- The Art of War:Music in Shaw's Plays
The focus here is not on Shaw's views about war—which are well treated by others—but on the role of music, which is particularly emphasized in those of Shaw's plays that deal with war.1 Indeed, in some it is so central that they could be classified as musical drama. Where it is used in standard theatrical performances, musical references in the dialogue, songs sung by the characters, or musical pieces played by them—and for spoken drama, Shaw's war plays contain a surprising number of such musical injections—music traditionally fills a number of functions: it can be used to define personality or as commentary on a character, as plot development, and to provide emotional context or even as a form of dramatic structure. And Shaw uses music in all these ways. However, in addition, to shaping audience response, the music in Shaw's war plays becomes an ordering principle that offsets the carnage and chaos of modern warfare.
Shaw only deals with war obliquely in his drama, yet the theme is anything but peripheral. In Saint Joan, for instance, war is a continual backdrop throughout the action, even though the nearest Shaw gets to depicting any actual fighting is when Joan and her followers run offstage to save the town of Orleans, yelling battle cries of "God and Saint Dennis!" and "The Maid! God and the Maid!"2 Yet this victory is ultimately what gets Joan accused of witchcraft, and the war is what motivates her burning. In the same way, Major Barbara deals with armament manufacture and the politics of arms sales, but its main focus is on class warfare rather than conventional militarism; and while Heartbreak House, like Chekhov, presents a critique of social indolence and aimlessness, it is also this malaise that leads to war, and Undershaft's high explosives mark the opening of hostilities in the play. Similarly in Arms and the Man, the war is over before the play begins, leaving the characters to deal with the aftermath: on a practical level in demobilizing armies but more centrally in the way war [End Page 137] destabilizes hierarchies and habits of mind. While Shaw's ultimate target is always the present, there is a difference between the way fighting is presented in the historical plays—such as Caesar and Cleopatra (where the only death even mentioned is Cleopatra's personal revenge) or even Saint Joan (where there are no body counts after any of the battles)—and the plays discussed here, which deal with modern warfare, where the weapons are (potentially in Major Barbara and actually in Heartbreak House) devastatingly destructive. And even though war may only be glimpsed from the corner of the eye, never the central theme, still—if one counts Too True to Be Good, with its colonial skirmish (again offstage) and depiction of Lawrence of Arabia in his reincarnation as a motorcycle-riding private, together with the four Playlets of the War and the pacifist Geneva then—almost a fifth of Shaw's total dramatic output revolves in some way around war.
Arms and the Man occupies a middle place in the history of warfare, where the weapons of mass killing are still liable to human incompetence, which allows the old-fashioned spears and swords to conquer for a final time. It is also the play where the musical themes are more through-composed (to borrow a musical term) than in Shaw's other plays, apart perhaps from Heartbreak House. And it presents a very good example of the way in which Shaw layers his drama: not only in the obliqueness of his approach to the theme of war and its application to the England of his time but also in the subtextual significance of music. In addition, one might note that Arms and the Man is the earliest of his plays to deal specifically with war.
As a title, Arms and the Man deserves more careful scrutiny than is frequently accorded to it. As is well known, Shaw takes his title from the opening line of The Aeneid...