, but Shaw is showing us how the times are beginning to change and how the world of technology is beginning to change our lives. For instance the characters marvel at this concept of a buzzer. They press a button and shortly the butler arrives to do their bidding. To the nobility this is not only quaint, it is nothing short of magical. As General Petkoff says, he normally summons the butler simply by screaming his name.


This was the age of the industrial revolution, and the technological developments were about to change people's lives dramatically. For instance the invention of the telephone meant that we could speak to people without being in the same room, though the telegraph had been around for a while before that. The development of radio meant that we could transmit messages without wires being needed to connect the two points. This changed the way shipping worked as they could now communicate over much larger distances, and coded messages could be sent quickly and easily to the troops at the front.

Of course there is also the machine gun, which is played up a lot in this play. However to many of the characters, like the buzzer, it is a quaint invention that isn't actually going to change things all that much. In a way they seem to be content with the ways they have done things for ages, however they seem to be oblivious to the horrors that are just around the corner. In a way Shaw is somewhat prescient to this because he seems to paint these conservatives are being, well, rather silly. To us, in the modern world, this is actually quite amusing - as I have said charging a machine gun bunker on horseback is nothing short of stupid - but it was done and it succeeded, not due to skill, but due to luck.

The Undoing of Class

One thing we begin to see here is the change in the way the class system is structured. We have the butler, and the maid, both at the end of the play going off and doing their own thing. While technology is making the life of the upper class easier, what it is doing to the lower classes is that it is giving them the ability to move and to forge their own destiny. This had already happened in England during the 18th century, but we are beginning to see this take shape all over Europe. While Napoleon scoffed at England being a nation of shopkeepers, the French had only just thrown off the chains of absolutism. What England's nation of shopkeepers had made it was an economic power house - the class system was changing, and it was becoming undone.

In the earlier days there was no movement - if you were born into a family of blacksmiths you would always remain a blacksmith. If you had a job as a butler, you would always have that job. There was no such thing as a career change in those days, no freedom to leave your employer and go and look for a new job. However technology meant that the lower classes suddenly had freedom of movement, and we continue to see these changes happen before our eyes. It was only twenty years ago that if you wanted to invest in the stock market you either needed a lot of money, or had to go through an intermediary, however these days, with the rise of the internet and automation, many of these professional jobs are now beginning to disappear. Sure, stockbrokers still exist, but complex programs mean that people can trade the market directly without having to place an order with a human,



The Art of Staying Alive

It is interesting that a lot of the posters I see promoting Arms and the Man have a gun (or other weapon) with a love heart, flowers, or even a box of chocolates. Of course the chocolates play a very important part of the play, particularly since Bluntchsi says that the most important thing that he carries with him when he goes to war is a box of chocolates (the play has nothing to do with love conquering violence). This is one again an inversion of the heroic soldier. To many the soldier's greatest tool is his weapon, however to Bluntchsi it is not his gun - he doesn't care less about his gun - it is the fact that he has food. In reality this is true: food does much more to keep you alive than does a gun - when all of the enemy is dead, or has retreated, you can't eat your gun.

The key point to this play is a line that Bluntchsi says: the art of being a good soldier is not how many of the enemy you have killed, but rather not being killed yourself. In many cases this is true, though we still celebrate those who died in war, in particular World War I, every year. In the Commonwealth countries 11 November is known as Remembrance Day (I believe it is Veteran's Day in the US), and at 11:00 pm every year everybody is supposed to stop working, to stop talking, and to remember the dead of World War I. However things are beginning to change. These days we have people challenging the legitimacy of ANZAC Day (which is also similar to Veterans Day in the US) because we are not remembering those who died in war, but rather celebrating what is little more than an imperialist massacre. Of course, it doesn't matter how many war memorials we erect, or how many years we commemorate a minutes silence, we as a race still seem to want to pick up our guns and start killing each other.

Buntchsi is referred to throughout the play by Rania as her 'chocolate cream soldier'. She is actually engaged to Sergius Saranoff, the commander who led the successful charge against the machine gun nest. However on the night of the battle, while Sergius was off fighting, Buntchsi climbs in through the window and hides for the night. It is not that he is a coward, even though many would see him as such, but rather he is practising the ethic of what a good soldier does - staying alive. The thing with Bluntchsi is that he is a professional soldier. However he is not a Serb, he is Swiss. The only loyalty that he has is to whoever is paying him. What is of interest is that he isn't a part of the poorer classes - he is actually quiet wealthy - he is a soldier not because he has to, but because he wants to - in a way he seeks a life of adventure.

Bluntchsi is the inverted soldier - sure he is dashing, charming, attractive, but he is on the losing side, and Rania meets him when he is hiding in her room from the enemy. However she falls for him - he is her chocolate cream soldier - a soldier that does not measure his success based on his kill ratio, but on the fact that he himself has not been killed. One may be able to kill a lot of the enemy, but one can only die once, and once one is dead that is it. So much for the life of adventure. Bluntchsi is not seeking glory, far from it, he is seeking adventure, and to be able to seek adventure one must stay alive, even if it means running away and hiding.


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The Inverted War Hero - Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


2 comments:

  1. I just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front, written after the horror of WWI shattered the illusion of the glorious war. Shaw was indeed prescient.

    This play does sound fascinating. Maybe one of these days someone will do some Shaw locally. Our local university has been known to do interesting stuff, so it might happen.

    One interesting note on Remembrance Day: You are correct that we here in the US observe Veterans Day on November 11 (making it one of the few holidays here that are not observed on the Monday). While Veterans Day primarily honors those soldiers who did succeed at staying alive, we do have a day that honors the dead: Memorial Day, observed on the last Monday of May.

    I too love "philandering" as a word. When I think of Shaw and this word, though, I cannot help but think of My Fair Lady:

    Oh, it's a crime for man to go philanderin'
    And fill his wife's poor heart with grief and doubt.
    Oh, it's a crime for man to go philanderin' - but
    With a little bit of luck, With a little bit of luck,
    You can see the bloodhound don't find out!

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  2. Here in Australia its the opposite. We have Anzac day where we have veterans parade in every major city as well as dawn services, and we remember those who died on November 11.

    I've got to get around to seeing My Fair Lady one of these days - Pygmalion was one of my favourite plays.

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