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Volume-2 | Issue-9 | April-2015 Available online at www.lsrj.in
CLASS, GENDER,PERFORMANCE AND IDENTITY
IN G. B. SHAW’S ARMS AND THE MAN
Tanmoy Baghira
Assistant Professor in English, BCARE Institute of Management and Technology.
& Research Scholar, Department of English, University of Kalyani.
Short Profile
Tanmoy Baghira is working as an Assistant Professor in English in the
Department of Humanities and Basic Sciences in BCARE Institute of
Management and Technology.
ABSTRACT:
Shaw’s early critics have alleged him
of him of destroying theconcept of
patriotism and heroism. But it can
also be observed that Shaw, by
challenging the conventional notion
of idealism and patriotism has set a
new paradigm in social change.
Shaw’s realistic approach to life has
made him question the set notions
under which this patriarchal society
functions. Being a social activist and
modern thinker Shaw has voiced for
social justice and equal rights for
men and women through his works.
His play Arms and the Manredefines
romance,idealism and realism
through the lens of irony and
humour. Apart from Shaw ’s
questioning the traditional notion of
idealism and realism this play marks
a difference in addressing several
serious issues. Being a socialist Shaw
has always given his voice for social equality and equity and thus the issues like class discrimination,
gender discrimination, gender performance and socio-cultural identity of an individual has also been
addressed through Shaw’s problem plays and comedies. Therefore, in my paper I have tried to
readdress the issues of class, gender, performance and identityin Shaw’s Arms and the Man.
KEYWORDS
patriotism, idealism, social justice, equal rights, gender discrimination, performance, identity.
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CLASS, GENDER,PERFORMANCE AND IDENTITY IN G. B. SHAW’S ARMS AND THE MAN
INTRODUCTION:
Shaw’s has taken the title of his anti-romantic comedy Arms and the Man from the opening
words of Virgil’s Aeneid"Arms and the man I sing" but whereas Virgil has advocated for the glorification
of war;Shaw in this play has voiced a radically different notion of war and patriotism. The very concept of
heroism in his play Arms and the Man has been portrayed from a realist viewpoint rathermerely looking
into it from idealistic perspective. Being a social activist and a member of Fabian Society we can trace in
his plays the voice of social justice and equal rights for men and women. As a socialist he abhorred
discrimination based on gender and social class and like all Fabian members he believed in slow but
gradual change in society through education and enlightenment. Throughout the playArms and the Man
Shaw has questioned the conventional Victorian concept of class, gender and identity so that they can
be addressed to the masses in a way thatit could produce a lasting effect on their mindset and a gradual
social change can be achieved.
The major motif of the play Arms and the Man revolves round the idealization of love and war
and its actualities in our social life. Shaw has juxtaposed the character of Raina and Louka from two
fundamental grounds; firstly, their different social class and secondly, their concept of love. Raina,
educated in so called Victorian morale confirms to a higher concept of love; similar to the Petrarchan
concept of love. Shaw further gives us the ground to find out the roots of her belief when
RainatellsBluntschliabout those opera performances which she visits every year in Bucharest.
RAINA (affectedly): I tell you these things to show you that you are not in the house of ignorant
country folk who would kill you the moment they saw your Servian uniform, but among civilized people.
We go to Bucharest every year for the opera season; and I have spent a whole month in Vienna.
(Arms and the Man Act I, p.18)
Through the character of Raina, Shaw has tried to convey the cultural and social values of a
typical Victorian woman. Throughout the long conversation between Raina and Bluntschli at her
bedchamber,Raina has tried to show herself as lady from the Bulgarian upper class society. Her
reference to the privatelibrary, ‘Opera of Ernani’, staircaseindicates that she wants to distinguish herself
as a member of upper class society.But a mark of irony is certainly noticeable when Shaw, while giving
the stage direction in the Act- I of this play clearly sets the choice of the furnitureinRaina’s bedroom as
“half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese” and while introducing Raina’s mother, Catherine he describes
her as “a very splendid specimen of the wife of a mountain farmer, but is determined to be a Viennese
lady”.So, while representing the class values Shaw’s balancing between irony and humour is
noteworthy.
