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  • Shaw:The Bellicose Pacifist
  • Lagretta Tallent Lenker (bio)

The use of art as propaganda, even for patriotic purposes, has perplexed authors and artists over the centuries, dating from the time of Homer's The Iliad, Euripides' The Trojan Women, and Aristophanes' Lysistrata to Shakespeare's Henry V and far beyond. Each of these authors weaves an ambivalence toward war into his writing, depicting the terrible cost of warfare in human capital and revealing society's love/hate relationship with war. Bernard Shaw was no different from these literary giants, as the articles written for this volume will show.

Yet war offers a particularly compelling topic for writers and storytellers, for as Thomas Hardy avers, "War makes rattling good history; but Peace is poor reading."1 Authors may or may not have intended to persuade audiences about a particular point of view or historical period. An actor/manager, producer, director, or even government official involved in a current iteration of a famous work, may use an author's words for his or her own purposes. Often these slanted messages are conveyed subtly, with only a hint of persuasion toward a particular point of view. At other times, those wishing to sway public opinion are more forthcoming, openly stating their desire to influence and enlisting others in their cause. In 1914, for example, C. F. G. Masterman, England's propaganda chief, did the latter when soliciting the help of fifty-three renowned English writers to support Britain's involvement in World War I. Shaw was not among this group of notables, although he had much to say on the subject of war in both his dramatic and prose writings. At the same time that these fifty-three presumed patriots were lending their reputations in support of the war effort, Shaw was calling for a rational approach to the growing conflict, penning his pamphlet "Common Sense About the War." Because it revealed the misguided thinking on both sides of the bellicose arguments, Shaw's treatise was widely mistaken for a pro-German appeal; as a result, Britain's leading dramatist was summarily dropped from several prominent literary societies, including the Society of Authors. Even while calling [End Page 1] for a peaceful settlement, Shaw quietly contributed £20,000 to the war effort, reasoning that war is wrong but that once it is begun, a nation must supply for those charged with fighting it: "As the dead and wounded began arriving home in England, popular sentiment began to embrace the philosophy espoused in 'Common Sense.' Realizing this swing in public opinion, Shaw explained that his visionary thinking was both a blessing and a curse, 'Shaw [speaking of himself] is often ten minutes ahead of the truth, which is almost as fatal as being behind time.'"2 Shaw's public call for reason and peace even at great personal cost to his reputation, while privately contributing to the war cause, provides a key to understanding the conundrum of Shaw and war. Perhaps more than any other writer of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Shaw, in many of his controversial dramas and essays, probes the age-old ambivalence of humanity toward war. Although opposed to war, the bellicose pacifist could comprehend and brilliantly characterize society's love affair with violence and combat, even while satirizing this often fatal liaison. Shaw's multivalent ideas on war inform many of his major plays and nondramatic writings and reveal both his commitment to "make war on war" and his abiding interest in the subject. In What Shaw Really Wrote About the War, J. L. Wisenthal and Daniel O'Leary tell us that one-third of Shaw's plays prominently feature war while many more of his dramas touch on armed conflict. They aver that Shaw wrote to help the public view war unsentimentally—and to help his audience understand that war, after all, is not melodrama.3

Shaw's thinking about war evolved over his long and productive lifetime. This evolution is especially apparent in two plays treated in this volume, Arms and the Man (1894) and Too True to Be Good (1931). The positive, pragmatic outlook of the hero of Arms gives way to the Burglar's ambivalence...


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