Shaw up in Arms

April 21: On this day in 1894, George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man opened. It was one of his earliest plays and the first commercial success in a sixty-five play, half-century career. On the strength of it Shaw was able to give up being a music critic and, at the age of forty, become a full-time playwright.

 

The opening night audience was very enthusiastic, but when Shaw went on stage at the final curtain the boos of one heckler could be heard amid the cheering. This occasioned one of Shaw's most renowned one-liners: "My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?" Shaw enjoyed any opportunity for such quips, but he apparently meant it. In a letter shortly afterwards he made what would become a lifelong complaint that his public ignored his satiric social agenda and reduced him to a "monstrously clever sparkler in the cynical line":

... accordingly, in Arms and the Man, I had the curious experience of witnessing an apparently insane success, with the actors and actresses almost losing their heads with the intoxication of laugh after laugh, and of going before the curtain to tremendous applause, the only person in the theatre who knew that the whole affair was a ghastly failure.

On the other hand, Shaw equally enjoyed taking to task those who took him too seriously. The title of Arms and the Man comes from the opening lines of the Aeneid, ("Of arms and the man I sing...") but the setting is the Servo-Bulgarian war of 1885. When a group of Bulgarian students took offense that Shaw had used their military history as a vehicle for attacking the absurdities of war, the author extended this apology:

I greatly regret that my play, Arms and the Man, has wounded the susceptibilities of Bulgarian students in Berlin and Vienna. But I ask them to remember that it is the business of the writer of comedy to wound the susceptibilities of his audience. …When the Bulgarian students, with my friendly assistance, have developed a sense of humor, there will be no more trouble.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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