After reading the play we can certainly conceive that apart from Bluntschli and Louka all the
other characters are the caricatures. Among other characters in this play Bluntschli and Louka can be
identified as realists; but where Louka is trying to get herself into the upper class society by marrying
Sergius, in Bluntschli Shaw has imbibed realisticas well as romantic temperament and he being Shaw’s
mouthpiece is well aware of this. Though it seems intriguing but he is a stern realist when he says ‘I've no
ammunition. What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead; and I finished the last
cake of that yesterday.’(p.12) To him the young and enthusiastic soldier in the battle carries the
cartridges and ammunition while the older and experienced does otherwise.Bluntschli is also a
pragmatist when we see him executing difficult paperwork for major Petkoff; but despite his
pragmatism, Bluntschli has a romantic side, he himself says so while having a conversation with Sergius,
Major Petkoff and Raina in Act III of this play:
BLUNTSCHLI: (promptly). An incurably romantic disposition. I ran away from home twice when I was a
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CLASS, GENDER,PERFORMANCE AND IDENTITY IN G. B. SHAW’S ARMS AND THE MAN
boy. I went into the army instead of into my father's business. I climbed the balcony of this house when a
man of sense would have dived into the nearest cellar. I came sneaking back here to have another look at
the young lady when any other man of my age would have sent the coat back— (Arms and the Man Act
p.72)
Shaw, while creating the character of Bluntschli was well aware of the fact that staunch
pragmatism can be as unrealistic as overblown idealism and a balance has to be sought in his character.
The elements of realism and class consciousness can also be traced in the characters of this play.
The realistic elements in a play portray the problems of day-to-day life. Economic security plays a very
important role in everyone’s life;it this leads us to practicality and realistic thinking.Thus, realism in
drama brings out the social problems faced by the characters in their struggle.Realism in theatre was
first introduced in the work of T. W. Robertson in 1860s, but this realism was not a serious
representation of the realistic situations which can change the mindset of the theatregoers. Sir A. W.
Pinero and H. A. Joneshave tried to follow his trail but neither of them was able to break the traditional
notion of drama until the influence of HenrikIbsen caused Pinero to write serious ‘problem’ plays. But as
realistic playwrights both Pinero and Jones seriously lacked the psychological insight which
distinguishes their plays from their Norwegian master. Whereas Jones’ conservative mindset barred
him from developing the characters in his plays and most of his dramatic characters are one-sided; Ibsen
with his liberalist mindset attacked social norms and hypocrisies that were there when he was writing
his plays. Ibsen’s use of symbolism and realism in his plays marked his difference from his
contemporaries. Thus, his plays like The Doll’s House, The Wild Duck focuses on realistic situations and
portrays characters from a psychological insight. Unlike Jones, Ibsen and Shaw used drama as an
instrument to deal with social problems of class, gender discrimination, and capitalist economy. Being
socialist both Ibsen and Shaw has voiced their protest through their problem plays. Shaw, even in his
comedies has critiqued the notion class discrimination and capitalism.
Though Shaw is considered to bethe second mostimportantBritish playwrights (after
Shakespeare) of modern times, hewas not generally appreciatedor understood in his early years. His
success has resulted after the changes in social attitude and maturing of theatre. Ibsen’s influence in
drama and theatre changed the conservative mindset of the society by educating them about the roleof
drama that could portray real people with their socio-economic problems. Whereas Shaw’s early critics
misinterpreted hischaracters, finding them inhuman and concludingShaw’s heartless approach to
life;some accused him of destroyingtheconventional concept of patriotism and heroism. The later critic
and biographer of Shaw, Gilbert K. ChestertonfoundShaw’s dialogue to be amusing and intriguing. As
expressed in his essay The Dramatist according to ChestertonShaw “resolved to build a play not on
pathos, but on bathos”. (Chesterton, 2007) Shaw has rejected the melodramatic convention of theatre
appealing to pity; instead, he exaggerated the pathos making abrupt changes from a lofty to an ordinary
style.
