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War and Violence

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Despite the patriotism that overtakes most nations during times of war, it is nearly impossible to find any drama that suggests that war is anything other than bad, although they assert this with varying degrees of intensity. George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man is decidedly comical in its satire of the ills of war. But assuming that some wars are inevitable, the play does not question the reasons for the war, and the soldiers involved are willing participants. Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars is a mix of the comic and the tragic, just as the combatants are a mix of the willing and the reluctant, the cowardly and the heroic. Although O’Casey supports the reasons for the conflict, he clearly views the conflict itself as a blight on Ireland. David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel , by contrast, presents a completely negative experience, bereft of humor, in which war is the result of unnecessary American macho posturing, and an indignity perpetrated on all those involved.

The differences between the conflicts in each of these plays are largely responsible for the playwrights’ differing responses to the subject. Shaw’s play takes place during a nineteenth-century war between Serbia and Bulgaria, while Sean O’Casey’s focuses on the Anglo-Irish conflict that has continued into the twenty-first century. Rabe deals specifically with the American involvement in Vietnam. All try to explain the cost of war in terms of how it affects those directly involved and those who watch from the sidelines, as well as considering both the direct and collateral damage war causes.

Arms and the Man takes place during what was then a recent conflict between Bulgaria and Serbia, but it is not about that conflict. Rather, it deals with the nature of battle itself and how it is often wrongly perceived by society. Its central “hero,” Captain Bluntschli, is a Swiss mercenary who fights on both sides of the conflict. Although a play like Arms and the Man is entertaining,   Shaw ensures that it is also thought provoking. In it he exposes what he sees as the dangerously blinkered old-order attitude toward war, fueled by social expectations that have been supported by rigid class structures and overly romantic ideals. Arms and the Man was Shaw’s first commercial success and it encouraged him to continue playwriting. It also showed a shift in his work from his earlier propagandist plays that targeted specific social wrongs to plays attacking the more abstract beliefs and ideas behind them. Always the social reformer, Shaw had reached the understanding that he must first change attitudes before he could change social conditions.

We see plenty of national pride in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars , but that pride is depicted as dangerously overemotional and poorly organized. O’Casey is sympathetic to the cause of Irish freedom from British rule, but he is strongly opposed to furthering it by violent means. Thus, the play becomes an unflattering consideration of the Easter Rising of 1916 and a criticism of the fighting that destroyed so many. At its Dublin opening, the play caused riots outside the theater. O’Casey also draws our attention to the terrible conditions of the Irish slum-dwellers in his characterization of the consumptive Mollser, and the inevitable degradation of human nature in those forced to live in such conditions. This is depicted in the way the characters constantly argue, fight among themselves, and behave so selfishly. Despite comic moments, O’Casey intends The Plough and the Stars as a tragedy in its depiction of the destruction of lives by social conditions, war, and political blackmail.

Born in 1880, Sean O’Casey was the youngest in a large, impoverished Protestant family living in Dublin. By 1913 he was a secretary in the Irish Citizens Army, although he later resigned on a matter of principle. A strong socialist rather than a nationalist—O’Casey was not involved in the 1916 Easter Rising—he saw his first allegiance to the oppressed and suffering among whom he lived, rather than to any political or military causes. The character of Young Covey, with his insistence that economic change must prefigure any improvement in their living conditions, comes close to acting as the playwright’s voice in this play. The plough and stars of the title refer to emblems on the Irish flag of liberation. The significance of the flag’s design is that the farmer’s plough is combined with the astral Plough constellation to show the heights to which hard work can take a people. What was originally a workers’ flag has become a political symbol.

