- Shaw's Recruiting Pamphlet
Among the surprisingly large number of plays, short and long, from Arms and the Man (1894) on, that Bernard Shaw composed at least partly about war or martial figures, O'Flaherty V.C. (1915) has generally been overlooked. 1 This is puzzling, given both the work's stageability and the fact of its first (amateur) production by officers of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front itself in February 1917. Such a play had been called for in 1915 by Sir Matthew Nathan, undersecretary for Ireland, as a means of bolstering Dublin Castle's recruiting efforts for the Great War. Shaw even subtitles his submission A Recruiting Pamphlet. But the secretary hardly got what he had hoped for.2
Shaw sets his one-act play outside "an Irish country house in a park," evidently modeled on his friend Lady Gregory's estate, Coole Park, near Galway. 3 Its incumbent, General Sir Pearce Madigan, "an elderly baronet in khaki" is—like Lady Gregory—a member of the Protestant Ascendancy, whose ownership of land substantiates for him the claim that Ireland is "his" country, unlike the real Irishman of the play's title, who has nothing to his name but the letters after it.4
It is summer 1915, over six years before Irish independence, and Dennis, or Dinny, O'Flaherty, though only a private soldier in His Majesty's forces in France, has just returned on leave from the trenches a much-sung hero. (The Victoria Cross, instituted in 1856, was and is Britain's highest award for military valor.) The curtain rises to the offstage singing of the British national anthem, "God Save the King," followed by "three cheers" for the local boy made good who has been engaged in recruiting others at home to follow his example abroad.
Moments later, however, O'Flaherty himself appears, "wearily." He "falls exhausted into the garden seat." Thus, even before any words are spoken, we see the reality behind the parade of patriotic fervor. Our hero's entry is in fact greeted by a thrush, which "utters a note of alarm and flies away" (819). So much for the allure of the Western Front. [End Page 107]
The landlord now joins his young comrade in arms, "beaming with enthusiasm": a sure Shavian sign that this is another innocent abroad, like Shaw's earlier Englishman in Ireland, Thomas Broadbent, in John Bull's Other Island (1904). One of the markers of such an Englishman is his naive faith both in patriotism as traditionally understood and in the necessarily righteous wars conducted in its name. This double faith leads him, paradoxically, to accord a higher place than his own on the social scale to one of his landless tenants who is, moreover, an Irishman and therefore, in the nature of things, further beyond the pale.5 For "though I am a general of forty years service," he demurs, "that little Cross of yours gives you a higher rank in the roll of glory than I can pretend to" (819). His unconscious pun on "Cross" is extended by his defense of "the sacred rights for which we are fighting" (821).
What binds together Sir Pearce's twin beliefs in his country's honor and a man's duty to fight for it is his inborn, though aptly Victorian, sense not only that God is in His heaven and so on but that His earthly representative, the king of England, is on his imperial throne and that all is therefore right with the world below. The final seal of this faith in the system is the fact that O'Flaherty's V.C. has been bestowed on him, as is only proper, by the king himself in a ceremony to which even the general has no direct access.
O'Flaherty's view of this order of things has been turned topsy-turvy by the royal investiture itself and the frontline circumstances leading up to it. Before joining up, while still at home on the Madigan estate, young Dinny simply accepted the chain of being, largely oblivious even to his own mother's subversive nationalism. Upon his return, although no...