Gender is another important issue that has been addressed by the dramatist throughout this
play. The traditional gender roles of the characters are being questioned in Arms and the Man. In Shaw’s
time the Victorian society had hardly ever given any freedom of choice to the women but in this play we
see characters like Raina and Louka enjoying significant freedom to choose their future. At first Shaw has
portrayed Raina as a stereotypical romantic girl conforming to the conventions of bourgeois society. His
portrayal of Raina’sromantic temperament can be seen in the very first stage direction given in Act I of
this play:
On the balcony, a young lady, intensely conscious of the romantic beauty of the night, and of the
fact that her own youth and beauty is a part of it, is on the balcony, gazing at the snowy Balkans. She is
covered by a long mantle of furs, worth, on a moderate estimate, about three times the furniture of her
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CLASS, GENDER,PERFORMANCE AND IDENTITY IN G. B. SHAW’S ARMS AND THE MAN
room.
(Arms and the Man, p.2)
Raina’s Romantic disposition can also be traced through her conversation with her mother: ‘The
stars are so beautiful! What is the matter?’ but the character of Raina has not been left leaving her a flat
character; Shaw has developed her subsequently. Louka who has been set as a clear foil to Raina, has
realistic temperament in her; the traits of Shaw’s New Woman can also be traced in her character. She is
practical, realistic, and opportunist who hardly misses any opportunity to uplift her social stature. Like
Shaw’s other New Woman characters she never let any male characters dominate her and eventually
we seeSergiusalso fails to dominate her personality. Her very defiant attitude towards Sergius can be
seen through Louka’s conversation with Sergius:
SERGIUS (coming clear of the table and drawing her with him): I am surprised at myself, Louka. What
would Sergius, the hero of Slivnitza, say if he saw me now? What would Sergius, the apostle of the higher
love, say if he saw me now? What would the half dozen Sergiuses who keep popping in and out of this
handsome figure of mine say if they caught us here? (Letting go her hand and slipping his arm
dexterously round her waist.) Do you consider my figure handsome, Louka?
LOUKA: Let me go, sir. I shall be disgraced. (She struggles: he holds her inexorably.) Oh, will you let go?
SERGIUS (looking straight into her eyes): No.
LOUKA: Then stand back where we can't be seen. Have you no common sense?
SERGIUS: Ah, that's reasonable. (He takes her into the stableyard gateway, where they are hidden from
the house.)
LOUKA (complaining): I may have been seen from the windows: Miss Raina is sure to be spying about
after you.
SERGIUS (stung—letting her go): Take care, Louka. I may be worthless enough to betray the higher love;
but do not you insult it.
LOUKA (demurely): Not for the world, sir, I'm sure. May I go on with my work please, now?
SERGIUS (again putting his arm round her): You are a provoking little witch, Louka. If you were in love
with me, would you spy out of windows on me?
LOUKA: Well, you see, sir, since you say you are half a dozen different gentlemen all at once, I should
have a great deal to look after.
SERGIUS (charmed): Witty as well as pretty. (He tries to kiss her.)
LOUKA (avoiding him): No, I don't want your kisses. Gentlefolk are all alike—you making love to me
behind Miss Raina's back, and she doing the same behind yours.
