By the winter of 1893, George Bernard Shaw was England's most notoriously immoral playwright: pretty remarkable, considering hardly anyone had seen one of his plays. So Shaw decided to stop emulating the dour social-issue dramaturgy of Ibsen and quickly wrote a giddy romantic comedy with an exotic setting and a decorous dusting of sex. It was just as quickly produced and had a tidy run.
Today we can see that Arms and the Man was just as emotionally probing and socially critical as the “shocking” Mrs. Warren's Profession (which was about prostitution); but it looked and sounded just like a conventional comedy.
It still does, which is its biggest hurdle for performers and audiences alike. How can you take seriously the amorous entanglements of a young Bulgarian girl with a head stuffed full of romantic fiction, a Swiss hotel-keeper turned mercenary soldier, a dashing cavalry officer whose reputation for heroism is a fraud? But if you don't take them as seriously as the characters themselves do, you miss what makes Shaw our language's greatest playwright after Shakespeare: the insight into the contradictions of the soul, his compassion for our weaknesses, and sad estimate of the likelihood we'll ever surmount them.
Because of its three tasty star roles, Arms and the Man is fairly often produced.
Fifteen years and ten full-length plays on, Shaw had his commercial act down and regularly alternated pleasing his audience with pleasing himself. In 1908's Getting Married, a bishop's daughter has second thoughts on the morning of her wedding, and while they wait for her to resolve her doubts, a dozen other people sit in a kitchen and debate — intensely, brilliantly, insightfully— the moral, emotional, and social utility of the institution of marriage. That's all — but it's Shaw at the height of his powers, and it's enough.
If you go: Getting Married. One performance only, 7 p.m. Monday, May 16, presented by the Endangered Species Project ensemble at Seattle Public Theatre at the Bathhouse on Greenlake, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N. The reading features some of Seattle's finest professional actors, including Clayton Corzatte, Mark Anders, and Jane Ryan. Admission free, with a free-will contribution requested to cover expenses.
Arms and the Man. Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 20; runs through June 12, Sunday performances are at 2 p.m., at Seattle Public Theatre at the Bathhouse on Greenlake, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N. With Gordon Carpenter, Ryan Childers, Mark Fullerton, Julie Jamieson, Brenda Joyner, Anne Kennedy, and Frank Lawler. Information and reservations, online (206) 524-1300, option 1 or email email@example.com.