Commentary on O'Flaherty V.C.
Extract from English War Plays of the First World War by Stephen Murray
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Shaw employed a similar stratagem in his O'Flaherty V.C. (first performed by some officers of the Royal Flying Corps, Belgium, 17/2/1917).(16) The origins of the play lie again in a call for propaganda plays, this time to assist in the recruitment of Irishmen for the British Army, but Shaw also wished to help the Abbey Theater in Dublin during a period of severe financial difficulties.(17) Shaw had remembered his compatriot Francis Sheehy-Skeffington delivering a speech which condemned recruitment and worked this into his play. However, much of his purpose, just as it is in The Inca of Perusalem (he wrote both at about the same period in 1915) was to point out to the audience 'the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war', as he wrote in 1919; 'For unless these things are mercilessly exposed they will hide under the mantle of ideals of the stage just as they do in real life.' (18) At the same time, this was tempered by his respect for the simple courage of many of the soldiers who served in the British Army,(19) an attitude which is partly responsible for giving the play a charmingly naive central character devoid of real bitterness.

It is Shaw's argument in the play, as he declares openly in the preface which accompanies it, that men enlist for such ordinary reasons as boredom, curiosity and feelings of entrapment in family life, rather than from more noble motives (the contrast of these with the reasons for enlisting which Malleson gives shows that Shaw's piece is underpinned by comic possibilities, in striking contrast to the graver motives given in 'D' Company). The characterization of Dennis O'Flaherty, returned war hero and recipient of the Victoria Cross, is subservient to bringing this out in an often stage-Irish way.(20) This means that there is both an irreverence and an essential goodness underlying the truths he declares. For instance, at the beginning of the play, O'Flaherty is in conversation with Sir Pearce Madigan, the local landowner.

O'Flaherty. Arra, sir, how the devil do I know what the war is about? Sir Pearce. ... you tell me you don't know why you did it! O'Flaherty. Asking your pardon, Sir Pearce, I tell you no such thing. I know quite well why I kilt them. I kilt them because I was afeard that, if I didn't, theyd kill me. [76]

Occasionally, Shaw comes close to the hard-hitting sense of grievance found in Malleson's Black 'Ell but he stops short of it and, instead, uses the contradictions which have beset O'Flaherty to create a strongly comic situation. The young Irishman tells how he had joined up to escape his mother and because the English pay 'the biggest allowance' [85], and how Mrs. O'Flaherty had been very supportive of him, having been deluded into thinking that he was fighting against the English and not for them. Shaw even has O'Flaherty recall a priest's advice on Christian, as against military, duty:' '... it's your duty to have a mass said for the souls of the hundreds of Germans you say you killed' says he; 'for many and many of them were Bavarian and good Catholics.' '[75] But the context can still accommodate a very perceptive critique of the circumstances of the war, especially on the malevolence and fraud of a great deal of patriotism. O'Flaherty tells Sir Pearce quite plainly that he could have no conception of how O'Flaherty had changed, since he had never gone through what O'Flaherty had endured.

What use is all the lying, and pretending, and humbugging, and letting on when the day comes to you that your comrade is killed in the trench beside you, and you dont as much as look round at him until you trip over his poor body ... Dont talk to me or any soldier of the war being right. No war is right; and all the holy water that Father Quinlan ever blessed couldn't make one right. [78]

O'Flaherty has come to the same feeling of derision towards the war-mongering of civilians back in England that soldiers like Wilfred Owen were to come to: 'youll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.' [82] (21) The play comes to a close with a flourish, as O'Flaherty, his mother, Sir Pearce and Teresa Driscoll, a parlour-maid and O'Flaherty's former love, loudly argue all at the same time. This convinces O'Flaherty that he should return to the relative quietness of 'war's alarums'.[93]

Shaw tackles the issues of the war in a juxtoposition of serious and inconsequential subject-matter and tones which in many ways do take away from the important points he wishes to disclose. These fragment the unity of theme and mood. But the context and characters of the play are more agreeable than those found in The Inca of Perusalem, a piece which deals with a similar subject. Frank Swinnerton was to praise the former play in the Nation, stating that 'among all its seriousness and its nonsense there is much wisdom, and so much that is reserved to a racy and unsentimental understanding of human bedevilment, that the play belongs to dramatic literature.(22) Shaw was not actually to visit the Front until January 1917 but he manages to convey some sense of the dissatisfaction felt by soldiers to the war, and to win some sympathy for the impudence and clear-sightedness of the changed solider. 'O'Flaherty's experience in the trenches,' he wrote to Lady Augusta Gregory in September 1915, 'has induced a terrible realism and an unbearable candour.(23) The positivist side of Shaw has him declaring that O'Flaherty has been transformed profoundly by the war, that he has consequently a sense of restlessness when back home, (24) and that he genuinely wishes to return to the conflict. Here, the issues are integral and explained in overview: there is no evolution of situation or character as such, merely a revelation which principally originates in war-time experiences.

Notes:


(16) The first professional production of the play in England was by the Stage Society at the Lyric Theater, Hammersmith, on 19 December 1920.
(17) The Abbey management, however, rejected the piece after being told by the Commanding General of the Dublin District that, if there was a riot at the performance, its license to produce plays would be revoked.
(18) Preface to Heartbreak House, in Collected Prefaces. He also explained why the play was not licensed: "it may not, and indeed cannot, be militarily expedient to reveal them [the full facts] whilst the issue is still in the balance." See also Stanley Weintraub, Bernard Shaw 1914-1918, pp. 227-228. It eventually received a license in 1921.
(19) See his letter to Mabel Fitzgerald of 1 December 1914, in which he speaks of 'a quite casual army of poor English, Irish and Scotch civilians ...' Collected Letters 1911-1925, ed. Dan H. Lawrence, p. 270.
(20) See C.E. Montague´s remarks on Shaw´s 'unequal' treatment of his Irish characters, in Dramatic Values, pp. 92-93.
(21) In November 1917, Owen wrote in his poem 'Apologia Pro Peomate Meo' of his distaste for those back home in England: "... These men are worth/Your tears. You are not worth their merriment."
(22) The Nation, 1 January 1921, p. 479.
(23) Letter of 14 September 1915, in Collected Letters 1911-1925, p. 309.
(24) William Macqueen Pope remembered, "There was a new thing called sophistication. The old insularity had gone. Men who had been no further than Margate knew all about Mesopotamia." The Melody Lingers On, p. 435. For a discussion of this restlessness, see Samuel Hynes´ The Edwardian Turn of Mind, pp. 5-14, and G. Wilson Knight´s The Golden Labyrinth, pp. 355-357.