The Anti-heroism of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man

ARMS, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate;
For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv'd his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos'd to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav'nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?

-- Virgil, Aeneid Book 1 (The Invocation). Trans. John Dryden

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Question: What values does Virgil's Aeneas uphold?  What is Shaw suggesting about the nature of warfare?  How has he reversed the values of Virgil?


Two Excerpts from the Preface to Arms and the Man

[I]dealism, which is only a flattering name for romance in politics and morals, is as obnoxious to me as romance in ethics or religion [. . .] I see plenty of good in the world working itself out as fast as the idealists will allow it; and if they would only let it alone and learn to respect reality [. . .] we would all get along much better and faster. At all events I do not see moral chaos and anarchy as the alternative to romantic convention, and I am not going to pretend I do merely to please the people who are convinced that the world is held together only by the force of unanimous, strenuous, eloquent, trumpet-tongued lying. 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. And with that hint as to what I am driving at, I withdraw and ring up the curtain.

Question: What is Shaw suggesting about the anti-romantic stance of his play?  Who and what events in the play represent the mistakes of the romantic/heroic view of war?  Who and what events represent the good and realism in the world?

You Never Can Tell was an attempt to comply with many requests for a play in which the much paragraphed 'brilliancy' of Arms and The Man should be tempered by some consideration for the requirements of managers in search of fashionable comedies for West End Theatres. [. . .] Far from taking an unsympathetic view of the popular preference for fun, fashionable dresses, a little music and even an exhibition of eating and drinking by people with an expensive air, attended by an if possible comic writer, I was more than willing to show that drama can humanise these things as easily as, in the wrong hands, it can dehumanise the drama ... And so I reached the point at which I resolved to avail myself of my literary expertness to put my plays before the public in my own way.

Question: How does he give his message of anti-heroism a human face?  What are the ways in which Shaw attempts to humanize his characters' experiences?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding