The thing is that Shaw wasn’t without controversy. He was quite politically outspoken, as one can quickly pick up from his plays, and a strident critic of society at the time. He was a socialist, an atheist, and a supporter of eugenics (though his idea, unlike Hitlers, would come about through selective breeding and his belief, much like Darwin’s, was that there is an innate biological urge for a species to mate and produce offspring with the best of the species – which is why beautiful women and jocks seem to pair off in highschool – though as the 20th Century has taught us it is the geeks who become the billionaires, unless of course they are born into it, but then again I would hardly consider those specimens to be a prime example of the human race).
Of his early works prior to this one, The Widower’s House, as mentioned, was a complete flop because it was just way too political. The next two – The Philanderer and Mrs Warren’s Profession – were censored out of existence (such was the nature of Victorian society – No sex please, we’re British). Actually, I probably should also mention that Shaw was a bit (or should I say lot) of a philanderer himself, though it sounds as if his wife was pretty okay with it. If you don’t know what a philanderer is (and I have to say that is a heaps cool word, though I won’t be running around making a claim to that title myself, no matter how much I would like to) look it up. Mind you, not everybody appreciates the antics of such a person.
A Play Out of Time
Mind you, to us in the modern world the idea of cavalry prevailing against a machine gun bunker is nothing short of absurd, but back in those days it was literally a given. This was cavalry and nothing could defeat a good horseman on the back of a sturdy horse. Sure, they had machine guns, but they were no match against the glorious cavalry. However World War I completely changed that – in fact the cavalry were forced to jump off their horses and to dive into the trenches when the true force of the machine gun came to the fore. Mind you, we still have cavalry regiments these days, however they tend to be tank columns as opposed to people on horses. Just consider the glamour of the United States Cavalry as portrayed in the old Westerns.
As we shall discover as we move further into this play we will begin to see how Shaw turns the idea of the heroic soldier on it’s head. In those days a soldier with victories under his belt was considered a hero, and the higher up the ranks you were the more glorious you would become with every victory. Sure, the general would sit in his tent watch the battle from afar while the soldiers and their immediate commanders faced the dangers, but it wasn’t the willingness to face the enemy head on that brought them the glory, it was their tactical genius that was the key. However tactics is pointless in Von Clausewitz’s Fog of War. In truth many of these victories did not come about through the smart use of tactics, but rather through pure luck. Yet if we consider generals like Napoleon, who would fight with his men as opposed to sitting behind the lines, it may have been his brilliant tactics on one hand, but it was the morale that fighting with his troops generated that brought him the victories. Despite being the Emperor of France, Napoleon still led his troops into Russia (which is more than could be said of the King of England at the time).
The Birth of the Technological Age
This was the age of the industrial revolution, and the technological developments were about to change people’s lives dramatically. For instance the invention of the telephone meant that we could speak to people without being in the same room, though the telegraph had been around for a while before that. The development of radio meant that we could transmit messages without wires being needed to connect the two points. This changed the way shipping worked as they could now communicate over much larger distances, and coded messages could be sent quickly and easily to the troops at the front.
Of course there is also the machine gun, which is played up a lot in this play. However to many of the characters, like the buzzer, it is a quaint invention that isn’t actually going to change things all that much. In a way they seem to be content with the ways they have done things for ages, however they seem to be oblivious to the horrors that are just around the corner. In a way Shaw is somewhat prescient to this because he seems to paint these conservatives are being, well, rather silly. To us, in the modern world, this is actually quite amusing – as I have said charging a machine gun bunker on horseback is nothing short of stupid – but it was done and it succeeded, not due to skill, but due to luck.
The Undoing of Class
One thing we begin to see here is the change in the way the class system is structured. We have the butler, and the maid, both at the end of the play going off and doing their own thing. While technology is making the life of the upper class easier, what it is doing to the lower classes is that it is giving them the ability to move and to forge their own destiny. This had already happened in England during the 18th century, but we are beginning to see this take shape all over Europe. While Napoleon scoffed at England being a nation of shopkeepers, the French had only just thrown off the chains of absolutism. What England’s nation of shopkeepers had made it was an economic power house – the class system was changing, and it was becoming undone.
In the earlier days there was no movement – if you were born into a family of blacksmiths you would always remain a blacksmith. If you had a job as a butler, you would always have that job. There was no such thing as a career change in those days, no freedom to leave your employer and go and look for a new job. However technology meant that the lower classes suddenly had freedom of movement, and we continue to see these changes happen before our eyes. It was only twenty years ago that if you wanted to invest in the stock market you either needed a lot of money, or had to go through an intermediary, however these days, with the rise of the internet and automation, many of these professional jobs are now beginning to disappear. Sure, stockbrokers still exist, but complex programs mean that people can trade the market directly without having to place an order with a human,
The Art of Staying Alive
The key point to this play is a line that Bluntchsi says: the art of being a good soldier is not how many of the enemy you have killed, but rather not being killed yourself. In many cases this is true, though we still celebrate those who died in war, in particular World War I, every year. In the Commonwealth countries 11 November is known as Remembrance Day (I believe it is Veteran’s Day in the US), and at 11:00 pm every year everybody is supposed to stop working, to stop talking, and to remember the dead of World War I. However things are beginning to change. These days we have people challenging the legitimacy of ANZAC Day (which is also similar to Veterans Day in the US) because we are not remembering those who died in war, but rather celebrating what is little more than an imperialist massacre. Of course, it doesn’t matter how many war memorials we erect, or how many years we commemorate a minutes silence, we as a race still seem to want to pick up our guns and start killing each other.
Buntchsi is referred to throughout the play by Rania as her ‘chocolate cream soldier’. She is actually engaged to Sergius Saranoff, the commander who led the successful charge against the machine gun nest. However on the night of the battle, while Sergius was off fighting, Buntchsi climbs in through the window and hides for the night. It is not that he is a coward, even though many would see him as such, but rather he is practising the ethic of what a good soldier does – staying alive. The thing with Bluntchsi is that he is a professional soldier. However he is not a Serb, he is Swiss. The only loyalty that he has is to whoever is paying him. What is of interest is that he isn’t a part of the poorer classes – he is actually quiet wealthy – he is a soldier not because he has to, but because he wants to – in a way he seeks a life of adventure.
Bluntchsi is the inverted soldier – sure he is dashing, charming, attractive, but he is on the losing side, and Rania meets him when he is hiding in her room from the enemy. However she falls for him – he is her chocolate cream soldier – a soldier that does not measure his success based on his kill ratio, but on the fact that he himself has not been killed. One may be able to kill a lot of the enemy, but one can only die once, and once one is dead that is it. So much for the life of adventure. Bluntchsi is not seeking glory, far from it, he is seeking adventure, and to be able to seek adventure one must stay alive, even if it means running away and hiding.