David Rabe has resisted calling his plays “antiwar,” preferring them to be viewed as efforts to define what takes place during wartime, for himself and others. One of a trilogy of plays written by Rabe about the effects of the Vietnam War on American soldiers, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel is the only one to take the audience to Vietnam, although all three offer insightful analyses of the effect of Vietnam on those who served and those who stayed behind. The other two plays are titled Sticks and Bones (1969) and Streamers (1976). The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel gives us a naturalistic view of various aspects of the soldier’s experience, from basic training camp to active   duty. On top of this are laid expressionistic elements that probe more deeply into the mind of the single soldier named in its title.

In Arms and the Man , the romantic idealist, Raina Petkoff, is engaged to Major Sergius Seranoff, a bold, though careless and conceited, cavalry commander. Both see war as a grand spectacle and an opportunity to perform heroic deeds. Shortly after a Bulgarian victory brought about by Sergius, Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli, a refugee from the fleeing Serbian army, takes shelter in Raina’s rooms. The two argue because Bluntschli’s more realistic view of war offends Raina, but she decides, with the help of her mother, to protect him. Four months later, an embittered Sergius has failed to get a promotion, Raina and her mother are trying to keep secret the aid they gave the “enemy,” and Bluntschli arrives to return the coat he had been given for his escape. After a series of comical cover-ups, the truth comes out. Forced to see that Raina loves Bluntschli, Sergius challenges Bluntschli to a duel, but when Raina discovers that Sergius has engaged in an affair with her family servant, Louka, Sergius backs down and proposes to Louka instead, leaving the way free for Bluntschli to marry Raina.

At the center of the play is Shaw’s attack on the false ideals of warfare and the soldier’s profession, which were prevalent in the nineteenth century. British society, especially the upper classes, tended to see war as a noble pursuit and the men who engaged in it as courageous heroes, eager to die for their country. Plays of the time that dealt with military themes usually upheld such idealistic views and were filled with brave and virtuous soldiers who feared nothing in their mission to conquer the enemy. But Shaw rightly understood that this was mostly a civilian viewpoint, and not how soldiers generally saw themselves. He exposes this contrast in the opposition between Sergius and Bluntschli. Sergius is the Byronic idealized soldier, his inexperience making him oblivious to the true nature of war. He is full of grand gestures his own army cannot even sanction. By contrast, Bluntschli is the practical career soldier, who is more interested in survival than winning, who follows the rules and fully understands the potential horrors of war.

Shaw was no pacifist—he saw war as necessary in certain circumstances—but he wants the public to recognize war for what it is and understand the difficulties faced by its participants. In war, soldiers are often tired and hungry, afraid for their lives, and unsure about what to do. We are shown all of this through the character of Bluntschli, whose name echoes the bluntness with which he forces the true nature of a soldier’s life upon Raina, whose romanticized vision of soldierly behavior is clearly unrealistic. The play satirically targets such unrealistic views, making those who hold them appear shallow, pretentious, and prone to deceit.

Under the guidance of Bluntschli’s clear-sightedness, Raina gradually recognizes the impossibility of her ideals and modifies her expectations to realistic levels. Raina’s initial repulsion at Bluntschli’s apparently cowardly, ignoble ac-   tion of running away and hiding in her rooms rather than fighting to the death is soon turned into compassion as she recognizes the reality of his hunger and desperation. Although she is partly motivated by her pretensions to nobility when she makes herself responsible for his safety, she is not above slipping a portrait of herself into his pocket as he leaves—a token for him to remember her by. While she tries to hide it, she is pleased at his return, rejecting her former fiancé in favor of this more practical man.

Sergius, who initially shares Raina’s vision and helps to feed it, vainly tries to live up to the romantic ideals the couple has set. Yet he cannot escape the realization that war is not the glorious adventure he had believed it to be when he led his reckless cavalry charge against the enemy. He had acted without orders, but had luckily survived because the Serbians had the wrong ammunition for their guns. His unprofessional behavior may have won the battle, but it does not win him the promotion for which he had hoped. Resentful and bitter, he turns to the less demanding Louka for comfort, as Raina expects too much of him. His lack of true nobility is shown by the way he plays around with Louka behind Raina’s back, and his readiness to duel with Bluntschli to prevent him from having Raina. It is only when Raina becomes disenchanted with him that he gives up the duel, though he has become disillusioned with life in general by this point and seems incapable of any action.

