This is a short one act play about a guy named Napoleon. Just in case you don't know what Napoleon looked like here is a picture:
If you don't happen to know who Napoelon is then I suggest you check him out on Wikipedia. Now that we have sorted out everybody who didn't pay attention in high school history (and those who weren't taught about this guy in high school history – if history was actually taught at their high school because some people, like Henry Ford, believe that history is bunk) I can now start talking about the play without having to go into a huge about of background material.
The play is set at an inn in the Italian Alps when Napoleon was still a general and after he had defeated the Italians at the battle of Lodi. According to Shaw Napoleon came to the conclusion that cannons would be a lot more effective if you actually fired them at the enemy as opposed to, well, anywhere eles (though I'm sure military commanders were always firing cannons at people because, unless those people are behind a wall, what is the good of having a cannon – okay, to knock down walls, but I'm sure armies used cannons for a lot more than knocking down walls and scaring horses). He also indicated that Napoleon made effective use of an underpaid and unequipped army simply by telling them that once that had won the battle then they were free to plunder the enemy (which, once again, I hardly consider all that original).
Anyway, the play isn't about the battle, or Napoleon's tactics, but rather a tet-a-tet between Napoleon and an unnamed lady. We are never revealed the name of this woman (I thought that it may have been Josephine, but it is suggested that he was already married to Josephine at the time). This lady had managed to convince one of Napoleon's officers to hand over some correspondence that was being delivered from Paris, and then proceeds to spend the entire play teasing Napoleon about having this correspondence, but not actually giving it to him.
Actually, come to think of it, it could have been Josephine since one of the letters was about how Josephine was having an affair in Paris with one of the directors, and if Napoleon were to receive this letter then it would cause a huge disruption inside France, which would hinder it's ability to successfully rage war against, well, everybody else. Why Napoleon never actually recognised her is beyond me, but then again I suspect that Shaw was using a bit of poetic license (and once again, as I have suggested, the lady's identity is never revealed to us).
The title of the play gives us a hint as to one of the themes running through it, namely that this event occurs before Napoleon becomes emperor, but also at a time when he is on the cusp of seizing power. We are reminded throughout the play of his common origins, and the fact that not only was he technically not French, but he was also provincial. We are also reminded that he wasn't the best soldier, and was also a failed novelist, and the idea of him even getting to this point was nothing short of absurd – yet here he is. The play looks forward to what he is to become – an emperor and a conqueror. In a way it is suggesting that destiny is truly behind Napoleon because a man of his stature, and origins, is not the type of person one would expect to sit on the cusp of ruling continental Europe.
In a way the play is very typical of Shaw. We are not seeing Napoleon as a great hero (or a nasty villain) but as a ordinary man in an ordinary situation. Further, we are seeing him being bamboozled by a woman, not so much because Shaw is making him a laughing stock (though I wouldn't put it past him because the British were well known for their caricatures of the French Emperor), but rather painting him as an ordinary person in an extra-ordinary situation. I guess there are also elements of the romantic in this play, though this isn't necessarily a story of how two lovers come together, but rather the tension that exists between the sexes (though I did sense a lot of sexual tension in the play).
Another interesting thing that I did pick up is how Napoleon is portrayed as somewhat of a buffoon. In a way the British portrayal of Napoleon seems to be different to the portrayal of Hitler – who was a dangerous man that had to be stopped. Sure, Napoleon had conquered Europe, but England spent a lot of the war comfortably sitting on their island across the channel. In fact it seems that, with the exception of Trafalgar, the British didn't sent troops to the continent until Napoleon was well and truly defeated. After Trafalgar it seemed as if the attitude was 'he can't get us, so let's just sit back and watch the show'. I guess the play also adds to that rather clownish image that has come down to us.