On this very day in theatre history–September 17, 1894–New Yorkers were treated to the first professional production of a George Bernard Shaw play in the United States when Arms and the Man opened at the Harold Square Theatre, starring one of the leading actors of the London stage, Richard Mansfield. Despite being set during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, the play is one of Shaw’s early “Plays Pleasant” and tells a comic tale of the futility of war. Many today consider it his best work, and certainly one of his more enduring, with a universal theme that transcends its own time and a sophisticated level of wit that would characterize much of Shaw’s later work.
Despite this, the play was only a moderate success in New York and its run was brief, closing October 10 . The odd assessment conveyed in the September 18 review in the New York Tribune is typical of the confusion that Shaw’s work left in the minds of Gilded Age audiences who were familiar only with literal, simpleminded melodramas and not the sophisticated subtleties of Shavian “Ibsenism.” While the journal’s critic assures his readers that the play “is not a pretentious composition,” he warns “the spectator… is likely to be puzzled for a little while as to its meaning and purpose. Just what the author intended to imply it would be far from safe to pronounce… It is possible the author intended [the play] to represent actual life. If he did intend it so, and if it does represent life truly, then life itself should not be taken seriously, and surely, when life itself is not to be taken so, the play that seeks to reproduce it need not be. Such a view of real life would be sad and hopeless to any thoughtful mind.” Clearly confused by this new form of comic realism, the critic takes a patronizing tone and declares “the sooner the spectator gives up trying to discover any meaning or purpose… the better he will enjoy it.” So much for the great innovations of European drama on the late 19th century American stage.
What is so fascinating in this, as well as other American reviews of Shaw’s early works, is the stunning revelation of just how far behind American drama really was–and how out of touch American audiences were with the new genre of literary Realism. As the Tribune‘s critic demonstrates, there was simply no facility in this country to understand Shaw’s writing at the time, no vocabulary to describe it, no aesthetic context in which to make sense of it. The Tribune critic wasn’t alone. The New York Times echoed similar sentiments, calling it “the kind of play to displease some people very much, those who object to having satire and irony forced upon them, buzzed at them, flashed at them, thrust into their mental cuticle with needle points of wit, hammered upon them for two hours and a half.” The play was quite literally baffling to the melodramatic mind-set of America’s most experienced and sophisticated theatre audiences. And this was true for most of Shaw’s earliest plays when first produced in the U.S. It would take more than twenty years before American aesthetic sensibilities would finally catch up, and by then Shaw was one of the great literary lions of the London stage while a young American playwright (Eugene O’Neill) was just beginning to appear on the scene with his own extraordinary examples of Realism.