ARMS AND THE MAN
ARMS AND THE MAN
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
To the irreverent--and which of us will claim entire exemption from that
comfortable classification?--there is something very amusing in the
attitude of the orthodox criticism toward Bernard Shaw. He so obviously
disregards all the canons and unities and other things which every
well-bred dramatist is bound to respect that his work is really unworthy
of serious criticism (orthodox). Indeed he knows no more about the
dramatic art than according to his own story in "The Man of Destiny"
Napoleon at Tavazzano knew of the Art of War. But both men were
successes each in his way--the latter won victories and the former
gained audiences in the very teeth of the accepted theories of war and
the theatre. Shaw does not know that it is unpardonable sin to have his
characters make long speeches at one another apparently thinking that
this embargo applies only to long speeches which consist mainly of
bombast and rhetoric. There never was an author who showed less
predilection for a specific medium by which to accomplish his results.
He recognized early in his days many things awry in the world and he
assumed the task of mundane reformation with a confident spirit. It
seems such a small job at twenty to set the times aright. He began as an
Essayist but who reads essays now-a-days?--he then turned novelist with
no better success for no one would read such preposterous stuff as he
chose to emit. He only succeeded in proving that absolutely rational men
and women--although he has created few of the latter--can be most
extremely disagreeable to our conventional way of thinking.
As a last resort he turned to the stage not that he cared for the
dramatic art for no man seems to care less about "Art for Art's sake"
being in this a perfect foil to his brilliant compatriot and
contemporary Wilde. He cast his theories in dramatic forms merely
because no other course except silence or physical revolt was open to
him. For a long time it seemed as if this resource too was doomed to
fail him. But finally he has attained a hearing and now attempts at
suppression merely serve to advertise their victim.
It will repay those who seek analogies in literature to compare Shaw
with Cervantes. After a life of heroic endeavor disappointment
slavery and poverty the author of "Don Quixote" gave the world a
serious work which caused to be laughed off the world's stage forever
the final vestiges of decadent chivalry.
The institution had long been outgrown but its vernacular continued to
be the speech and to express the thought "of the world and among the
vulgar" as the quaint old novelist puts it just as to-day the novel
intended for the consumption of the unenlightened must deal with peers
and millionaires and be dressed in stilted language. Marvellously he
succeeded but in a way he least intended. We have not yet after so
many years determined whether it is a work to laugh or cry over. "It is
our joyfullest modern book" says Carlyle while Landor thinks that
"readers who see nothing more than a burlesque in 'Don Quixote' have but
shallow appreciation of the work."
Shaw in like manner comes upon the scene when many of our social usages
are outworn. He sees the fact announces it and we burst into guffaws.
The continuous laughter which greets Shaw's plays arises from a real
contrast in the point of view of the dramatist and his audiences. When
Pinero or Jones describes a whimsical situation we never doubt for a
moment that the author's point of view is our own and that the abnormal
predicament of his characters appeals to him in the same light as to his
audience. With Shaw this sense of community of feeling is wholly
lacking. He describes things as he sees them and the house is in a
roar. Who is right? If we were really using our own senses and not
gazing through the glasses of convention and romance and make-believe
should we see things as Shaw does?
Must it not cause Shaw to doubt his own or the public's sanity to hear
audiences laughing boisterously over tragic situations? And yet if they
did not come to laugh they would not come at all. Mockery is the price
he must pay for a hearing. Or has he calculated to a nicety the power of
reaction? Does he seek to drive us to aspiration by the portrayal of
sordidness to disinterestedness by the picture of selfishness to
illusion by disillusionment? It is impossible to believe that he is
unconscious of the humor of his dramatic situations yet he stoically