Arms and the Man
Arms and the Man
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
Shaw was already a celebrity arts critic and socialist lecturer when he wrote Arms and the Man in 1894. One of Shaw's earliest attempts at writing for the theatre, it was also his first commercial success as a playwright. Although it played for only one season at an avant-garde theatre, thanks to the financial backing of a friend, it was later produced in America in 1895. Accustomed to the melodramas of the age, however, even sophisticated audiences often did not discern the serious purpose of Shaw's play. Thus, Shaw considered it a failure.
True success did not come until 1898, when Arms and the Man was published as one of the "pleasant" plays in Shaw's collection called Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, and it subsequently gained popularity as a written work. Included in this collection of plays are lengthy explanatory prefaces, which note significant issues in the plays and which have been invaluable to critics. In place of brief stage directions, Shaw's plays also included lengthy instructions and descriptions. Another unique aspect of Arms and the Man was its use of a woman as the central character.
Set during the four-month-long Serbo-Bulgarian War that occurred between November 1885 and March 1886, this play is a satire on the foolishness of glorifying something so terrible as war, as well as a satire on the foolishness of basing your affections on idealistic notions of love. These themes brought reality and a timeless lesson to the comic stage. Consequently, once Shaw's genius was recognized, Arms and the Man became one of Shaw's most popular plays and has remained a classic ever since.
Considered one of the greatest English-speaking dramatist since Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw was born July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland, and had a long and productive life. He was the only son and youngest of three children born to George Carr and Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly Shaw, who were Irish Protestant gentry. Shaw's education involved tutoring from an uncle and at a series of schools, but he quit school at fifteen to work in an estate agent's office for five years. In 1876, he went to London to join his sister and his mother, who had left Shaw's alcoholic father to pursue careers as a music teacher and opera singer.
Shaw was supported by his mother and sister as he wrote five unsuccessful novels. In 1888, he became the music critic for a newspaper, and then in 1895, he took a position as the drama critic at the Saturday Review, a position he held for three years. A devotee of Henrik Ibsen, he wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1890) and modeled his own works after the individualism and the moral and social issues that he saw in Ibsen's drama. Through his own plays, Shaw is credited with creating the "drama of ideas." Among his best-known plays are Arms and the Man (1894), Saint Joan (1923), Man and Superman (1905), Major Barbara (1905), Candida (1897), and Pygmalion (first English production in 1914; it was produced in German translation in 1913). Pygmalion was made into a movie, for which Shaw won an Academy Award for best screenplay in 1938. The play was later made into a musical, My Fair Lady (1964), with book and score by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Lowe; the musical version retained the plot, characters, and many of the lines from the original play.
In 1898, Shaw married Charlotte Francis Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress. Their marriage lasted until her death in 1943. A vegetarian, teetotaler, and fervent socialist, Shaw championed the causes of women and the poor. He was an active member in the Fabian Society, which proposed gradual, nonrevolutionary socialist reforms in the structure of society and the economy. In 1895, with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, he helped establish the London School of Economics.
Shaw wrote numerous pamphlets and kept busy as a lecturer on issues in politics, economics, and sociology. He was also a prolific letter writer. Greatly criticized for his opposition to World War I, Shaw was eventually forgiven by the public as his predictions about the conflict came true and people started to understand the true nature of war. In 1925, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died November 2, 1950, at his home in Hertfordshire, England. He left his fortune to the movement for rational spelling, the British Library, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
It is November 1885, during the Serbo-Bulgarian War. Raina Petkoff, a young Bulgarian woman, is in her bedchamber when her mother, Catherine, enters and announces there has been a battle close by and that Raina's fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff, was the hero of a cavalry charge. The women rejoice that Sergius has proven to be as heroic as they expected, but they soon turn to securing the house because of fighting in the streets. Nonetheless, a Serbian officer gains entry through Raina's shutters. Raina decides to hide him and she denies having seen anyone when she is questioned by a Russian officer who is hunting for a man seen climbing the water pipe to Raina's balcony. Raina covers well, and the Russian leaves without noticing the pistol on Raina's bed.
When Raina hands the gun to the Serbian after the Russian leaves, the Serbian admits that the gun is not loaded because he carries chocolates in his cartridge belt instead of ammunition. He explains that he is a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs because it is his profession to be a soldier and the Serbian war was close by. He adds that old, experienced soldiers carry food while only the young soldiers carry weapons. Shocked by this attitude, Raina criticizes him for being a poor soldier. He counters by describing what makes a real fool, not knowing that his version of the day's cavalry charge makes fun of her betrothed. She is incensed but agrees to let him stay once he impresses upon her the danger of going back out into the street. She tries to impress him with her family's wealth and position, saying that they have the nobility to give refuge to an enemy. He pledges her safety and advises her to tell her mother about his presence, to keep matters proper. While she is gone, he falls into a deep sleep on her bed and he cannot be roused by a shocked Catherine. Raina takes pity on him and asks that they let him sleep.
On March 6, 1886, Raina's father, Major Paul Petkoff, comes home and announces the end of the war. Catherine is upset that the Serbians have agreed to a peace treaty, believing that her side should have a glorious victory. Major Saranoff arrives just after Petkoff makes comments indicating that Saranoff is not a talented military leader. Catherine praises Saranoff, but he announces that he is resigning from the army. Raina joins the conversation just before the discussion turns to a Swiss officer who bested the men in a horse trade and who had been, according to a friend's story, rescued by two Bulgarian ladies after a battle. Catherine and Raina pretend to be shocked by such unpatriotic behavior.
Catherine and Major Petkoff leave the two young people to have some time to alone. Raina and Sergius exchange all the silly platitudes expected of lovers about how much they missed each other and how they worship each other. However, while Raina is away to get her hat for a walk, Sergius flirts with the maid, Louka, whom he has apparently chased in the past. Louka protests his behavior and reveals that there is someone for whom Raina has real feelings, not the fake ones she puts on for Segius. Sergius becomes angry and insults Louka, although he is confused about his own feelings.
Sergius goes to help Petkoff with some final military business. In his absence, Catherine tells Raina that Petkoff has asked for the coat they gave the enemy soldier when he left. Just then, the Swiss officer, Captain Bluntschli, arrives to return the coat. The women try but fail to hurry him away before Petkoff and Sergius see him. Bluntschli offers to help them with the logistics of their troop movements, and Petkoff invites him to stay, much to the discomfort of the ladies.
Bluntschli is busy drawing up orders, and Saranoff signs them as everyone else is lounging in the library. Petkoff complains that he would be more comfortable in his old coat, but he cannot find it. Now that Bluntschli has returned it, Catherine insists that the coat is in the blue closet, where she placed it since the last time her husband looked. When the servant finds the coat in the appropriate closet, Petkoff dismisses the incident as a foible of old age.
