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George Bernard Shaw: Arms & The Man/Candida/You Never Can Tell

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Having just finished reading Shaw’s “Plays Pleasant”, I must admit I find his plays pleasantly light but mostly meaningless.

‘Arms & The Man’ is concerned with poking fun at the contemporary ‘romance’ of war. Shaw does this by pitting the romantic visions of an on-the-whole rather suicidal soldier (and the dominant beliefs of the domestic womenfolk) up against the witty ‘realist’ soldier (and the pragmatic servants of the household). It’s all very witty and contrived and amusing – the plot concerned with misunderstandings, apparently scandalous liasons and neatly packaged happily-ever-afters.

Now, ‘social-political background’ is often analyzed by critics because a work has nothing overly intellectual for critics to write essays about – thus missing the entire point of the work, but I must admit that Shaw’s intentions are very clear; he certainly seems to be making some attempt at addressing tricky social issues of his day. But to that end, as often occurs when the author is interested in ‘challenging issues’ of a topical nature, the work dates badly and quickly. For if a subject is topical, it is often not timeless. And whereas any subject, generally, can be timeless, often the author-as-social-commentator, lacking subtlety in the name of his desire to ‘affect change’ or ‘expose falsities’, points not to the deficiencies in our nature but in the specific social-political milieu of – oh, a hundred years ago when the play was written. Shakespeare, for instance, avoids this because his dramas are dramas not social-commentary. They can be misread as social commentary but the poetry and dream-like metaphoric nature of his works takes us away from Elizabethan England and into the timeless human soul. There the play may work its emotional power, perhaps ‘change’, perhaps ‘release’ or perhaps ‘disturb’ something, which then may show itself outwardly and play back into the contempory culture – of perhaps any age. This is called having depth.
It is interesting that Shakespeare’s works have dated – particulary in the area of comedy. This is perhaps not surprising as much of his comedy is based on now-archaic wordplay and – whattyaknow – cultural references to Elizabethan England (cf. Love’s Labour Lost and other weaker – rather impenetrable Shakespearean plays). I’d like to suggest that most effective comedy is topical and outside the period in which it was performed (even absent the right form of delivery in performance), the references may more or less be lost, or at least, laughed at for a different reason.

For all that, Mr Shaw comes out rather poorly, I must admit, after a mere century or less. His characters are so 19th century (or so 1930s depending on the play you’re reading) in their mode of speech and way of life that to modern audiences their very accents and speech-patterns appear unintentionally funny at times, their society dim, far-off and irrelevant, and their problems insignificant and out-of-date.

There have been successful modern productions but there must be rather a lot of text-doctoring, new or mis-readings to get laughs, or an overemphasis on researching ‘the socio-political background’ so as to intellectually ‘appreciate’ rather than organically enjoy (read, ‘be truly affected by’) the drama. Despite what our scholars or critics may believe, the audience experiences a drama based on the character’s intentions, and the plot – i.e. what happens next. And what happens next in ‘Arms and the Man’ for example is not, ‘Captain Bluntschli challenges Sergius to revise his views of the romance of warfare’, but ‘Raina must extract that compromising love-letter from her father’s jacket pocket without his noticing’. What was comedy with healthy social satire becomes, a century or even just decades later, merely dated, superficial, drawing-room farce, little better than the latest Summer Movie (though probably less entertaining).


Written by tomtomrant

2 May 2009 at 10:01 pm

Posted in the arts

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