Sergius’s main difficulty is that he never fully understands the problem. He despairs at his own inability to live up to the ideals he and Raina had envisioned, but Shaw wants us to see that the real problem is that people believe such impossible ideals to be possible. Sergius is foolish for ever believing in them, but it is the ideals that are wrong rather than he. Shaw supports an antiromantic view of life, shown through the practical efficiency of men like Bluntschli, who takes life seriously and refuses to be duped by romantic idealism. Although Bluntschli confesses to having a romantic streak that led him to run away from home and join the army, it is a romanticism kept firmly under control.

Bluntschli’s army service is marked by his calm efficiency and professional understanding of the mundane details of warfare, such as the troop movements with which he assists Raina’s father. His practical nature is shown by his pawning the coat the women gave him to get money for his escape, and by the fact that he never played Raina’s romantic game by looking at the portrait placed in the pocket. He may have returned the coat in hopes of seeing Raina, but he only proposes once he discovers that she is both free and of marriageable age. It is little surprise that Bluntschli will switch professions from soldier to hotelier by the end of the play, and that he will bring the same skills to bear on his new profession, including an understanding of people’s real needs, desires, and limitations.

While Shaw’s main characters are drawn from stock military melodramas of the period—noble soldier, cowardly soldier, and beautiful lady—he turns our expectations around. The beautiful lady does not end up as expected with the   noble soldier, and the noble soldier turns out to be not so noble, just as the coward is really not so cowardly, just practical. All of Raina’s noble aspirations, the guiding ethos of those melodramas, are deflated by Bluntschli’s measured responses, as Shaw forces us to see war as it truly is: an intensely wearing, unpleasant, destructive conflict, that, while necessary at times, should never be welcomed or entered into too lightly.

The Plough and the Stars is set around slum-dwellings in Dublin, in the period leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916. The neighbors argue among themselves and belittle Nora Clitheroe as too uppity in her desire to improve her surroundings. Nora loves her husband Jack but is unable to prevent him from taking a battalion of the Irish Citizens Army to fight the British, when he is offered promotion and a speaker rouses the local Irish to fight for their independence. Some months later the fighting has dissolved into a free-for-all, with the locals more interested in looting than freedom. Nora has unsuccessfully tried to find Jack and bring him home. He stops by briefly as his troops are being routed and ignores her pleas to quit the fight, sending Nora into a fragile mental state and causing her to miscarry their child. A few days later we get news of his death, as well as the death of young Mollser, a consumptive neighbor. The British have taken charge, tracking down the last few snipers. When Nora screams at the window for Jack, her neighbor, Bessie Burgess, pulls her out of the way and gets mortally shot herself. The play ends with Dublin in disarray and the British soldiers calmly eating the supper Nora had made for Jack.

O’Casey’s plot can be viewed as both depicting the effect of outside events on domestic lives and showing how the conflicts of those domestic lives compare and contrast with the political conflict. Despite snatches of humor, there is throughout a general aura of approaching despair and cataclysm. The deaths are made to seem brutal, unnecessary, and random, thus underlining the terrible reality behind such undefined conflicts. Jack’s sacrifice is pointless, and Captain Brennan’s declaration, that “Mrs. Clitheroe’s grief will be a joy when she realizes that she has a hero for a husband” (204), is deeply ironic. Bessie’s death seems even more unnecessary, as she herself points out as she is dying. And while people die through the conflict, poor Mollser dies of consumption because of the poor conditions under which she is forced to live. As Covey observes, more people are dying of consumption than war, because the social system has remained unchanged despite all the fighting. Poverty is rampant, and nothing is being done to change that.