When Saranoff and Petkoff go out to deliver orders to the couriers, Raina has a chance to talk with Bluntschli alone, and she lets him know that his story about his evening in her room made it through camp rumors all the way to her father and her fiancé. After bantering about honor and lies, Raina reveals that she had slipped her portrait and a note into her father's old coat when she gave it to Bluntschli. Unfortunately, Bluntschli never discovered it, and they realize that it could still be in the pocket. A messenger arrives with telegrams that tell Bluntschli that his father has died and that he must attend to the family business.
Louka and the manservant, Nicola, have an exchange about Louka's ambitions and about the role of servants. Nicola realizes that it might be more to his advantage to let Louka marry Saranoff and to then become their servant. Later, Saranoff and Louka argue about whether Saranoff is afraid to express his love for Louka, and she reveals that Raina has fallen for Bluntschli. Saranoff challenges Bluntschli to a duel, but when Raina charges that she saw Saranoff with Louka, he backs off. Raina then stirs Saranoff's emotions by telling him that Louka is engaged to Nicola.
Petkoff enters, complaining that his coat had to be repaired. When Raina helps Petkoff put on the coat, she pulls the incriminating photo from the pocket and tosses it to Bluntschli, not knowing that her father has already seen the photo. When Petkoff does not find the photo in his pocket, the questioning begins about the photo's inscription to a "Chocolate Cream Soldier," and an avalanche of truthful revelations from all parties begins. Nicola wisely denies being engaged to Louka so she can marry Saranoff. As Catherine protests the dishonor to Raina, Louka injects that Raina would not have married Saranoff anyway because of Bluntschli. The Swiss captain is hesitant to declare himself in love until he learns that Raina is twenty-three years old, and is not the teenager he thought she was. Confident then that she is old enough to know her feelings, Bluntschli asks for Raina's hand in marriage. Again, Catherine protests because she thinks Bluntschli cannot provide for her daughter appropriately, so he tells them of his great wealth. Raina puts up a token protest about being sold to the highest bidder, but Bluntschli reminds her that she fell in love with him before she knew he had any rank or money. She capitulates, and the play ends with everyone happy.
Bluntschli is a realist who believes in adapting to a situation in order to survive. A professional soldier, he knows that he is only a tool and he has no illusions about war and the practical actions one must take to win battles and stay alive. His most famous feature is that he keeps chocolates in his cartridge belt rather than bullets. His common sense appeals to Sergius, who is in awe of Bluntschli's ability to figure out troop movements. This influence helps Sergius make the decision to be honest about Louka and to change his life.
When Bluntschli takes refuge in Raina's bedroom, he starts a chain of events that changes his life and the lives of all those associated with the Petkoff family. Despite his pragmatism, Bluntschli has a romantic side, illustrated by such actions as: he ran off to be a soldier rather than go into his father's business; he climbs a balcony to escape rather than drop into a cellar; and he himself returns the borrowed coat rather than shipping it, because he wants to see Raina. He has always known that total pragmatism can be as unrealistic as overblown idealism and he has tried to maintain a balance. However, over the course of the play, this balance flip-flops as he changes from a soldier who looks askance at love, to a man who is leaving the army to get married and to take care of his father's business. Thus, the man who changed Raina's and Sergius's lives has also had his own life transformed.
An ambitious and sometimes spiteful maid who is desperate to rise above her station, Louka is attracted to Major Sergius Saranoff, and he to her. However, Sergius is engaged to Raina, and he is gentry while Louka is just a servant. Louka shames Sergius about the hypocrisy of his behavior. She tries to break up his relationship with Raina when Captain Bluntschli returns, knowing that Bluntschli is the enemy soldier who hid in Raina's bedroom. Louka is herself supposedly engaged to another servant, Nicola, who advises her to accept her place in life, but she rejects his downcast philosophy and eventually wins her man and a new life.
A wily servant, Nicola covers for Raina and Catherine's intrigues. He believes that class division is an indisputable system, and he advises Louka to accept her place. He found Louka, taught her how to be a proper servant, and plans to marry her, but he comes to see how Louka's marriage to Sergius would create an advantage for both Louka and for himself. Thus, he changes his story about his engagement to Louka, and he promotes Louka's ambitions. Ultimately, Nicola wants to run his own business, so he will do whatever it takes to stay in favor with potential patrons, while taking advantage of opportunities to earn extra capital for special services.
• A film version of Arms and the Man, adapted by Shaw and produced by John Maxwell, was created for British International Pictures in 1932.
Raina's mother and the wife of Major Paul Petkoff, Catherine is a nouveau-riche social climber. Crudely ignorant and snooty, Catherine is Shaw's voice for the stereotypical expectations of romanticized love and war. Catherine is disappointed when the war ends in a peace treaty, because she wanted a glorious victory over a soundly defeated enemy. Although she allows Bluntschli to hide in her home and she helps to keep him secret, she thinks Sergius Saranoff is the ideal handsome hero her daughter must marry for an appropriate match. She declares Bluntschli unsuitable until she finds out how rich he is, and then she quickly changes her mind.
Major Paul Petkoff
Raina's father and Catherine's husband, Major Petkoff is an amiable, unpolished buffoon who craves rank and has somehow stumbled into wealth. His rank was given to him for being the richest Bulgarian, but he has no military skills. His purpose in the play is almost that of a prop. It is his old coat that is lent to Bluntschli and which then gives Bluntschli the excuse to come back to see Raina. It is Petkoff who discovers the incriminating photo in his coat pocket that leads to the revelation of the truth and to the resolution of the story.
The central character in the play, Raina learns to discard her foolish ideals about love in exchange for real love. Raina is central because Catherine and Paul Petkoff are her parents, Sergius is her fiancé, Louka and Nicola are her family's servants, and Bluntschli is her dream soldier. The play starts in her bedroom, where we learn what a dreamy romantic she is about love and war, before the enemy soldier comes through her window and begins to shatter her fairy-tale illusions with his realism.
Shaw was known for creating lively, willful, and articulate female characters. He also often included a youthful character in his plays, one who could express a childish approach to life. Raina fits both these descriptions. She is unworldly and sometimes acts like a spoiled child to get her way. Catherine points out that Raina always times her entrances to get the most attention. Nonetheless, Raina is intelligent. She probably wouldn't have fallen for Bluntschli if she had not been open to his arguments and if she were not smart enough to see the differences in qualities between Bluntschli and Saranoff. She is also honest enough with herself to realize that she is not truly in love with Saranoff, but was just playing a role to meet social expectations. Raina has enough bravery and compassion to aid an enemy soldier in need, and she is courageous and adventurous enough to take a risk with Bluntschli and to start a new life.
