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  • The Chocolate Cream Soldier and the "Ghastly Failure" of Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man
  • David Satran (bio)

Some eight months after the April 1894 opening of Arms and the Man, Bernard Shaw continued to brood about its reception. Although the play was chiefly responsible for launching his fledgling career as a playwright, he was still deeply bothered that its message was "completely misunderstood" by the audience.1 Shaw did not dispute that Arms and the Man was far and away his most successful play to date. It simultaneously marked his directorial debut and, even more important, his first appearance in London's West End at the Avenue Theatre. A few years later he would acknowledge that the London production "passed for a success; that is, the applause on the first night being as promising as could be wished; and it ran [for some fifty performances] from 21st April to the 7th of July."2 Nonetheless, on a "beastly wet day" in December 1894, he was determined to look past the play's accomplishments that year and their impact on his life and to deem it a failure.3 Writing to fellow playwright, Henry Arthur Jones, Shaw recalled his impressions of the audience's response to the play's London opening: "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."4

William Butler Yeats, whose The Land of Heart's Desire served as a curtainraiser during the production run, remembered the evening rather differently. In his Autobiographies, he recalled the memorable curtain call that Shaw made after the play's premier performance. When greeted by a heckler's boos—generally acknowledged to belong to Reginald Golding Bright—Shaw responded with his now famous remark: "I assure the gentleman [End Page 11] in the gallery that he and I are of exactly the same opinion, but what can we do against a whole house who are of the contrary opinion?"5 Yeats wrote of the sensation that ensued: "From that moment Bernard Shaw became the most formidable man in modern letters, and even the most drunken medical student knew it."6

By his own account, the proceeds from Arms and the Man allowed Shaw a larger measure of autonomy than he had enjoyed previously and reinvigorated his otherwise moribund playwriting career. To make sense of why Shaw should then harbor such ill feeling for a play that was his greatest dramatic achievement to date and at the same time pointed toward the sustainability (if not profitability) of a career in the theater, we must do as he did and look beyond the impact that the play had on his dramatic career to consider how well it succeeded in achieving what it set out to do. The best description of Shaw's purpose for the play may have come from Shaw's friend and critic William Archer. In his review of the play's opening, Archer observed of Shaw, "Here he has set himself to knock the stuffing, so to speak, out of war; to contrast a romantic girl's ideals of battle and its heroic raptures, with the sordid reality as it appears to a professional soldier."7 Although Shaw intended the play to depict the harsh reality of war and soldiering through the experiences of the Swiss captain, Bluntschli, he immediately realized that the play and its hero had been misread as farce. Audience members mistook those characters intended to compel them to rethink their devotion to false ideals of love and war for those they were invited to ridicule for falling short of idealizations. Or put simply, they scoffed and laughed at those whom they were to admire and follow.

That the play failed in its critique of the romanticizing of love and war is certain; just why it failed is less certain and the business of this essay to consider. Shaw naturally had his explanation—and a remedy besides. In his many correspondences to...


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