Shaw up in Arms

April 21:On this day in 1894, George Bernard Shaw’s Armsand the Man opened. It was one of his earliest plays and the firstcommercial success in a sixty-five play, half-century career. On the strengthof 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 audiencewas very enthusiastic, but when Shaw went on stage at the final curtain theboos of one heckler could be heard amid the cheering. This occasioned one ofShaw’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 forsuch quips, but he apparently meant it. In a letter shortly afterwards he madewhat would become a lifelong complaint that his public ignored his satiricsocial agenda and reduced him to a “monstrously clever sparkler in thecynical line”:

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

On the other hand, Shawequally enjoyed taking to task those who took him too seriously. The title of Arms and the Man comes from the openinglines of the Aeneid, (“Of armsand the man I sing…”) but the setting is the Servo-Bulgarian war of1885. When a group of Bulgarian students took offense that Shaw had used theirmilitary history as a vehicle for attacking the absurdities of war, the authorextended this apology:

I greatly regret that myplay, Arms and the Man, has woundedthe susceptibilities of Bulgarian students in Berlin and Vienna. But I ask themto remember that it is the business of the writer of comedy to wound thesusceptibilities of his audience. …When the Bulgarian students, with my friendlyassistance, 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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