Major Sergius Saranoff
Major Saranoff is Raina's fiancé, and he is a shining example of Raina and her mother's romanticized image of a hero. He is almost quixotic in his attempt to live up to this image, especially in battle, for it is hopeless to try to embody a myth. Thus, Shaw uses this character to show that these romanticized ideals were probably nonsense all along. Sergius is often referred to as the Byronic hero or as the Hamlet of this play because he has an underlying despair about life. He clings to his idealized image of himself because he is afraid to find out who he really is. He knows that he is a different person with Raina than he is with Louka, and Louka has pointed out his hypocritical behaviors to him. Sergius realizes that there must be more to himself than the idealized soldier the young ladies worship, but of the other selves that he has observed in himself he says: "One of them is a hero, another a buffoon, another a humbug, another perhaps a bit of a blackguard." He is disconcerted by the feeling that "everything I think is mocked by everything I do." In losing Raina and declaring his love for Louka, Sergius is freed to be himself and to discover his own values.
Romanticism of War
In line after line, Shaw satirizes the romantic notions about war that glorify a grisly business. If not for the comic dialogue, the audience would more easily recognize that they are being presented with a soldier who has escaped from a horrific battle after three days of being under fire. He is exhausted, starving, and being pursued. Such is the experience of a real soldier. Late in the play, Shaw throws in a gruesome report on the death of the man who told Bluntschli's secret about staying in Raina's bedroom; there is nothing comic or heroic about being shot in the hip and then burned to death. When Raina expresses horror at such a death, Sergius adds, "And how ridiculous! Oh, war! War! The dream of patriots and heroes! A fraud, Bluntschli, a hollow sham." This kind of description caused Shaw's critics to accuse him of baseness, of trying to destroy the heroic concept. That a soldier would prefer food to cartridges in his belt was considered ludicrous by critics, but in the introduction to Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, Shaw was reported to have said that all he had to do was introduce any doubters to the first six real soldiers they came across, and his stage soldier would prove authentic.
It is also noteworthy that Catherine is dissatisfied with a peace treaty because, in her unrealistic vision of glorious war, there is supposed to be a crushing rout of the enemy followed by celebrations of a heroic victory. Shaw's message here is that there can be peaceful alternatives to perpetual fighting. He was dedicated throughout his life to curbing violence, especially that of wars, and Arms and the Man was one of the vehicles he used to plead his case.
Romanticism of Love
Shaw was a master flirt and he enjoyed the playful farce of romantic intrigues. But he recognized that playing a game differed from serious love, and he tried to convey as much in Arms and the Man, which is subtitled "An Anti-Romantic Comedy." In the play, Raina and Sergius have paired themselves for all the wrong reasons: because their social status requires a mate from the same social level; and because Sergius plays the role of the type of hero that Raina has been taught to admire, and Raina plays the role that Sergius expects from a woman of her station. The problem is that neither is portraying his/her real self, so their love is based on outward appearances, not on the true person beneath the facade. They are both acting out a romance according to their idealized standards for courtship rather than according to their innermost feelings. Just as the cheerleader is expected to fall for the star quarterback, Raina has fallen for her brave army officer who looks handsome in his uniform. When Bluntschli and Louka force Raina and Sergius to examine their true feelings, Raina and Sergius discover that they have the courage and desire to follow their hearts instead of seeking to meet social expectations.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Shaw greatly admired the artist and socialist William Morris. Write a brief biography that identifies Morris and his legacy.
- The title of Arms and the Man comes from the opening line of Virgil's epic poem "The Aeneid." Write a summary of this poem and contrast its message to that of Shaw's play.
- Shaw identified himself as a socialist and he helped to organize the Fabian Society. What is the Fabian Society, what were its goals, and what were some of the works that Shaw wrote while a Fabian?
- Arms and the Man was set during a war in the Balkans between the Bulgarians and the Serbians. The Serbians were recently again involved in a war that resulted in international intervention. Trace and report on the history of the various Balkan conflicts from the late 1800s to the present day, including the Serbian involvement in the start of World War I.
- Shaw is credited with initiating the "theater of ideas." What does this term mean? How were Shaw's plays different from most theater during the Victorian era and what was Shaw's impact on the theater world?
As a socialist, Shaw believed in the equality of all people and he abhorred discrimination based on gender or social class. These beliefs are evident in the relationships portrayed in Arms and the Man. Shaw allows a maid to succeed in her ambitions to better herself by marrying Sergius, an officer and a gentleman. This match also means that Sergius has developed the courage to free himself from the expectations of his class and instead marry the woman he loves. The silliness of Catherine's character is used to show the illogical nature of class snobbery, as she clearly makes divisions between her family and the servants, even though, or perhaps because, the Petkoffs themselves have only recently climbed the social ladder. The play also attacks divisions of rank, as Captain Bluntschli has leadership abilities that the superior-ranking officers, Majors Petkoff and Saranoff, do not have, illustrating the fact that ability has little to do with rank. Ability also has little to do with class, as exemplified by the character of Nicola, who is declared the ablest, and certainly the wiliest, character in the play.
Idealism versus Realism
Arms and the Man illustrates the conflict between idealism and realism. The romantic ideal of war as a glorious opportunity for a man to display courage and honor is dispelled when Sergius admits that his heroic cavalry charge that won the battle was the wrong thing to do. His notable action does not get him his promotion and Sergius learns that "Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm's way when you are weak."
Sergius and Raina must face the fact that their ideals about love are false. Fortunately, both of them are actually released by this knowledge to pursue their true loves. But first, Sergius goes through a period of despair in which he questions whether life is futile if the ideals by which he has set his standards of conduct fail to hold up when exposed to reality. This question is an underlying current throughout the play. Shaw gives a happy resolution, but it is a serious question that most people must face in life.
Much is made of Bluntschli's realism—i.e., keeping chocolates instead of ammunition in his cartridge belt, showing contempt for sentimentality, and reacting in a practical manner to his father's death. However, Nicola is the consummate realist in the play. Nicola's message is: adapt, exploit, survive. Bluntschli proves to have a romantic side, after all, and thus is the most balanced character in the play in that he seems to know when to temper his romanticism with realism and when to stick to his ideals.
Although already established as a model for romances prior to the publication of Anthony Hope's popular 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda, Ruritanian romance takes its name from the imaginary country of Ruritania found in Hope's book. This type of story generally includes intrigue, adventure, sword fights, and star-crossed lovers, ingredients that are all found in Arms and the Man. However, Shaw ultimately attacks this genre by exaggerating the absurdities of the plot and by transforming the typically cookie-cutter characters into people facing reality. He thus inverts the conventions of melodrama and inserts critical commentary into the cleverly funny lines of his play. There is the threat of a sword fight that never comes to fruition, since Bluntschli is too sensible to accept Saranoff's challenge—which illustrates Shaw's belief that dueling is stupid. Romance also plays a big role in Arms and the Man, but, again, Shaw turns the tables by having the heroine and her fiancé abandon their idealized relationship, which would have been prized in a Ruritanian romance, for a more realistic and truer love.
