Thursday, 25 July 2013

19th Century Language portrayed in Bernard Shaw’s ‘Plays Pleasant’ – “Arms and the Man”

“I have frequently been accused of handling people rather recklessly… not mistake my journalistic utterances for final estimates of their worth as dramatic artists. My remarks are not intended to be a series of judgments aiming at impartiality, but a siege laid…by an author who had to cut his way into it at the point of a pen.” – Bernard Shaw.

    Born in Dublin, Ireland on July 26th, 1856, Bernard Shaw was one of the greatest playwrights of age prominent for his thought-provoking comedies produced for the entertainment and amusement of audiences.  In London, he established himself as the dominant music and theatre critic and became the leading member of the Fabian Society. He started his literary career by writing novels and plays that demonstrated his criticism of the English stage.

     One of his most widely enjoyed plays is “Arms and the Man” – a satire on the intimate perspective of war, military and heroism. It is the first of the ‘Plays Pleasant’ and its title was derived from John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s “Aeneid” – ‘Arma virumque cano’. Written in 1894 with a setting in 1885 during the Serbo-Bulgarian War, the play comprises a story of a Bulgarian woman, Raina, who comes across Bluntschli – a Swiss soldier of the Serbian army – when he tries to hide from enemies in her room. As the play progresses, Raina’s intimacy for her fiancé, Sergius, shifts to the Serbian soldier.

          Shaw was always asserting something. Through this play, he reveals himself as a master of illustrations, controlling metaphors and similes through comedy, sharp wit and straight-forwardness.  He was resourceful in ordering facts and arguments which made him an excellent pamphleteer. James L. Roberts commented that Shaw’s “style illustrates his great self-confidence, partly through controlled amazement and shock. This type causes the reader’s mind to be dazed, and it then takes in assertions without realizing that it is doing so.” 

     Shaw’s writing was followed by his personal experiences as a platform speaker which effectively shaped him as a great playwright. He did not entirely depend on the subject matter to yield style. His lengthy sentences with many statements clearly show that many ideas were coming to his mind simultaneously, which gives off an effect of simplicity and quick speed. His use of adjectives is limited and he is resourceful with nouns and consonants. James L. Roberts further added on Shaw’s style, “balance, rhythm, economy and exquisite timing are so calculated that, while one supposes his senses to be alert, they are, in fact, dulled….when the critical faculties are dazed, Shaw’s meaning enters the mind.”

     He uses ridicule as a weapon to grasp the attention and interest of audiences. He uses exaggeration as well as well to startle the audiences and keep them attentive. On this, Shaw said, “unless you exaggerate an ignored half-truth to the point at which it poses as a truth startling enough to shock people out of their complacency, they will continue to ignore it.” There is sometimes no truth in his statements. They are rather, as James L. Robert exclaimed, “exaggerated half-truths, over-emphatic assertions of one side of a complex truth….he attacked the equally one-sided truths of Victorian religious orthodoxy and moral prudery.” The very description reveals Shaw’s keen observation, speed, terseness of expression and skill in creating an effectively picturesque background for the action of the play.

     A custom among Victorian audiences was to hear their voices of reason and sentiments, which were conveyed by stage characters themselves which is what made the stage heroes highly fascinating and comical. The play, “Arms and the Man” is comical in a serious way to appeal audiences. Witticism is prominent is Shaw’s ideas rather than external situations. He spoke of his father having a “humorous sense of anti-climax or a penchant for pricking conventions with laughter.” His apparently inherited style of comedy depends on unanticipated remarks, exchanged ideas, paradox and candour of characters.

     Through his plays, Shaw deals with universal questions and problems which the ordinary man can emphasize with. He addresses timeless, real problems or question that might arise in the ordinary, daily lives of the people. “Arms and the Man” focuses on the romance of love and war. Had the enemy in the play been provided with the wrong ammunition, Sergius – the Bulgarian hero – would have been unsuccessful. Raina finds an appropriate mate only when she becomes natural and forges her romantic attitude of mind. Shaw aimed to present his ideas to the general public, who were unlikely to read his philosophical works, in a way to shake them into remembering his ideas.

     The play is like a pre-Raphaelite drama and a form of art in its purely naturalistic terms – where sincerity and truth replace conventionalism. The real essence of a pre-Raphaelite drama must consist of a conflict with the old drama or commencement of a new drama. This conflict can only be shown when the new drama is fully developed and by the time it becomes old, a newer version starts developing. The artist can foresee what is expected, enabling it to penetrate into the common mind. This vision elevates the drama and dramatist to a level above the entertainment material.

     The reason this play has been so successful is that it contains a theme. The characters are three-dimensional – the audience is made aware of their social, physical and psychological nature. Characters grow and develop throughout the play. Overall, they are people whose actions, deterministic of their characteristics, produce conflicts. This is how their plots and circumstances then develop. The casts are no larger than they are needed to be and the settings are not too complex. The beauty of Shaw’s plays lies in being appreciated by the senses and intellects of the audience or readers. Everything is made simple and clear through definite descriptions. The play has received criticism for having very little action. In actuality, the characters progress only when there is a reason for doing so in order to advance the plot.

     Shaw gives the audience or readers insights into the outer appearances, social backgrounds and the cognitive workings of his characters. The characters are in a balance – in the case of “Arms and the Man” – the romantic against the realist. They develop – for instance, Raina from an idealist and poser to a woman who gets honest with herself and others.  

     Shaw’s plays are largely inspirations and dramatic voices of his desires to alter the complacent attitudes of audiences, actors and playwrights of that period towards life. According to Rex Harrison, “Shaw had a piercing mind and eye for truth as he saw it”. Shaw himself said, “ The English do not know what to think until they are coached laboriously for years in the proper opinion….I have been dinning into the public head that I am an extraordinary, witty and brilliant man.”

     He wrote fifty-seven plays – most of them revolutionary in terms of themes and all enlightening, supporting his belief that “great art can never be anything else”. In Europe and America, his brilliantly dramatic works and wit made him notoriously famous, the most admired and equally the most scorned.

     His brilliant works comprise perils of women’s independence, marriages and everything else that he felt passionately about. He is considered to be the most significant English playwright since Shakespeare. His works are plays of ideas. Through plays, his purpose was not merely to entertain: laughter was a means to comprehend and accept an idea. He claimed himself to be an enemy of the established order. He touched upon aspects of the English character – marriage, family, romantic love and poor or middle class that were a consistent part of his comedy. It is, as he said, “It annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable.” His audiences often did not tolerate his extraordinary gift for arousing laughter through multi-faceted dramatic arts. Laughter is his most effective tool that makes him a master dramatist.

     The play is an excellent example of Shaw’s genius and his skills to produce a brilliant play. It shows the extent to which he can go to, to mock the Victorian society – the troublesome fears and evils that were prevalent during his period as a dramatist. “His pleasant drama”, as W. J. Mc Cormack wrote in December 2002, “had been an art of provocation.” 

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