It is with delight that Constellation Theatre Company first tackles the work of master playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw is the author of over sixty plays, the recipient of an Academy Award for his work on the film Pygmalion, and the winner of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize for Literature honoring his work which is, “marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.” His is one of the most revered voices of the last century.
Born in Ireland in 1856 to a grain merchant and a professional singer, Shaw moved to London as a young adult and began writing novels before becoming a self-supported critic of drama and music. He adored Ibsen and Wagner, but generally held contempt for the sentimental artificiality of Victorian drama. At the age of 36, Shaw became determined to write plays that would create a forum for the exploration of politics and social morality. Bertolt Brecht observed that Shaw “employs an unusual weapon – that of humor.” Shaw’s great wit succeeds in making his plays highly enjoyable even when they are illuminating uncomfortable truths. In his own words, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die, any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”
The title of Arms and the Man comes from the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano” or “Of arms and the man I sing.” Shaw sets his story against the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, a fourteen-day war that resulted in the recognition of the Unification of Bulgaria, including the province of Eastern Rumelia. Shaw gives us a general critique of the idealization of nationalism, the beauty of battle and the concept of war heroes. The flying colors, beating drums and racing horses of a cavalry charge are contrasted with the cold, modern accuracy of newly developed machine guns firing at a safe distance.
A staunch Socialist, Shaw held strong ideas about the equality of all people, regardless of class and gender. He reveals the silliness of Romanticism and cultural prejudice, opening our heroine’s eyes to the genuine truth spoken by a stranger - an enemy soldier. Shaw pokes gentle fun at the great pride the upwardly mobile Petkoffs take in their meager library, and draws astute parallels between the social limitations facing servants and women.
Shaw challenges his audience to have the courage of their own convictions. Major Sergius Saranoff asks to be given a role model, “a man who will defy to the death any power on earth or in heaven that sets itself up against his own will and conscience: he alone is the brave man.” Yet the play’s boldest act of bravery is performed by the maid, who boldly declares, “If I were Empress of Russia, above everyone in the world… I would marry the man I loved, which no other queen in Europe has the courage to do… I would dare to be the equal of my inferior.”
Bringing this play to life has been a pleasure; may we all be inspired by Shaw’s passion.
“I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” – Shaw, 1907
Allison Arkell Stockman, Founding Artistic Director