One standard trait of comedic plays—often used by Shakespeare and also used by Shaw in Arms and the Man—is the use of an ending in which all the confusions of the play are resolved, and every romantic figure winds up with his or her ideal partner. The gimmicks in Arms and the Man of the lost coat and the incriminating inscription on the hidden photograph are also ploys that are typical of comedy. The gimmicks serve as catalysts to spark the humorous confusion, and work as objects around which the plot turns. In Shaw's hands, however, comedy is serious business disguised by farce. Always an innovator, Shaw introduced moral instruction into comedic plays, rather than taking the conventional route of writing essays or lectures to communicate his views.
Redefining Romance and Heroism
Shaw does not simply dismiss Raina's idealism in favor of Bluntschli's pragmatism. He replaces her shallow ideals with more worthy ones. By the end of the play, Raina understands that a man like Bluntschli is more of a real hero than Sergius. The audience also discovers that Bluntschli's practical nature is not without romance because he has come back to see Raina rather than sending the coat back by courier. In fact, he admits to Sergius that he "climbed the balcony of this house when a man of sense would have dived into the nearest cellar." Together, Raina, Bluntschli, and Sergius attain a new realism that sees love and heroism as they really should be, according to Shaw. Thus Shaw does not reject romance and heroism, but rather brings his characters to an understanding of a higher definition of these values. That is, the course of the play has worked to maneuver the characters and the audience into a new position and thus redefine romance and heroism according to the light of realism.
Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, was born in 1819 and ruled from 1837–1901. She was married in 1840 to her cousin, Prince Albert, and it was he who insisted on the straitlaced behavior and strict decorum that have become known as Victorian values. They had nine children, whose marriages and prodigy entangled most of the thrones of Europe, including grandchildren Emperor William II of Germany and Empress Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II of Russia. Prince Albert died in 1861 and Victoria largely withdrew from public life, thus damaging her popularity and the political clout she had previously wielded.
When Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister in 1874, he flattered Victoria into resuming some involvement in public affairs, and she regained admiration as well as the title of Empress of India. Disraeli worked for social reform while promoting the growth of the British Empire. In contrast to Disraeli, Victoria greatly disliked William E. Gladstone, who served as prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894. Considered a great statesman, Gladstone championed tax reforms, an end to colonial expansion, and Irish home rule.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1890s: After centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks, in 1878, northern Bulgaria becomes autonomous, and a united Bulgaria gains its independence in 1908.
Today: A German ally in both world wars, Bulgaria falls to Soviet domination during World War II and remains under its control until 1990. Upon signing of the European Constitution in 2004, Bulgaria is de facto considered a full-fledged member of the European Union. Bulgaria also joins NATO in 2004.
- 1890s: After becoming an autonomous principality in 1829, Serbia is recognized in 1878 as an independent country. In 1882, the ruling prince, Milan Obrenovi, is proclaimed king. Obrenovi establishes a liberal constitution, but his son Alexander, who rules from 1889 to 1903, rejects it, evoking hostility in Serbia until he is assassinated in 1903.
Today: From 1992 to 2002, Serbia and Montenegro are joined as the country of Yugoslavia. After 2002, the two states are in a loose federation, and a referendum in each republic concerning full independence is to be held in 2006.
- 1890s: Arms and the Man is in limited production and is not appreciated until its publication several years later.
Today: Arms and the Man is produced around the world and is one of Shaw's most popular plays.
Relative prosperity existed in the late 1800s in England, although there were some years of high unemployment. Agricultural production was at its height. The Crimean War (1854–1856) had been a disaster for England, but otherwise the empire spread prosperously around the globe to include Canada, Australia, India, and large sections of Africa, as well as various Asian and West Indies islands and ports. It is estimated that at one point, one-fourth of the world's population lived under British rule. Consequently, British influence was dominant around the world in this time period and this legacy has had lasting effects into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the family was considered to be the focal point of society. The term "Victorian" is now associated with an inflexible set of manners and prudishness. In truth, the morality of the times was based on a heroic idealism and an honorable work ethic. Character and duty were the watchwords of the times. Class divisions continued, but individual advancement within a class was encouraged. As in many societies, there was a Victorian underworld in which prostitution thrived. It was this conflicting social situation in such morally high-minded times that led Shaw to write his play Mrs. Warren's Profession, a comedy about a prim young lady's discovery that her mother is the owner of a series of brothels. This play was refused a license by the ministry until 1905 because of its unseemly subject.
Victorian literature throughout the nineteenth century was noted for its humor. Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Lewis Carroll were among the many British writers who were successful with comic fiction. Early Victorian theatre was characterized by artificial plots, shallow romantic characters, and melodrama, and played to largely uneducated audiences. By midcentury, Dion Boucicault and Tom Taylor had gained popularity with their comedic plays, in which it was fashionable to play upon the titillation of stories about "fallen" women. Besides farces, many plays of the time were intrigues with complicated and ludicrous plots.
Realistic drama got a start in the 1860s work of T. W. Robertson, but it was not until the 1890s that the most prominent dramatists, Sir A. W. Pinero and H. A. Jones, tried to follow suit. However, neither Pinero nor Jones was able to fully break away from the usual fare expected by theatergoers. Nonetheless, the influence of Henrik Ibsen caused Pinero to join in the movement to write serious "problem" plays, such as his Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893). Ibsen, an enormously influential Norwegian critic and playwright, attacked social norms and hypocrisies. His plays focus on real human concerns and portray characters of depth who are trying to make sense of their lives. Ibsen believed that drama can honestly and meaningfully deal with social problems. In 1891, J. T. Grein organized the Independent Theatre to present plays by Ibsen; it was this theatre that staged Shaw's first plays, which were heavily influenced by Ibsen. In 1895, Oscar Wilde brought further innovation to comedy with one of the greatest English plays, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Although Shaw's drama was not generally appreciated or understood in his early years as a playwright, he was eventually recognized for his genius and is now considered one of the most important British playwrights of modern times, second only to Shakespeare in the history of British theater. This change of opinion developed over time as a result of changes in social attitudes and a general maturing of the theater. Once Shaw's first collection of plays appeared in print, people had the time while reading to unearth the riches of his works. The influence of Ibsen on drama changed the usual fare fed to theatergoers, educating them about the role of drama in telling stories that could instruct and could portray real people and their emotions. These changes made audiences more receptive to the innovations and themes that Shaw conveyed in his plays.
