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.
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
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
[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