(Arms and the Man, Act- II p.35)
Thus we can see that Shaw characterizesLoukaas an intellectual who carefully utilizes every
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CLASS, GENDER,PERFORMANCE AND IDENTITY IN G. B. SHAW’S ARMS AND THE MAN
possible opportunity for her social upliftment. Her very common sense and practicality differs her from
other female counterparts in this play. Her very use of language to manipulate Sergius’ concept of
higher love proves her intellectual superiority. In contrast with Louka and Bluntschli, Sergius has been
characterized more like a foolish romantic. In the very first act Bluntschli has described his cavalry
charge as ‘an operatic tenor—a regular handsome fellow, with flashing eyes and lovely moustache,
shouting a war-cry and charging like Don Quixote at the windmills’. Sergius is portrayed handsome
rather from his bodily appearances ‘tall, romantically handsome man, with the physical hardihood, the
high spirit, and the susceptible imagination of an untamed mountaineer chieftain’.Here Shaw has tried
to challenge the conventional notion of mind and body binary associated with male and female
sexuality. Therefore Shaw’s representation of Louka’s intellectuality in contrast with Sergius’ idealistic
romantic foolishness serves the purpose of subverting the conventional gender roles assigned by the
society. Thus we can see in this play Shaw’s notion of gender performance challenges the traditional
notion of gender and identity construction. In this play Shaw has tried to neutralize the notion of
idealism with realism in respect of love and war and he, at the same time has done the same with the
concept of gender and identity. In Shaw’s mouthpiece,Bluntschli we found flexibility in every respect.
He is not only practical but romantic; he has not been presented as a stereotyped male figure and thus
his concept of patriotism and idealism towards war also brings an end to the notion of heroism
associated with it. It can be observed that the notion of heroism and patriotism has always been used by
the patriarchy in a way which gives birth to the traditional notion of gender role. And Shaw by
challenging both the notions has brought equity in gender relations.
In Shaw’s plays the concept of class and identity has never been presented separately; they are
quite complimentary to each other. In Arms and the Man class and identity together brings forth the
existence of the characters. In this play Raina, Major Petkoff, and Mrs. Petkoff belongs to the upper class
whereas Louka and Nikola belongs to the lower class. But the existence of the character lies in their
choice of whether they want to remain in the same social class or has the ambition to see them in upper
class and this differentiates Louka from Nikola. So social upliftment in the play Arms and the
Manbecomes another issue which has been dealt quite effectively. Shaw being a socialist has tried to
bring a resolution by balancing the social classes; here Louka by marrying Sergius enters into upper class
while Raina by marrying Bluntschli affirms to his class. But Shaw as a believer of social equality has never
considered any profession being superior or inferior to other; as A.C. Ward has stated in the introduction
to Arms and the Man:
As an upholder of social equality Shaw was opposed to any idea that servants are inferior class.
He held that all necessary work, however menial, is valuable as a service to the community.He also
believed that it was mean and foolish to act as though the possession of wealth, or any other material
advantage, is a sign of personal superiority.
(Ward p.88-89)
As a social thinker Shaw was a believer in the social upliftment of all,therefore, he discarded the
notion of superior and inferior classes. To him every position in society should be respectable. Through
Shaw’s plays he has addressed several radical social issues that were prevalent in the Victorian era. For
example Shaw’s problem play Mrs. Warren’s Profession apparently deals with the problems of
prostitution in Victorian England but a closer look into this play would reveal its discourse with
feminism, capitalism, patriarchal control over female body,gender discrimination etc. Shaw used his
plays as a weapon against the all the socio-political injustice present in his time and thus equality of
social class and sexes becomes the recurrent motif in his plays. AsArms and the Man is a comedy and
does not belong to the category of ‘problem plays’, still the social problems likeclass division, gender
discrimination has been addressed cleverly through the lens of irony and humour. This insinuation in his
‘plays pleasant’ rather than addressing the social problems directly through his ‘problem
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CLASS, GENDER,PERFORMANCE AND IDENTITY IN G. B. SHAW’S ARMS AND THE MAN
plays’produced a lasting effect on the conservative mindset of the theatregoers and Shaw as a Fabian
achieved slow and gradual positive changes in society.
BIBLIOGRAPHY:
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Norton, 1986, Print.
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