In the 1890s, however, while critics found Shaw's dialogue amusing, they found his work difficult to classify. Early critics misinterpreted his characters, finding them inhuman, and concluded that Shaw had a heartless approach to life. Shaw's attack on the phony idealism associated with war caused him to be accused of trying to destroy the concept of heroism. When Shaw included in Arms and the Man a soldier who carried chocolates rather than bullets, along with descriptions of a bungled cavalry charge and a grisly death, critics accused Shaw of looking only at the baser side of life.
Shaw has had a myriad of books and articles written about him. The following is a brief review of what some of the most eminent critics have said about Shaw's work as a whole, and about Arms and the Man in particular. These reviews are a reflection of the general opinion expressed by those who have studied his works.
One of Shaw's biographers was the famous British novelist, essayist, and religious writer, Gilbert K. Chesterton. Although Chesterton disagreed with Shaw on most social policies, he understood Shaw's dramatic method. Chesterton writes that Shaw "resolved to build a play not on pathos, but on bathos," the reverse of common practice at the time. In other words, Shaw did not follow the melodramatic convention of appealing to pity or sympathy; instead, he exaggerated the pathos and made abrupt changes from a lofty to an ordinary style. Chesterton adds that in Arms and the Man, "there was a savage sincerity," a "strong satire in the idea."
The world-renowned Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges—commenting on the commonplace criticism of Shaw's early plays, which said that Shaw was attempting to destroy the heroic concept—responds that such criticism "did not understand that the heroic was completely independent from the romantic and was embodied in Captain Bluntschli of Arms and the Man, not in Sergius Saranoff." Borges adds that the body of "Shaw's work… leaves an aftertaste of liberation."
German playwright and critic Bertolt Brecht notes of Shaw: "Probably all of his characters, in all of their traits, are the result of Shaw's delight in upsetting our habitual prejudices." Certainly this practice is evidenced in the class prejudices depicted by the Petkoffs against their servants and against their enemies in Arms and the Man. Shaw was known to take some radical positions in his lifetime, but he never resorted to any sort of terrorism other than satire. According to Brecht, "[Shaw's] terror is an unusual one, and he employs an unusual weapon—that of humor."
Shaw considered Arms and the Man to be a failure when it was first staged, because so few people realized his true message or intent. Within ten years, however, lack of understanding was seldom a problem among his readers and audiences who had grown to understand Shaw and his dramatic realism. Critic Arthur Bingham Walkley, a contemporary of Shaw's, is quoted by Barbara M. Fisher in George Bernard Shaw as writing: "In the form of a droll, fantastic farce, [Arms and the Man] presents us with a criticism of conduct, a theory of life." H. W. Nevinson, writing in 1929 for the New Leader, sums up Shaw's drama by noting that Shaw's "plays have laid bare the falsities and hypocrisies and boastful pretensions of our… time. I can think of no modern prophet who has swept away so much accepted rubbish and cleared the air of so much cant."
Kerschen is a school district administrator and freelance writer. In this essay, Kerschen examines the elements of the play that convey Shaw's socialist feelings about class structures and stereotypes.
Although the dominant themes of Arms and the Man are the foolishness of romanticized love and of glorified war, there is another theme concerning social classes. Shaw was one of the key figures in the establishment of the Fabian Society, a middle-class socialist group that believed reform should come through the gradual education of the people and through changes in intellectual and political life, not through revolution. One of the reforms sought by the Fabian Society was the establishment of equality, legally and socially, for all people. Therefore, in Arms and the Man, as with the stereotypes that Shaw targets concerning heroes and the conventions of romance, he also takes aim at the stereotypes and false tenets of class.
Shaw greatly admired the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. According to the Norton Anthology of British Literature, Shaw preferred Ibsen's plays that "attacked middle-class conventionality and hypocrisy rather than those which probed more subtly and poetically into deeper aspects of experience." Indeed, it is this conventionality and hypocrisy that Shaw targets in Arms and the Man. For one thing, Shaw makes fun of the high-class pretensions of the Petkoff family. In the stage directions to Act 1, Shaw describes Raina's bedroom as "half rich Bulgarian and half cheap Viennese." He describes Catherine as "a very splendid specimen of the wife of a mountain farmer, but is determined to be a Viennese lady, and to that end wears a fashionable tea gown on all occasions."
When Raina informs Bluntschli that he is in the house of Petkoff, "the richest and best known [family] in our country," she expects him to be impressed. She brags that her father holds the highest command of any Bulgarian in the Russian army, but it is only the rank of major, which does not say much for the Bulgarians. Raina also brags that hers is the only private house in Bulgaria that has two rows of windows and a flight of stairs to go up and down by. When Bluntschli feigns being impressed, she adds that they have the only library in Bulgaria. She condescendingly tells Bluntschli that he has shown great ignorance, but the audience recognizes that Raina is the one who is pathetically ignorant. She advises Bluntschli that she tells him all these things so that he will know he is not in the house of ignorant country folk. As proof, she declares that she goes to the opera in Bucharest every year and has spent a month in Vienna. Bluntschli says, "I saw at once that you knew the world" when what he is seeing is that she is very unworldly. Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1959 in his article "Ovation for Show" in Modern Drama that Shaw insisted "on the prerogative of every man to act decently, logically, and with a sense of humor" and that a person was obligated to behave this way "even in the face of opposition." Apparently, Shaw gave this attribute to Bluntschli.
Shaw further shows the vulgarity of the Petkoffs when Raina explains that "Bulgarians of really good standing—people in OUR position—wash their hands nearly every day." Raina thinks that simply washing hands is a sign of a gentleman, not knowing that her primitive lifestyle sets her standards low. In Act 2, Major Petkoff blames his wife's chronic sore throat on washing her neck every day. His lecture on the foolishness of frequent bathing is a further sign from Shaw that we are dealing with people who have only recently barely risen above the great unwashed masses. Throwing in the comments about washing being the fault of the English whose climate makes them so dirty is a playful barb at Shaw's own audience.
The repeated reference to their library once again shows that the Petkoffs think that all they need to be gentry is to have a room called the library. Putting a bell in it just heightens the ludicrousness of their pretensions. When Petkoff asks why they cannot just shout for their servants, Catherine replies that she has learned that civilized people never shout for their servants. He counters that he has learned that civilized people do not hang their laundry out to dry where other people can see it. Catherine finds that concept absurd and declares that really refined people do not notice such things, as if she knew. Obviously, neither of them have any idea what refinement is, especially if they have only recently begun learning proper habits.
