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MonkeyNotes-Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw
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Preface to "Plays Pleasant"

Shaw first wrote a full-length preface when he wrote "Man and Superman". When "Arms and the Man" was first published, it did not have a preface. Later it was published in "Plays Pleasant" along with "Candida," "You Never Can Tell" and "The Man of Destiny". Shaw's prefaces are not necessarily related to the plays. The preface to the "Plays Pleasant" deals with 'New Drama' and 'New Theater'. The reason why he wrote plays was to prove that a real movement did exist. There were people like J.T. Grein who were trying to produce plays for the "Independent Theater" which were different from the well-made plays that the people were used to. Shaw completed "Arms and the Man" to be produced at the "Independent Theater". The purpose was to follow the example of Pre-Raphaelites who were trying to capture real life as the artists of the Renaissance had done before them. Ibsen had paved the way for naturalistic drama. The aim was to present characters in real life situations and plot would automatically evolve out of the conflict, "every drama must present a conflict. The end may be reconciliation or destruction; or as in real life itself, there may be no end; but the conflict is indispensable : no conflict no drama."

His "Plays Pleasant" were written to spend his views on the problems of society. To expose the evils of society he did not present a Law versus a villain representing good against evil but he tried to create life-like people who are a mixture of good and evil. In order to start a new movement in drama, it was not possible to take old drama and write something in contrast. The playwright must be something of a genius whose instinct inspires him to write something new. In the beginning only he is aware of the novelty and much later his innovations appeal to the imaginations of the people. This is precisely what Ibsen had done, but if Ibsen were asked how he did it, he would not be able to explain it. This ability makes the playwright something more than a mere entertainer.

He talks about the revival of religion that was taking place. He was actively involved with socialism. People were talking of Christian Socialism but most of them were shortsighted and did not understand the essence of Christian Socialism. This was material for drama out of which he created Candida. It was important that the play be performed so that the ideas are conveyed to the people. Shaw therefore wrote "Candida" in such a way that production costs were minimal.


He goes on to a discussion of problems faced by managers of theaters. Managers had to produce plays that would be financially successful which meant catering to the tastes of the audience. Some managers may take the risk of producing socially meaningful plays at low profits. Theater had a social importance, "bad theaters are as mischievous as bad schools or bad churches". Giving examples of Dictators, Presidents and Prime Ministers, he states that public and private life had become theatrical. He claimed that theater was affecting the personal conduct of the people. It was, therefore, a moral obligation of playwrights and managers to present realistic situations instead of cheap pornographic fare supported by syndicates who financed production of plays and shared the profits. He expresses the need to establish a theater which would be as important as the National gallery and the British Museum were to art painting and literature. This would be possible only if the theater had the financial support like the National Gallery or the British museum had.

Another way to support promising writers would be the activity of amateur theater groups and sponsorship from rich individuals who could take the risk of backing such writers. This would be the starting of a repertory. Repertory theaters do not continue to perform the same play indefinitely but perform various plays for short durations to expose the public to a variety of theater. He even suggests a knighthood be given to managers of such theaters to encourage such theater activity.

Shaw then talks about the practical problems faced by the managers and actors to adapt to the demands of changing tastes. Shaw himself was accused of being an entertainer who lacked seriousness of purpose. Critics said that he was preoccupied with the "seamy side of life" and eccentricities. They claimed that Shaw used "a formula of treating bad as good and good as bad, important as trivial and trivial as important ........ and so forth." He explains that this misconception of the critics was due to the disagreement between the romantic morality of the plays. To prove his point he gives "Arms and the Man" as an example. He takes the case of Bluntschli who was not accepted by the critic because they found the character "fantastically improbable." The critics had to change their opinion when they actually spoke to military authorities. Shaw's argument was that the rescue operations of the Balkan States from the Turks was inspired by political and religious idealism; but such political and religious idealism could not survive the scathing attack on idealism presented in "Arms and the Man". According to Shaw, "idealism" is equivalent to romance in politics and morals and therefore, false. On the other hand, Shaw sees a lot of good in the world which would prevent chaos and anarchy to take over.

A hundred years have passed since Shaw wrote the preface. Concepts which shocked his contemporaries do not shock us any more.

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