Nora sees the Irish Citizens Army going nowhere, so she had tried to keep Jack out of it. Thus, the play considers the conflict between domestic and political loyalties seen in the lives of a typical Irish couple. Jack succumbs to political pressures and is killed, though not without Nora trying to prevent this by burning the letter that conveyed the news of his promotion to Commandant. Although he had left the army on her account, this promotion flatters   Jack’s pride and stirs his patriotism, so he rejoins. He is given one more opportunity to desert, but his fear of being called a coward overcomes his fear of death.

O’Casey sees it as sadly inevitable that the innocent suffer most in such wars, and he partly blames them for being misled by the rhetoric of politics and a spurious nationalism. The speaker outside the pub who incites the men to arms insists, “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood” (162). He appeals to their virility and fear of being called cowardly, pumping them up into a frenzy by describing their cause in religious terms to invest it with a surpassing importance—one that Covey denounces. Covey points out that fighting now is pointless: unless they first gain economic freedom, any other gains will be meaningless.

Mollser can be seen as representative of Ireland itself—sickly, weak, and unable to help herself. Her inevitable death becomes emblematic of the death of Irish hopes, especially since it occurs when the Irish army has clearly been decimated. As Covey keeps suggesting, to strengthen Ireland they must first address the social conditions that produce such sickly children as Mollser; only then will they have the proper strength to fight. But as the British soldier who comes to collect Mollser’s corpse points out, “A man’s a man, an ‘e ’as to foight for ’is country, ’asn’t ’e?” (209). The call to duty sadly overrides all sense in times of war.

The play is dedicated to O’Casey’s mother, who was reputedly hanging out washing and laughing shortly before her death, and it is the women in his plays who seem the strongest and most tenacious. If only the men were not so vain and easily led, he suggests, then Ireland might stand some chance. Nora has ambition and courage, but insufficient influence with her husband to prevent him from pointlessly sacrificing himself. Bessie, too, objects to the fighting, with a son fighting alongside the British in the trenches of World War I. She points out that to rise against the British at this point is like stabbing them in the back while they fight the Germans for everyone. More importantly, the British have artillery and organized troops against a ragtag collection of Irish fighters who are more concerned with how they look than with learning the principles of warfare.

The constant bickering and backbiting between the various residents of the tenement over religion, drinking, class, and what each considers to be correct speech and behavior should make us realize how unlikely it is that such people could ever present a united front against the British oppressors. The only time they unite is when they go out looting, a far cry from the noble endeavors of which the political instigator spoke. At the close we see the British defeat the Irish completely, having taken all the remaining men into custody while they ferret out any remaining fighters. Their bullets having just shot Bessie, they sit in her room eating the supper Nora had been making for Jack, in her refusal to accept his death. Outside we hear gunfire, artillery, and the British soldiers singing “Keep the Home Fires Burning;” no doubt an ironic commentary on the fact that Dublin is now aflame, and the whole uprising itself gone up in smoke.

The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel begins at the end, with Pavlo Hummel picking up a grenade that has just been tossed into a Vietnamese bar. Before he dies, we are treated to flashbacks from his life during Army training, a trip home before his tour of duty, his battlefield experiences, and, finally, the ironic truth that it was not the enemy who threw the grenade but a fellow American soldier annoyed because Hummel had interfered with his seduction of a local prostitute. During this rerun of the formative periods of Hummel’s life, he discovers the illusion under which he has been living and sees the true brutality of the Army life he had idealized.

Rabe’s play conveys in graphic terms the experience of the realities of war in a series of moments from Hummel’s life. The American soldiers he portrays serving in Vietnam are predominantly motivated by a desire for sex and survival, rather than by any noble calling. As we witness the way in which they have been trained, the reason they are like this becomes more understandable. Boot camp training is geared to validate extreme violence, along with stupidity, sexism, racism, and unthinking obedience. Hummel’s company is ironically named Echo to show that they are trained to believe whatever they are told to recite through their call-and-response marching and training chants. It is the unthinking obedience that is echoed in Hummel’s name, as he exhibits a Pavlovian response to all he encounters. This is in brutal contrast to the more caring side of his nature he has tried to suppress his whole life. Training camp teaches these men to reject traditional values and embrace, instead, the force of violence, supported by the weapons they constantly carry.