Bertolt Brecht, in his essay "Ovation for Show," wrote that "Probably all of [Shaw's] characters, in all their traits, are the result of Shaw's delight in upsetting our habitual prejudices." For example, Saranoff assumes that Bluntschli is bourgeois because Bluntschli's father is a hotel and livery keeper. He has jumped to the wrong conclusion because Bluntschli is too humble to brag about his father's holdings. Louka challenges Saranoff's prejudices when she says, "It is so hard to know what a gentleman considers right" after Saranoff jumps back and forth between familiarity with her and putting a barrier between them because he is supposedly a gentleman and she only a maid. In one minute, Louka is worth chasing; in another, she is "an abominable little clod of common clay, with the soul of a servant." But Louka retorts that it does not matter what she is because she has now found out that he is made of the same clay. Shaw is, of course, making the point that virtue and baseness are not the properties of any one class but that we are all human.
Louka is resentful of a society that tries to restrict her to a certain "place." The audience can tell that Louka is better suited to being a mistress than a maid. Nicola tries to convince her that a rigid structure of classes is part of the natural order of things, and that people are more content when they accept their place and stop torturing themselves with useless aspirations. Louka replies disdainfully that Nicola has "the soul of a servant." He may have capitulated to social restrictions, but she will not. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw argued that women should not fall for society's dictum that they be self-sacrificing, but should instead take care of themselves first so that they could then be in a position to help others. Louka is an example of a woman following this advice.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Shaw wrote The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1927) as a political primer for women, who had just gained suffrage in Britain. Available in a 1984 reprint edition from Transaction Publishers, this book strongly advocates socialism as the best economic solution.
- Shaw's Complete Plays with Prefaces (1962), published by Dodd Mead, is a collection of all of Shaw's dramatic works, including the famous prefaces that are so valuable to the study of Shaw and his messages.
- Shaw wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1890) as a tribute to the great Norwegian playwright and critic Henrik Ibsen, whose philosophy about the power of literature to instruct inspired Shaw's career. This book was reprinted in 1994 by Dover Publications.
- Henrik Ibsen greatly influenced Shaw and other dramatists of his age. A collection of Ibsen's plays can be found in Henrik Ibsen: The Complete Major Prose Plays (1988), published by Plume Books.
- Oscar Wilde is another of Britain's greatest playwrights. Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, first produced in 1895, is arguably his best work and perhaps the most famous comedy of manners in theater history. Numerous editions are available, including a Dover Edition from 1990.
In Act 3, the audience is finally shown the famous "library" and learn that, in truth, it contains only a few books. Once again, Shaw is making fun of the Petkoffs' attempt at upward mobility. In a conversation between Sergius and Louka, Louka asks if poor men are any less brave than rich men. He replies, "Not a bit." However, he qualifies his answer by adding that they are just as brave in battle, but cower before officers. Shaw's voice is heard as Sergius concludes: "Oh, give me the man who will defy to the death any power on earth or in heaven that sets itself up against his own will and conscience: he alone is the brave man." Louka challenges his definition of true courage. She says that servants do not have the liberty to express their own wills, to show bravery. If she were an empress, though, she would show courage by marrying the man she loved, even if he were far below her in station. She accuses Sergius of not having that kind of courage, and he claims that he does but he loves Raina. Of course, Louka is setting him up to be without excuses for marrying her once he learns that Raina loves Bluntschi, and Shaw has successfully set forth a debate about class and courage for his audience to ponder.
Class distinctions become all muddled at the end of the play, and barriers are broken, as Shaw hoped they would be in real life. Nicola becomes a servant to a servant, or is it a compatriot, when he declares that Louka has "a soul above her station; and I have been no more than her confidential servant." Then Sergius becomes engaged to Louka, so the class barrier between them comes down. In a further blow for equality, Louka addresses Raina by her first name. Raina and her mother are indignant at the liberty a mere servant has taken, but Louka says, "I have a right to call her Raina: she calls me Louka." It seemed logical to Shaw, and he hoped his audience would see the sense of this peer treatment. The final jab at snobbery is taken when Catherine objects to Raina marrying Bluntschli until she finds out that he is rich. Then he becomes instantly acceptable. The hypocrisy of basing marriage on money instead of love could not have been lost on the audience.
Arthur St. John Adcock, a British poet, novelist, and journalist, understood why Shaw took his moral and socialist preaching to theatre audiences rather than to a lecture podium: "it would bear the more fruit because it fell upon their minds like a pleasant and enlivening dew and not like a destroying thunderstorm." He added: "I doubt whether any man has attacked more social evils and respectable shibboleths, or had a profounder, more far-reaching influence on his own time." Ultimately, Shaw was an optimist. He could present social reform in a comedy because he found humor in the human situation. He knew it was better to laugh than cry, and he truly believed that good sense and justice would prevail. He would not have bothered to present his ideas if he did not think that people were capable of reasoning their value. For that faith in their innate goodness and intelligence, Shaw's audiences have rewarded him with a lasting reputation as one of the greatest playwrights of all time.
Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Arms and the Man, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
A. M. Gibbs
In the following essay, Gibbs examines Shaw's balancing of the satire of romantic conventions with a less conventional romantic narrative in Arms and the Man.
THE MAN: Ive no ammunition. What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead; and I finished the last cake of that hours ago.
RAINA: [outraged in her most cherished ideals of manhood] Chocolate! Do you stuff your pockets with sweets—like a schoolboy—even in the field?
(Arms and the Man)
Much of the laughter in Arms and the Man arises from the steady deflation of romantic ideas of love and war. Yet it is a misreading of the play to see it as simply an anti-romantic and anti-heroic work. In production, a fine balance of tones needs to be achieved in order to preserve the integrity and meaning of the play. In some words of advice to producers of the play, Shaw wrote of its essential tonal qualities as follows:
unless the general effect of the play is thoroughly genial and good-humored, it will be unbearably disagreeable. The slightest touch of malicious denigrement or cynicism is fatal. If the audience thinks it is being asked to laugh at human nature, it will not laugh. If it thinks it is being made to laugh at insincere romantic conventions which are an insult to human nature, it will laugh very heartily. The fate of the play depends wholly on the clearness of this distinction.
For all its Falstaffian perspectives on military valour, the play does not denigrate courage as a human virtue. And within the context of its satirical treatment of 'insincere romantic conventions' a compensating romantic narrative of a less conventional kind is developed.
The two principal, and related, subjects of satire in the play are: the glorification of war, and the so-called Higher Love which is supposed both to stimulate military valour and in turn to be stimulated by it. One dramatic form to which the work is related is the military adventure play, a form which has a long history in England, going back to the Love and Honour drama of the seventeenth century. But nearer at hand as an influence upon the more romantic aspects of the play was a source revealed in the text itself when Raina refers Bluntschli to a scene in Ernani, Verdi's opera based on the historical play Hernani by Victor Hugo:
I thought you might have remembered the great scene where Ernani, flying from his foes just as you are tonight, takes refuge in the castle of his bitterest enemy, an old Castilian noble. The noble refuses to give him up. His guest is sacred to him.
