Setting/Historical Context /Dramatic Background of the Period
The following notes were extracted from different sources to be acknowledged once links are confirmed.
SOURCE NO.1 / VICTORIAN RULE
Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, was born in 1819 and ruled from 1837 to 1901. She was married in 1840 to her cousin, Prince Albert, and it was he who insisted on the straitlaced behavior and strict decorum that have become known as Victorian values. They had nine children, whose marriages and prodigy entangled most of the thrones of Europe, including grandchildren Emperor William II of Germany and Empress Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II of Russia. Prince Albert died in 1861 and Victoria largely withdrew from public life, thus damaging her popularity and the political clout she had previously wielded.
When Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister in 1874, he flattered Victoria into resuming some involvement in public affairs, and she regained admiration as well as the title of Empress of India. Disraeli worked for social reform while promoting the growth of the British Empire. In contrast to Disraeli, Victoria greatly disliked William E. Gladstone, who served as prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894. Considered a great statesman, Gladstone championed tax reforms, an end to colonial expansion, and Irish home rule.
Relative prosperity existed in the late 1800s in England, although there were some years of high unemployment. Agricultural production was at its height. but the Crimean War (1854–1856) had been a disaster for England
SOURCE NO. 2 / VICTORIAN LITERATURE
Chronologically the Victorian period roughly coincides with the reign of Queen Victoria who ruled over England from 1836 to 1901. The period has been generally regarded as one of the most glorious in the English history. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the outstanding movement in the dramatic field was that of romanticism as against the classicism of earlier European drama. The Romantic Movement did not blossom in French drama until the 1820s, primarily in the work of Victor Hugo (1773-1821), Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), Emile
Augier (1820-1889), Alexander Dumas the younger (1824-1825), and Victorien Sardou (1831-1908).
Generally, Victorian literature, as a product of its age, naturally took on its quality of magnitude and diversity. It was many-sided and complex, and reflected both romantically and realistically the great changes that were going on in people’s life and thought. Great writers and great works abounded.
In England, the theatre in the 19 th century had been the amusement of educated classes only. But the English had been relieved of much jeopardy and fear after the fall of Napoleon (1814) and the uneducated people began to improve in tastes, manners and in mind. Drama was one of many signs of that modification and refinement of which those people showed a desire to benefit themselves. Ifor Evans describes the drama of the early nineteenth century as “on the whole deplorable.” (Evans: 1976, 190) Consequently, the first half of the century witnessed the arrival of the common people into the theatre with their expectations to see a vigorous kind of drama, full of excitement and written in expressive, ostentatious language; they needed stories of passion, or dread, or lively fun. The nineteenth century saw the drama become, for the first time since the days of Queen Elizabeth, a popular amusement.
Educated people and the higher ranks of society stopped attending the theatre. Nonetheless, the plays of the first half of the century were not likely to be endowed with much worth; and, in this period, we reach the low-water mark of the English drama in quality, together with a great increase in quantity.
The English theatre was in terrible creative conditions, in particular due to the lack of new, up-and-coming playwrights. It listed in its chronicles such names as William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), Robert Browning (1812-1889), and Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892). Generally, those great romantic poets did not produce important drama. Burlesque and mediocre melodrama reigned supreme on the English stage. Many 19th-century dramatists focused on writing melodramas. Their often lurid stage effects, improbable plots, stock character types, and naive moral lessons offered little artistic merit — but they were vastly popular.
It was not until the latter part of the century that the English stage again showed signs of life with the advent of Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) who was the first notable playwright of this movement. He wrote Michael and His Lost Angel (1895) which dealt with religious hypocrisy; Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (1855-1934), who wrote The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1892), a tragedy about a woman who cannot escape her past and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) the wittiest man of his day, wrote one play that has remained alive, the polished, superficial, but still delightful The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Furthermore, the death of Dion Boucicault (1820-1890), one of the nineteenth
century’s most popular, creative, and innovative playwrights, and the birth of “Ibsenism” at the hands of George Bernard Shaw, have made that year as a landmark of the modern period which witnessed the death of the old order in the British theatre and the rebirth of that theatre in a new form with a naturalistic treatment of both subject matter and style. (Farr Dietrich: 1989, 1).
However, Ibsen’s realistic dramas were of great influence on Shaw’s thinking. His treatise The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) establishes his belief in the drama of socialism and realism. It is a lecture to his own Fabian Society, a group of socialist reformers, on the seemingly kindred spirit Ibsen, whose plays he knew mostly
from the translations of his friend and fellow critic, William Archer. Shaw’s lecture, revised and expanded, came to be called The Quintessence of Ibsenism when published in 1891. With the emergence of George Bernard Shaw, the society suddenly experienced a renewed interest in theatrical material, especially in plays that began in revolt against the general complacency of the Victorian Age. Real evils and troubles of English life were hidden from view by the self-satisfied attitudes of the upper classes. The dramatic revolt started slowly but soon gained momentum to pave the way for the twentieth century drama.
SOURCE N0. 3 / SERBO-BULGARIAN WAR
Shaw first sketched out the play without an historical setting. His friend, Sidney Webb, came up with the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885 as the model scenario. Shaw did research in the British Museum Reading Room and chose Bulgaria as the setting. The character of Bluntschli may have been suggested by the life of Johann Kaspar Bluntschli, a Swiss professor of law. He chose the name “Arms and the Man” from the first line of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid: “Of arms and the man [the hero Aeneas] I sing.” Shaw’s title is ironic, for Virgil told the story of a hero, while Shaw’s play is about Bluntschi, the “chocolate-cream soldier.”–an anti-hero!
The play mentions historical details of the Serbo-Bulgarian war, such as the Battle of Slivnitza that was the turning point of the war, resulting in the Unification of Bulgaria. Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, which was predominantly Bulgarian, announced their unification in 1885, against the will of the Great European Powers, especially Austria. Serbia used the pretense of a border dispute to invade Bulgaria. The Serbians had modern guns but as in Shaw’s version, they had trouble with their cannon. They also underestimated the Bulgarians and used mostly young recruits. Shaw shows them running away as Bluntschli did. The Russian officers allowed the Bulgarian officers like Sergius and Petkoff to conduct the war. They were not as experienced as the Russians, but they had strong patriotism and morale. Shaw makes Petkoff say that without the intervention of the Great Powers, the Serbs and Bulgarians would not know how to fight. In the past, the Serbs and Bulgarians fought on the same side against the Turks, but the Serbian soldiers were tricked into fighting their former allies. Austria intervened after Slivnitza, disallowing more fighting. The Bulgarian victory settled the Unification question and boosted the prestige of Bulgaria, since the Serbs had not before known defeat.
Shaw uses Bulgaria as an example of a backward nation wanting to join the family of modern European nations. Bulgarians objected to Shaw’s stereotyping them as comic bumpkins who didn’t wash their hands and thought that a library was a few paperback books. Shaw does, however, bring out the political plight of such a country as Bulgaria, fighting for its identity among the bigger, modernized nations. He shows that Louka and Nicola, the servants, are in fact, the strength of the country, being closer to its roots. The Petkoffs and Sarnoff, wanting to be thought advanced, adopt the culture of foreign countries that do not properly educate the people. Saranoff wastes his time trying to be Byronic, and Catherine focuses on having an electric bell. This same phenomenon is still seen today when poorer nations copy what is trivial and popular in richer countries.
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