Even before Army life Hummel learned to suppress his individuality to try to make himself over into the fake tough-guy image of his missing father, an image he has been fed by his mother. In reality, his father had been a deserter (of both Army and family). Hummel pretends to have had sexual and criminal experience, to try to raise his status in others’ eyes, but these experiences are pure invention. What is important is that if he were a more convincing liar, he would gain the status he desires, for he is right in his assessment of what counts in contemporary society. He has grown up admiring soldiers who are killers and is keen to become such a figure. While in Vietnam, he proudly boasts about his fighting ability and his girlfriend Joanna, back home. However, these are just more lies: Joanna had left him and was pregnant by another man even before he left America, and his combat experience mostly amounts to being shot at, although he did kill one defenseless Vietnamese farmer. It is evident that the reality of war is far more sordid than the noble images of fighting on which Hummel was raised.

As Hummel retraces his life, he invents a black soldier named Ardell, who is a projection of his inner and wiser self. Ardell helps Hummel to better understand why he has turned out as he has and confront the true human suffering and death faced by both sides in Vietnam. As Ardell explains to him, when Hummel is shooting the Vietnamese farmer and gets hit himself, the damage is mutual in such conflicts: as you shoot the opposition, it is as if you are shooting yourself. Hummel relates this experience to drowning, evidencing a sense of helplessness over what happens to him. After being shot, Hummel had hoped to return home, but he was awarded the Purple Heart and sent back, where this time he is killed, and by a vengeful fellow American soldier he has annoyed rather than by the “enemy.” The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel offers a disappointing reality to contrast with Hummel’s earlier dream of heroic soldiers; war is shown to be neither noble nor heroic, just a lot of pointless killing. Brisbey, the soldier who has lost most of his limbs to a land mine, is emblematic of the reality of a soldier’s reduced quality of life, and he pleads with Hummel to help him die.

Hummel was never truly comfortable with his fellow soldiers, and it is clear that they never fully accepted him. Fellow trainees Kress and Parker called him stupid and weird because of his attempts to fake being streetwise. But on a deeper level, they all suspect that he has the wrong temperament to be the obedient killing machine the Army requires, despite his admiration of Sarge Tinden’s capacity for slaughter, and the brutal training and casual violence they are all forced to undergo. His assignment as a medic, rather than as a member of the infantry for which he had hoped, suggests the Army’s understanding of that softer nature he tries to hide, a nature of intelligence and compassion that recognizes how dehumanizing army life truly is.

It is hardly a surprise to discover that Hummel has attempted suicide during basic training to escape what was happening to him. However, as at other times when he shows his opposition to the Army way by beginning to fight with his fellow trainees, his squad leader Pierce cuts in to apparently save him and restore order. However, Pierce intercedes less for Hummel’s own benefit than to ensure that he is passively transformed into a soldier along with the rest of the squad, which is the true order Pierce requires. Hummel is made into a soldier and, in the process, loses his individuality entirely. This is shown by the clean uniform he is given at the end of act 1, displaying his new identity in all of its uniformity. Alongside this is Ardell’s commentary pointing out the similarities between Army training and other social programming, such as the ways blacks are expected to subserviently treat white people. Both are self-negating, automated responses that have been instilled under the threat of physical abuse. Hummel has become just another piece of cannon fodder, as exemplified by his swift reassignment to active duty after being shot. Although he finally comes to recognize the truth of his own dehumanized position, it is sadly in his dying moments, and there is nothing he can do with this recognition to save himself or others.

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