In the love plot of Ernani, the union of the lovers, Elvira and the aristocratic outlaw Ernani, is threatened in two ways. Ernani has a rival in the form of his enemy, Don Carlo, who is the historical Charles V; but at the same time Elvira is about to be reluctantly united in marriage to a relative (the 'old Castilian noble' referred to in Arms and the Man) Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. Ernani, having become involved in a conspiracy against Carlo's life, is captured and pardoned, and the way is temporarily clear for him to marry Elvira. But as the two are about to enter their nuptial chamber they are arrested by the jealous Silva. The opera, as distinct from Victor Hugo's play which ends happily, concludes in a liebestod with Ernani committing suicide and Elvira, declaring eternal love, falling dead upon his body.
In the more romantic aspects of its dramatic structure, Arms and the Man bears some clear traces of the plot motifs in Ernani: the concealment of the fleeing enemy, the point of honour by which the claims of hospitality outweigh enmity, the dramatic discovery of the fugitive's identity and even the alignment of forces which threaten the possibility of marriage between Bluntschli and Raina. (Sergius and Petkoff perform similar functions in this respect to Don Carlo and Don Ruy.)
The characters in Shaw's play translate readily in one's mind into operatic types: Sergius is explicitly described by Bluntschli as being 'like an operatic tenor', and the other personae in the play, from Major Petkoff (basso profundo) to Louka (second soprano), also bear a strong resemblance to stock characters in opera. Raina is an expert on the subject of opera—it is a means of asserting the civilization of the Petkoffs and of Bulgaria—and her imagination is obviously shaped to a considerable extent by operatic conventions. In Ernani Shaw would have found presented in sharp outline the stereotypes of exalted love and heroism which are satirised in his play. The opera begins with a chorus of rebels singing the praises of their life of warfare:
This life, O how joyful!
With hilt, blade and rifle,
Our true friends thro' all.
Elvira's thoughts are never far from death when she is speaking of her love for Ernani and the elevated mood of their love relations (typified in such things as the duet 'Ah, morir potessi' in Act II and the dialogue between the two before Don Ruy's entry in Act IV) remains unbroken throughout.
Shaw's satirical treatment of the conventions of romantic opera has some affinities with the methods of early Gilbertian comedy. In Gilbert's The Palace of Truth (1870)—a play reminiscent in various ways of A Midsummer Night's Dream—the court of King Phanor is transferred to an enchanted palace in which the magic powers compel all the characters to say exactly what is in their minds about one another. Characters are reversed and love partners changed. Poetical compliment turns to plain speaking, and vice versa. A prince tells his adored mistress that she is 'comparatively plain'. A coquette makes advances to several gentlemen whilst demurely explaining her tactics as she proceeds. A normally boorish courtier explains archly that his manners were an affectation designed to
… prove, perchance, a not unwelcome foil
To Zoram's mockery of cultured taste,
And Chrysal's chronic insincerity!
The comedy in Gilbert's later play Engaged (1877), depends on much the same sources of laughter, in candid revelations of prosaic fact and frankly appetitive motives beneath the postures of romance. When writing the scene in Act II of Arms and the Man in which Sergius, having rapturously farewelled Raina in accents of the 'higher love', suddenly has his attention caught by the distinctly attractive maid with whom he then proceeds to flirt, Shaw must surely have remembered the scene in Engaged where Gilbert puts Cheviot (left similarly alone on the stage) through the same paces:
CHEVIOT:… Dismiss from my thoughts the only woman I ever loved! Have no more to say to the tree upon which the fruit of my heart is growing! No, Belvawney, I cannot cut off my tree as if it were gas or water. I do not treat women like that. Some men do, but I don't. I am not that sort of man. I respect women; I love women. They are good; they are pure; they are beautiful; at least, many of them are.
[Enter MAGGIE from cottage: he is much fascinated] This one, for example, is very beautiful indeed!
As Dan H. Laurence in his edition of Shaw's letters points out, William Archer had already communicated his views of Arms and the Man to Shaw before writing the review in which he declared that in the second act 'we find ourselves in Mr Gilbert's Palace of Truth', and described the play as 'a fantastic, psychological extravaganza, in which drama, farce, and Gilbertian irony keep flashing past the bewildered eye'. Shaw, in one of his most illuminating commentaries on his own work, pointed out the vital distinctions between his and Gilbert's comedy:
I must really clear that Gilbert notion out of your head [he wrote to Archer] before you disgrace yourself over Arms and The Man. You have a perfect rag shop of old ideas in your head which prevent your getting a step ahead.
Gilbert is simply a paradoxically humorous cynic. He accepts the conventional ideals implicitly, but observes that people do not really live up to them. This he regards as a failure on their part at which he mocks bitterly. This position is precisely that of Sergius in the play, who, when disilluded [sic], declares that life is a farce. It is a perfectly barren position: nothing comes of it but cynicism, pessimism, and irony.
I do not accept the conventional ideals. To them I oppose in the play the practical life and morals of the efficient, realistic man, unaffectedly ready to face what risks must be faced, considerate but not chivalrous, patient and practical, and I… represent the woman as instinctively falling in love with all this even whilst all her notions of fine-mannishness are being outraged.… It is this positive element in my philosophy that makes Arms and The Man a perfectly genuine play about real people, with a happy ending and hope and life in it, instead of a thing like [Gilbert's] Engaged which is nothing but a sneer at people for not being what Sergius and Raina play at being before they find one another out.
The 'mechanical topsyturvyism' of early Gilbertian comedy leads, in Shaw's view, only to a comically cynical view of human nature and human ideals. In contrast, Shaw's comedy does not simply negate romance. Rather, what he achieves in the play is a rejuvenation of a typical romance structure, by attaching to well-tried dramatic situations an unconventional set of values and affirmations. Instead of the romance of conventional fiction, it offers the romance of reality, of the discovery of true feeling beneath the social equipment superficial and assumed feeling. It is in terms such as these that the relations between Raina and Bluntschli are developed in the play, their romantic intimacy increasing as her romantic attitudes are progressively discarded:
BLUNTSCHLI:… When you strike that noble attitude and speak in that thrilling voice, I admire you; but I find it impossible to believe a single word you say…
RAINA: [wonderingly] Do you know, you are the first man I ever met who did not take me seriously?
BLUNTSCHLI: You mean, dont you, that I am the first man that has ever taken you quite seriously?
RAINA: Yes: I suppose I do mean that. [Cosily, quite at her ease with him] How strange it is to be talked to in such a way!
