On Shaw's Arms and the Man
The ancient Roman poet Virgil wrote his epic poem, The Aeneid, as a
tribute to the Roman Empire. He took a defeated character from the
ancient Greek epic of war, Homer's Iliad, and made him the center of
that empire building. That character, Aeneas, has represented to
centuries of Western Civilization's readers the heroic ideal of
military action: Aeneas is brave, loyal and determined; he looks death
in the face and scoffs. He has no false notions about manliness. Like
other epic heroes, Aeneas cries at the death of his closest friend. His
tears do not unman him; they are proof of the depth of his loyalty and
love. His deeds are the proof of his heroism.
Virgil's epic poem begins with the words Arma virumque cano, which,
translated, mean "arms and the man I sing." In 1894, when George
Bernard Shaw's play was first produced, most men and women attending
the play had been schooled as children in classical mythology and in
Greek and Latin literature or at least in its rudiments. The Latin
language was part of the curriculum. Even the worst students would have
encountered Virgil's opening words, perhaps in crib sheets in
translation. It is fair to say that "arms and the man" was a phrase as
familiar to most people then as, say, "have fun storming the castle" is
to most Americans today.
Thus, when the opening night crowd entered the theatre, only those
already in the know could have anticipated Shaw's full frontal assault
on a heroic ideal that was older than two millennia. But on opening
night there were many in the know. Michael Holroyd, Shaw's most
thorough and successful biographer, points out that Shaw fattened the
opening night crowd with many, many friends—literary types to be sure.
They gave him such a cheer after the final curtain that Shaw took the
stage to give a speech. One viewer, however, was highly annoyed at the
play, so he loudly booed the playwright. Shaw gave a small speech,
directed to the unhappy viewer. "My dear fellow, I quite agree with
you," Shaw is supposed to have said, "but what are we against so many?"
A less school-related context for the play resides in its arrival less
than two years after a British celebration of the heroic ideal.
Kipling, Britain's most pro-colonial poet, scolded England for not
taking care of its war veterans by updating the very popular "Charge of
the Light Brigade," which Tennyson had written some forty years
earlier. Kipling's poem, "The Last of the Light Brigade," reminds
England that every child in school is made to memorize "The Charge of
the Light Brigade” even while England now ignores the men who survived
that memorialized battle. Those men are wracked by poverty and neglect.
The original Light Brigade poem was written in 1854 immediately after
England's poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson, read an account in the
newspapers. Tennyson made something noble and tragic, heroic and
patriotic, out of what seems to be a rather needless and foolish attack.
Cannon to right of
Back from the mouth of Hell,
Cannon to left of
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred
When can their glory fade?
Storm'd at with shot and
shell O the wild charge they made!
While horse and hero
All the world wondered.
They that had fought so
well Honor the charge they
Came thro' the jaws of Death, Honor the Light Brigade,
Back from the mouth of Hell, Noble six hundred.
All that was left of
Left of six hundred.
Shaw parodies these noble sentiments with a presentation of realities
that are at odds with such heroism. Shaw gives us a wizened military
veteran who is more interested in grub than in bullets. This veteran is
so war-scarred that he cries merely from being scolded. More 'noble'
military men in the play are incompetent or merely silly enough to be
fooled by a girl. One of them, now deemed a great hero, led a misguided
attack that surely should have rendered him and the soldiers under his
command to the same fate as that of the Light Brigade, but for the
enemy's own incompetence. Bumblers all!
It was on the second night of performance that the controversy began.
How could any self-respecting citizen present such an untrue and
unflattering portrait of military men? In response, Shaw showed that
every military event and character in the play was based on something
or someone real.
After Shaw and after the next generation's great anti-war poets, poems
like Tennyson's and Kipling's begin to seem more like propaganda pieces
than attempts to understand the horrors, the ravages, the downright
stupidity of most wars.
University of Wisconsin-Parkside