This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell. Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.
While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:
“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”
The Norwegian relationship with the European Union was discussed during the UK referendum campaign. Norway has positive economic links with the supranational organisation, but has little political influence over its direction. Nevertheless, this model could have been appropriate for the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
The Prime Minister has instead chosen to interpret the referendum result in a more radical manner. Her aspiration for a patriotic Brexit puts her political concerns ahead of national economic considerations. However, it is her quixotic threat to the European Union in advance of the negotiations which makes the observer think of a famous Ibsen character.
The idea that the UK should invent itself as a tax haven if it does not secure a decent deal from the European Union would not be problematic if it did not have negative implications for the bulk of the British population. David Cameron will be remembered by historians as the Prime Minister who was destroyed by hubris over Europe. It could well be that the administration of Theresa May is recalled in a similar way. As Tesman said in Hedda Gabler:
“Shot herself! Shot herself in the temple! Fancy that!”
This play was set in a dark moment of Irish history. British imperialism had suffered a major setback, but there was trouble among the working class of Dublin. There was no agreement about what should happen next. And in the political gap there was space for tragedy to happen.
However, the playwright took his time to build his tragedy. The characters were introduced with broad humour. The women were stronger than the men, but all were struggling to deal with the circumstances in which they found themselves. Poverty, alcoholism and violence were a constant threat, while a legacy proved to be a dream. The characters were not depicted in realistic terms: the playwright knowingly mentioned Ibsen in a cheeky reference.
There was talk, song, and melodrama in abundance, but at the heart of the play was raw internecine violence. Two futile Irish deaths caused two Irish mothers heartache, while inebriated folk failed to keep their heads amid the chaos. In some sense, this was a cruel work; there was little sympathy for human failings. Composed by 1924, it arguably lacked a proper sense of historical perspective. But for all its flaws, it made a compelling spectacle.