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Compare the ways in which figures of authority are portrayed in Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War.

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Introduction

Compare the ways in which figures of authority are portrayed in Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War. Both Catch 22 and Oh! What a Lovely War are satirical comedies looking at the absurdity and tragedy of war. Being satires, they serve to expose the flaws in wartime situations and in doing so often develop criticisms of authoritative figures. Both texts approach the portrayal of authority in slightly different ways; being a play, Oh! What a Lovely War has a lot more scope for portraying its characters visually and aurally, whereas Catch 22 must work within its boundaries as a novel. Both texts employ humour to portray characters of authority; whereas Littlewood's play is more focused on dark humour, Heller uses his own brand of absurd irony throughout the novel - this humour is central to most techniques used in both pieces of literature. Both texts were written in the 1960's, (Catch 22 was published in 1961 whilst Littlewood's play was performed two years later) an era synonymous with the development of youth culture and radical change. Although Catch 22 was initially snubbed by many of its critics, the novel found its readership amongst the emerging generation of men and women who were fiercely opposed to the Vietnam war. Littlewood did not face the same hostility in 1963 when Oh! What a Lovely War was first shown to the public. Performed by the Theatre Workshop - a company she had co-created - the play was warmly received by the audience and critics alike. Despite their different reactions, both texts were on the cutting edge of anti-war sentiment and continue to be modern classics. Although the texts focus on different wars and different perspectives (Littlewood's play explores World War One from a primarily British perspective and Heller's novel is an American outlook on World War Two) their main themes are similar. ...read more.

Middle

(p46) In the same way, the character Milo Minderbinder in Catch 22 exposes the lack of morals and boundaries capitalism creates in wartime. His collaboration with the enemy goes unnoticed due to his profit-making, and he even ends up bombing his own men and planes as part of a German contract; 'If I can persuade the Germans to pay me a thousand dollars for every plane I shoot down, why shouldn't I?'(p273) he tells Yossarian. The forces of religious belief in Littlewood's play are greeted with hostility as tools for the war propaganda machine, who support the war effort rather than fighting for the rights of the soldiers; Chaplain: ... it is no longer a sin to labour for war on the Sabbath...the Chief Rabbi has absolved your Jewish brethren from abstaining from pork in the trenches. (p77) Religion is portrayed in a slightly more sympathetic light in Heller's novel. The Chaplain is the only character who really connects with Yossarian, and his efforts to help dissuade the Generals from raising the number of missions proves a real commitment and solidarity to the squadron. He is rejected from the Officer's Hall and treated disrespectfully by the Colonels, showing us that even Christianity is powerless in the face of such frighteningly stubborn authority. Another key theme of both texts is the portrayal of war as a game, or as something frivolous and light-hearted by those in authority. The very form of Oh! What a Lovely War is as a musical show, with song and dance. Key song titles include 'I'll make a man out of you' and the grand finale track 'Oh it's a lovely war' which paints the text as a Broadway extravaganza rather than a harrowing look at battle. This technique is very effective in creating a bitter and attacking tone towards authoritative powers - especially considering the nature of the opening scene. ...read more.

Conclusion

The specific targeting of key characters is evident in Heller's novel as it was in Oh! What a Lovely War, with the Colonels and Generals (Cathcart, Korn, Dreedle and Peckam among others) being the main hosts for criticism. However, I believe there is a difference between both texts regarding the role authoritative figures play in war. Whereas Littlewood shows us that the commanding men create the chaos due to their own callous stupidity, in Catch 22 the madness of war seems to be a character unto itself. Although the commanding officers are idiotic and dangerously selfish, this insane wartime logic affects most of the ordinary men - except for Yossarian and the Chaplain. A good example of this is near the end of the novel when Aarfy - one of the men in the squadron - rapes and kills a young girl. Yossarian's utter horror when he discovers the scene is elevated further with the arrival of the police, who arrest him for being in Rome without a pass, completely ignoring the dead body on the pavement. Aarfy's explanation 'I hardly think they're going to make too much of a fuss over one poor Italian servant girl, when so many thousands of lives are being lost every day' seems to bear a lot of truth. The infuriating authority figures in this novel and the foolish stunts they are engaged in appear to be more a product of war madness than a cause of it. Therefore, although both texts portray figures of authority in similar ways, their intentions are fundamentally different. Littlewood blames the commanding individuals and glorifies the men who were sacrificed under ridiculous orders. Heller looks beyond these small but powerful characters to a greater evil - the madness of war and the insane chaos it creates in all; Colonels, Generals, Capitalists and even ordinary soldiers. 1 The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade was created to divert attention towards Captain Black and thus gain him a promotion - the men must swear an oath of allegiance 'to get their pay from the finance officer...to have their hair cut by the barbers.' (p125) ...read more.

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