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 Littlewoods 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 1960s, (Catch 22 was published in 1961 whilst Littlewoods 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 (Littlewoods play explores World War One from a primarily British perspective and Hellers novel is an American outlook on World War Two) their main themes are similar. Both texts are exploring the tragedy of war, the utter absurdity of it, the thirst for power and money war brings, and the ignorance of authoritative organisations. Figures of authority are numerous in both pieces, and do not only include the upper ranks (such as Generals, Field Marshalls and Colonels) but also the representations of business and religious organisations, for they too can be viewed as having authoritative roles in society, especially in wartime.
One technique used by both authors is a demonstration of the lack of communication between commanding powers. Littlewoods portrayal of the allied army leaders is very effective in signalling how inefficient they are at communicating with one another. The French General Lanzerac and British Field Marshall French do not even speak the same language, and Frenchs unwillingness to do so reveals the total futility and worthlessness of their meeting:
Aide: Do you think I ought to organise an ¦ interpreter?
French: Dont be ridiculous Wilson; the essential problem at the moment is ¦ the
In this scene the obsession with secrecy over commonsense negotiations shows us how inefficient the allied army authorities are, and the analogy of the different languages spoken serves to demonstrate the complete lack of communication amongst authoritative powers that hold the fate of thousands in their hands.
In the same way, Catch 22 looks at the problem of communication within the upper ranks. The call General Peckam receives from Ex P.C Wintergreen the sole words being T.S. Elliot'(sic) has no hidden meaning but is interpreted in an absurd way; Perhaps its a new code or something, like the colors of the day. Why dont you check with Communications and see if its a new code or something or the colors of the day? (p45). This sentence also shows us some insight into General Peckams intellect, which doesnt seem to be substantial demonstrated by the repetition and imprecision of speech. Another example of these communicative difficulties is the case of Major Major who receives documents to sign, which have his signature already.
The squabbling within the upper ranks is evident in both texts and serves to show us the pettiness and idiocy of figures of authority. There are many instances in Catch 22 where the Generals are engaged in sneaky tricks against one another. General Dreedles hatred of his son-in-law Colonel Moodus for example, inspires him to keep a beautiful nurse just to torment him with, and the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade1 is started by Captain Black in an attempt to avenge himself on Major Major (who gained the promotion Captain Black was waiting for). Similarly in Oh! What a Lovely War, the Belgian, British and French army officials are at odds with one another.
The Belgian army are in a sorry state, the French are angry at the British, and the British refuse to believe they have any responsibility in the war; Were not here under any obligation French persists in telling Lanzerac. The heated discussion only ends when Lanzerac is offered a medal on behalf of the King of England. This gesture pleases the General, who kisses French on both cheeks and leaves, suggesting that the upper ranks of the army are only interested in recognition and promotion. This is a very powerful notion in Catch 22, in which key characters such as Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart will do everything in their power to be promoted. Cathcart says of his ambition: What else have we got to do? Everyone teaches us to aspire to higher things. A general is higher than a colonel and a colonel is higher than a lieutenant colonel. So were both aspiring (p450).
One of the most important aspects of both texts is how different the experience of war is for the upper ranks and the ordinary men. The inability of authoritative figures to understand the realities of war and their cruel, seemingly deliberate ignorance in many situations is demonstrated in a number of key scenes. An important example of this in Oh! What a Lovely War is on pages 50/51 where a commanding officer reveals his detachment from ordinary trench life, and his unawareness of the death that surrounds the men every day; Ye Gods! Whats that? he asks the Lieutenant upon encountering a German limb that holds up the parapet, immediately telling the men to get rid of it as soon as possible. The Sergeants response reveals how clueless those in authority are to the brutalities of war: Heads, trunks, blood all over the place, and all hes worried about is a damned leg.
This warped, uninformed sense of priority and general detachment is evident in Catch 22, especially within Colonel Cathcarts storyline. Hellers novel is jumbled chronologically, but one dependable indication of time is the number of missions the men are forced to fly under Cathcarts orders, which steadily increases as the story progresses. What is simply a number for the colonel is a very real death threat to the men of his squadron, many of whom reach the target just as the missions increase. Cathcart raises them for purely selfish reasons he hopes to gain recognition for his squadrons record and receive a promotion. The Colonels constant cry of Doesnt he know theres a war going on when Yossarian refuses to fly further missions is one of Hellers brilliant lines of absurd irony, as it relates directly to the figures of authority in the novel. They seem to be playing an insane game, unaware of how their actions affect the men they themselves dont realise theyre fighting a war.
Other instances of differences between upper and lower rank men can be found in both texts. The final scene of Oh! What a Lovely War portrays the men as lambs to the slaughter at the order of their glory-obsessed officer, and we find them shouting Baaa baaa baaa ¦(p86) as they advance towards the guns. In Catch 22 the Colonels are amazed that the ordinary men worship the same God as them, and after the revelation from the Chaplain refuse to believe it saying What nonsense! Does he expect us to believe that? and Chaplain, arent you stretching things a bit far now?(p407).
A noticeable aspect of both texts is the portrayal of other key figures of authority primarily those of big business and religion. Where Littlewood is severely critical of both, Heller holds some sympathy for his character the Chaplain (a representation of religion). Common to both writers is a disgust toward capitalists who exploit war for their own commercial gain. The munitions manufacturers in Oh! What a Lovely War are introduced on stage as members of a shooting party, an ironic analogy highlighting the part they play in the destruction of so many young men. They discuss the peace scares that threaten their income, and congratulate one another for their inhuman schemes in money making:
Britain: German chappies were caught on their own barbed wire?¦.Dashed clever. (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 shouldnt I?'(p273) he tells Yossarian. The forces of religious belief in Littlewoods 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 Hellers 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 Officers 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 Ill make a man out of you and the grand finale track Oh its 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. In a circus like frenzy the MC brings on the players of the war game; France, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Great Britain and Russia. This structural difference between the play and Catch 22 means that Oh! What a Lovely War parodies authority more consistently. Littlewood constructed the play as a show, so the ability of characters in power to undermine the seriousness of war is endless.
