Arms and the Man Theme

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George Bernard Shaw wrote Arms and the Man in 1893 during the Victorian era when most plays were lighter dramas or comedies in the vein of The Importance of Being Earnest, which was a play about manners and other Victorian conventions. Still, in many ways, Arms and the Man, despite some of its themes, is a perfect example of Victorian literature. The play opened to the British public in 1894 to mixed reviews and was one of the plays included in the Plays Pleasant Volume which included a few of Shaw’s other, less popular works including “You Never Can Tell.” What is most interesting about Arms and the Man is that, although it is a comedy, it deals with several political and social themes covertly. Ideas such as the idealism behind war and the romanticism of love are attacked through satire and even more importantly, issues of class are brought to the forefront. Shaw was an avid socialist and had a number of beliefs about class that are appropriate to the historical situation in Europe.  At the time the play was performed, Britain was experiencing a number of significant social and political changes as issues of class were coming to the forefront of national debates. The idea of class struggle is at the heart of “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw but instead of making the reader or viewer keenly aware of them, he slips in a number of thought-provoking lines and makes one think about these issues after the laughter has faded. Unlike other plays of the time,Arms and the Man did not seek to merely entertain an audience with polite humor. Instead, it sought to expose some of the most pressing issues of the day in a palatable format—the comedy. This is a trademark feature of Shaw’s plays and he once wrote, “What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods” (Peters 109). In other words, George Bernard Shaw thought that there was no sense in writing something for mere entertainment, what he wrote had to serve a higher purpose and encourage people to think rather to sit and be content to be entertained. At the time George Bernard Shaw wrote the Arms and the Man there were a number of class struggles taking place in Britain as a new wave of socialist ideology was taking hold. Up until this point, workers in Britain were often paid low wages and offered little security as their country became even further industrialized. In response there were several workers movements that rose up across the nation and this drew the attention of artists and writers such as Shaw. Issues of class struggle were coming to the forefront of both political and debates in Europe and Shaw began working with the socialist cause. His feelings that the British workers were not advocating their interests enough and that the political structure in England was making it impossible for them to have any success led him to speak out publicly, often at the risk of some of his personal friendships. In addition to writing plays, Shaw became a full-time advocate of socialism and joined the Fabian Society where he wrote a number of socialist documents. He also traveled to Russia, met with Stalin, and came home to declare how wonderfully he believed socialism was going in that country. In “Arms and the Man” George Bernard Shaw chose to set his place in the midst of a foreign war, in part so that he could offer some commentary about war. The lead female in the play, much like English audiences of the time, is sucked into the idea of the war hero and finds it difficult to think that war is anything except not glamorous. Notions of love and war as well as class are turned upside down and the reader is forced to confront them just as British playgoers of the time would eventually have to face these issues when the First World War finally came around over a decade later. At this time though, war was still a vague enough notion that it could be romanticized and this is part of...
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