Friday, September 25, 2015

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

L to R: Charlie Cousins, Andrea Demetriades, Mitchell Butel
as Sergius, Raina and Bluntschli
in Arms and the Man

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Richard Cottrell; set designer – Michael Scott-Mitchell; costume designer – Julie Lynch; lighting by Damien Cooper; sound by Jeremy Silver.  At Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, September 18 – October 31, 2015.

Nicola – Brandon Burke
Captain Bluntschli – Mitchell Butel
Major Sergius Saranoff – Charlie Cousins
Raina Petkoff – Andrea Demetriades
Catherine Petkoff – Deborah Kennedy
Russian Soldier – Jason Kos
Louka – Olivia Rose
Major Paul Petkoff -  William Zappa

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 23

 “What a man!”  So says Sergius, and so said all of us at the curtain call.  But Sergius, being Sergius, inevitably must say one more line: “Is he a man?”. 

Our praise was not only for the wonderful cast, a director who understood how they should be directed, and set, costumes, sound and lighting designers who knew how to make all the author’s stage directions work, but also especially for George Bernard Shaw.  What a perfect performance, say I.

The musical introductions and interludes were jaunty as they should be for this humorous take on the Bulgaria / Serbia war of 1885, but the pièce de resistance in sound was not flagged by Shaw, despite his always extensive directions: a short “ta da” trumpet voluntary before the line “What a man!” and again before “Is he a man?” rang out a different note. 

The effect was brilliant, lifting the ending out of a quieter sense of wonderment, which almost makes Sergius seem sensible at last, up to a very funny but much more significant glorious celebration of integrity in love – of Bluntschli and Raina, and of Louka and Sergius himself – as the key to understanding the play.

In my own directing of Arms and the Man (many years ago for the amateur Wyong Drama Group ) I had taken the quieter way.  Cottrell takes the much more daring leap.  What an ending was here – two great bursts of laughter and instant applause.  And what a lift for the cast after their two hours’ traffic upon the stage.  Their hard work, so detailed as it has to be to satisfy the demands of Shaw’s text, received the reward it deserved, with a great sense of rapport between us and them as they bowed.

Yet neither ending quite answers the question, what did Shaw mean by his very last line?  My ending had placed the emphasis on “he”.  “Is he a man?”  At the time I saw this as a simple re-emphasis of the line before: “ What a man!”

Cottrell’s ending seemed to say, more evenly stressed but possibly asking, “Is he a man?”  This raises a more extensive question: What does it mean to be a man?

This question makes the play, in its historical context, more interesting, I think, than my simpler ending.  And more relevant to a modern audience.  And it explains something about why, as the Program mentions in an essay by Diane Stubbings Debunking Military Glory: Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’, the audience at the first production was confused as well as amused.

My interpretation would still be confusing to the many who still believe that there is reason and justification for warfare, always boosted by romantic nationalism.  Sergius in the end sees Bluntschli and the whole circumstances in a new light, where principled political decision-making, competent organisation and serious negotiation  avoids people being killed.  In my day I was as strongly influenced as I suspect Shaw was by Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 On War (translated and published in London in 1873), not only for the well-known quote that “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, but also for his dictum that it was each commander’s central task, whichever side he was on, to reduce their own casualties to the absolute minimum.  This underlies Bluntschli’s horror at the stupidity of Sergius in leading his Bulgarian cavalry charge against machine guns (and the incompetence of the Serbian side in supplying the wrong ammunition).  Logically this leads to not only running away (as Bluntschli describes so well)  but also to commanders arranging peace negotiations as soon as they can get the politicians out of their hair.

As a polemical play against warfare, Arms and the Man still stands up tall and strong.  Using real events of his time, Shaw created a metaphor which we can still see being played out in the Middle East today, as it was in World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia and Rwanda and so on.

But is this all that Shaw was concerned about?  The other interpretation of the line “Is he a man?” takes on a very different thread that Shaw followed through many of his plays – and took him close to ethical disaster in the time of Herr Hitler.  Picking up on the, admittedly schizoid, philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly as expressed in his 1883 poetic work Thus Spake Zarathustra, first translated into English in 1896, (just after Arms and the Man was written), Shaw became fascinated by the idea of the Ubermensch.  Through later plays, particularly in Major Barbara, Man and Superman, Back to Methusaleh, Saint Joan and the much later The Applecart, the idea took hold that a “beyond-man” could evolve and look down upon the ordinary man of our day (as Zarathustra does from his isolated mountain-top) and see our crude behaviour in much the same way as we may look down upon the behaviour of our evolutionary predecessors.  Though the plays remain comedies, Shaw’s attraction to mystical ideas like “Life Force” and “Creative Evolution” was real enough.  (See Bernard Shaw as Artist-Philosopher: an exposition of Shavianism by Renée M. Deacon: London 1910 if you want to read more.)

It was unfortunate that, for a while, it was possible to think that Hitler could be in the line of Bluntschli, Adolphus Cusins, Jack Tanner, Lilith, Joan, or even Magnus, the King in The Applecart (1930) who proposes to stand for election against his own Prime Minister.  That thought became unthinkable as Hitler proved that being elected could be a useful way of establishing insane absolute power.  Shaw’s comedy was turned on its head by anything but a “superman”.

I felt, in watching Richard Cottrell’s Arms and the Man that he has achieved in those last two lines something near to Shaw’s heart, as recalled in Diane Stubbings’ essay: “You are wrong to scorn farcical comedy.  It is by jingling the bells of a jester’s cap that I […] have made people listen to me.  All genuine intellectual work is humorous.”

Being intellectual doesn’t mean always being right, but in Shaw’s case it certainly meant having the wit to be very funny.  I thank all the cast, crew and director for having their wits about them to match. 
Photos by Heidrun Lohr
Andrea Demetriades as Raina, Mitchell Butel as Bluntschli

Andrea Demetriades (Raina), Deborah Kennedy (Raina's mother Catherine Petkoff)
and Mitchell Butel (Bluntschli)

Andrea Demetriades (Raina) and Charlie Cousins (Sergius)

Andrea Demetriades (Raina) and Mitchell Butel (Bluntschli)

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