The War Game is a classic example of this, as is the grouse-shooting party which consists of munitions manufacturers from the key nations involved in war. Other techniques were available to Littlewood lyrically bitter songs and the use of slides as an accompaniment to the speech, which both served as attacking forces against the power of authority in the play. Examples of this can be found in song titles such as If the sergeant steals your rum and ironic lyrics like with our old commander, safely in the rear in the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers. The use of slides and the newspanel is used on many occasions as a reinforcement of the ignorance seen in authoritative men such as Haig:
Newspanel: BY NOV 1916 ¦ TWO AND A HALF MILLION MEN KILLED ON WESTERN FRONT
Haig: I thank you, God; the attack is a great success. (p78)
They are also used comically to outline the stupidity of the Generals:
British Admiral: ¦ Have you got a plan?
British General: Of course.
Slide 5: A blank
British Admiral: Yes, I thought so. (p6)
In a structural sense, the techniques available to Heller with which to parody authority are much more limited. In a novel, all character representations are formed with literary descriptions and cannot rely on visual or aural aids like a play. His technique of storytelling is not as varied or spectacular as Littlewoods, but the effects of his bizarre plots are as successful in criticising authoritative powers as the use of slides and song in Oh! What a Lovely War. Colonel Cathcarts bombing pattern is a sufficient example of this and bears comparison with the War Game approach by Littlewood. Disregarding the fact that men are risking their lives on the insane bombardier missions they are forced to fly, Cathcarts sole concern is whether their bombs create an aesthetically pleasing pattern from the air We didnt get the bridge he tells Milo whilst recalling a previous mission, but we did have a beautiful bomb pattern. I remember General Peckam commenting on it. (p¦
The episodic form of both texts may disrupt the sense of progression, but it is noticeable that the tone of both pieces of literature changes as they near completion. The bitterness towards authority increases, and humour is more often interspersed with moments of seriousness and tragedy. In Act Two of Littlewoods play, a moment of chaos reaches a serious climax with the juxtaposition of Haig and the British Generals telephone conversations against a background of men singing They were only playing leapfrog. The two men speak simultaneously in broken sentences until Haigs final comment No, you must reserve the artillery; we are using too many shells is uttered at the same time as the Generals last words, Night has fallen. The clouds are gathering. The men are lost somewhere in no mans land.
This uncharacteristically sombre moment is shocking and serves to signpost the ignorance and inhumanity of Haig in times of crisis. In a similar way the absurd force of bureaucracy in Hellers novel borders on seriousness when Don Daneeka is recorded as killed and remains dead due to the power of paperwork. His presence in the novel is a tragic reminder of the madness of war, and his character becomes a living ghost, the sacks under his eyes turned hollow and black, and he padded through the shadows fruitlessly like an ubiquitous spook¦then, only then, did he realize that, to all intents and purposes, he really was dead. (p366)
The endings of both texts leave the reader with a slightly different outlook of authority and war. Whereas Oh! What a Lovely War finishes as it started, with a grand song in the traditional musical style, Catch 22 is much more subdued and understated. Both endings tell us something about the intention of the author, and of their opinion on the subject of war and authority. Littlewood wants to leave the audience feeling embittered and slightly outraged at the notion of the Great War as a show, in order to demonstrate the atrocities committed by those in authority against the ordinary men.
The final songs Chanson de Craonne, I dont want to be a Soldier, And when they ask us, and Oh its a lovely war express both comic elements (Id rather stay at home ¦ and live off the earnings of a lady typist) and the tragic undertones that run throughout the play (I dont want a bayonet in my belly). Although these final songs are more preoccupied with the tragedy and futility of warfare, their tone is still bitter towards commanding powers such as the King and the Generals who promised them a lovely war, and described the life of a soldier as the cushiest job they would ever have.
The cause of this great tragedy is clearly explained in Littlewoods play as a direct result of the ignorance and greed of commanding powers, in particular the European Empires and Haig, along with his circle of title-seeking aristocrats. Within the play there are other specific objects of blame; firstly the British Generals, Field Marshall French, and the British Aristocracy. Other possible areas of criticism lie in the portrayal of religion, and of the capitalists who profited from the war. Oh! What a Lovely War is a text very much favouring the ordinary soldiers, all of whom are represented as decent, kind-hearted, and spirited young men. These soldiers are the victims of authoritative powers, they are the lambs going to slaughter, and the grouse at the shooting party. Littlewood is not vague or subtle in her attack of the commanding men, and portrays them as idiots, fat cats and cowards. She intends to show us that they were the main cause of madness in wartime, and that these men of authority should be held to blame for the destruction of a generation.
The conclusion of Catch 22 is quite different, and ends with the spontaneous attempt by Yossarian to run away from the military base. Hellers ending is a very interesting final act of defiance for his character, against the powers of authority in the novel. Despite having an easy route out of the air force a simple but dishonest deal with Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn Yossarian chooses to reject it. The presence of Natelys whore at the very end of the novel, who unsuccessfully tries to stab him, is perhaps an indicator that Yossarian is making the right choice in escaping from the madness and corruption of bureaucracy (the main authoritative force in Catch 22). The specific targeting of key characters is evident in Hellers 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.
wYossarians 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. Aarfys explanation I hardly think theyre 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)