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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Prism of war : Shaw's treatment of war in Arms and the man and Heartbreak house Matsuba, Stephen N.


Many critics examine Shaw's plays in terms of the subjects they deal with, but they often ignore what aspects of these subjects Shaw draws on or how he uses them. One subject that appears in many of his works is war. This thesis examines Shaw's treatment of war in Arms and the Man and Heartbreak House, and attempts to discover a common element between them that reveals something not only about the plays themselves, but also about Shaw's drama in general. The chapter on Arms and the Man notes how Shaw makes war a highly visible element of the play, but avoids dealing with issues directly related to war. Shaw does not draw on war itself, but on its image. The sources for Catherine's and Bluntschli's impressions of both war and Sergius—Lady Butler's paintings, the military melodrama and extravaganza, Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," and accounts of the Battle of Balaklava—indicate that the play's focus is not on war, but on how one perceives the world. This idea is further reinforced by Shaw's own views about idealism, romanticism, and realism. Unlike Arms and the Man, war is an integral part of Heartbreak House. Shaw uses elements from the British homefront during the First World War—the wasted lives of England's youth, the lies of the government and the press, and the potential for violence both on the front and at home during the conflict—to help create the play's deep sense of crisis and impending doom. But as with Arms and the Man, Heartbreak House is not a play about war. Whereas war is highly visible in the former, its presence is negligible in the latter: there are no military characters or any clear indication that a war is in progress until the end of the play. Moreover, Shaw does not draw on sources related only to the war. Thus while Heartbreak House was born largely out of the despair of the First World War, its themes go beyond that conflict to deal with questions about the individual, the family, and the fabric of society itself. This thesis concludes by briefly examining Saint Joan, and notes that it combines the two approaches to war found in Arms and the Man and Heartbreak House, but distances its intended audience—the English—by using a historical conflict where Englishmen are the enemy. In comparing the three plays' treatment of war, one can conclude that the common element in Shaw's treatment of war is his distancing of an audience from the subject itself. Moreover, one discovers that this distancing is related to the nature of the subjects that Shaw uses for his plays. Only subjects that he believed were complex were suitable for creating his dramatic works. Therefore, it is fruitless for critics to examine Shaw's plays for his opinions about a subject; they should concentrate on how Shaw uses these subjects in his plays instead.

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