The candid, friendly and amiable person that such moments in the play discover in Raina is consistent with the image of the human being who, to her mother's annoyance, times to perfection her pretty entrances by listening for cues 'off-stage'. But it is a quite different persona from the actress who poses regally for Sergius and who becomes caught up in the rhetoric and fantasies of the Higher Love. In the process of un-masking the postures of the Higher Love, the play shows us not an emptiness beneath, but the possibilities of deeper and more meaningful forms of intimacy.
In some respects, the alternative romance which develops between Raina and Bluntschli follows fairly conventional lines. The amatory possibilities of their relations are already established in Act I, in Raina's moments of maternal solicitousness for her fugitive guest, and, conclusively, in the penultimate line of Act I, spoken as she surveys the un-wakeable and potentially compromising figure on her bed: 'the poor darling is worn out. Let him sleep.' Feelings other than those expressed in the present dialogue on stage are conveyed by the report of Raina's sending a photograph of herself to Bluntschli with the inscription 'Raina, to her Chocolate Cream Soldier: a Souvenir'. It is noteworthy, too, that Bluntschli is allowed the democratic or republican equivalent of aristocratic rank, when he is revealed to be the owner of a large chain of hotels. In writing the play, Shaw judged to a nicety the degree to which conventions could be altered, and the degree to which they had to be allowed to run their course.
Bluntschli does much more in the play than represent the practical life and morals of the efficient, realistic man. This describes a leading aspect of his character; but it does not convey the mobility of wit and sharpness of insight which he is given in the dialogue. And it is not a contradiction but a natural development of the image we have formed of him earlier when he says in Act III that he is a man of 'an incurably romantic disposition':
I ran away from home twice when I was a boy. I went into the army instead of into my father's business. I climbed the balcony of this house when a man of sense would have dived into the nearest cellar. I came sneaking back here to have another look at the young lady when any other man of my age would have sent the coat back—
With this revelation, Shaw transfers the aura normally associated with the brooding Byronic hero in nineteenth-century literature to a quite different character type. The plain-speaker becomes the man of mystery. Shaw underlined this with a happy revision of the last line of the play. In the MS draft, the play ended on a comparatively weak line, with Sergius saying of the departed Bluntschli 'What a man! What a man!' The play as published ends with a line suggesting more sharply the way in which ordinariness attains extraordinary dimensions in Bluntschli, as well as providing a satirical comment on his machine-like efficiency—'What a man! Is he a man!'
The concept underlying the characterisation of Bluntschli, of the visionary pragmatist or romantic realist is traceable to Carlyle, whom Shaw mentions in connection with Arms and the Man in the Preface to Three Plays for Puritans. The idea of such a synthesis of forces exercised a considerable influence on Shaw's imagination in the early period of his dramatic career, the portraits of Caesar and Undershaft being further explorations of it. Shaw's comments on Carlyle's conception of the 'true hero of history' throw light on the treatment of Bluntschli, Sergius and the idea of the hero in Arms and the Man:
Carlyle, with his vein of peasant inspiration, apprehended the sort of greatness that places the true hero of history so far beyond the mere preux chevalier, whose fanatical personal honor, gallantry, and self-sacrifice, are founded on a passion for death born of inability to bear the weight of a life that will not grant ideal conditions to the liver. This one ray of perception became Carlyle's whole stock-in-trade; and it sufficed to make a literary master of him. In due time, when Mommsen is an old man, and Carlyle dead, come I, and dramatize the by-this-time familiar distinction in Arms and the Man, with its comedic conflict between the knightly Bulgarian and the Mommsenite Swiss captain. Whereupon a great many playgoers who have not yet read Cervantes, much less Mommsen and Carlyle, raise a shriek of concern for their knightly ideal as if nobody had ever questioned its sufficiency since the middle ages.
It is principally through Bluntschli that the play's critical view of romantic notions about military valour and the preux chevalier is expressed. Catherine Petkoff's excited reverie early in Act I about the cavalry charge in which Sergius was involved—'Cant you see it, Raina: our gallant splendid Bulgarians with their swords and eyes flashing, thundering down like an avalanche and scattering the wretched Serbs and their dandified Austrian officers like chaff'—provides the foil for Bluntschli's later, grimly prosaic account of what happens in cavalry charges:
It's like slinging a handful of peas against a window pane: first one comes; then two or three close behind him; and then all the rest in a lump.… You can tell the young ones by their wildness and their slashing. The old ones come bunched up under the number one guard: they know that theyre mere projectiles, and that it's no use trying to fight. The wounds are mostly broken knees, from the horses cannoning together.
In the midst of discussion of the play's complicated relations of love in Act III, a sharply graphic reminder of the horror of the war in the background is provided in Bluntschli's report of the death of his friend: 'Burnt alive.… Shot in the hip in a woodyard. Couldnt drag himself out. Your fellows' shells set the timber on fire and burnt him, with half a dozen other poor devils in the same predicament.'
Like Bluntschli, Sergius is not a unidimensional character. But the mobility Sergius displays takes the form of vacillation between intransigent or extreme postures. Shaw rings various changes on Cunninghame Graham's celebrated remark in Parliament, 'I never withdraw', as the keynote of Sergius's character. Whichever of the 'half dozen Sergiuses who keep popping in and out of [his] handsome figure' tends to do so in the shape of a rigid pose. Sergius can find no middle ground between views of life as romance and views of it as empty farce: 'Raina: our romance is shattered. Life's a farce.' Apart from its recollections of Cunninghame Graham, Sergius's character is an amalgam of various nineteenth-century literary ideals. In Act I, in an ironic speech which prepares the audience for her later self-discoveries in the play, Raina confesses to her mother that 'it came into my head just as he [Sergius] was holding me in his arms and looking into my eyes, that perhaps we only had our heroic ideas because we are so fond of reading Byron and Pushkin, and because we were so delighted with the opera that season at Bucharest'. In the stage direction before Sergius's first entry in the play, Shaw identifies his sensibility with 'what the advent of nineteenth century thought first produced in England: to wit, Byronism'. Byronism, in the account which follows, is seen as a mixture of sensitive, ironic intelligence, scorn at the failure of people (including the Byronic individual himself) to live up to ideals, cynicism, and a 'mysterious moodiness' such as that of Childe Harold. Shaw has this figure defeated in both love and, in terms of strategic skill, war, by a character who has more in common with Sidney Webb than with Childe Harold.
Yet Shaw is careful not to make Sergius merely an object of ridicule in the play. Like Raina, Sergius has engaging flashes of candour, as when he tells Louka that the Higher Love is a 'very fatiguing thing to keep up for any length of time'. And Shaw gives him a fine moment of moral victory over Bluntschli in the final scene of the play when it is revealed that the latter has all along been thinking of the twenty-three-year old Raina as a girl of seventeen:
SERGIUS: [with grim enjoyment of his rival's discomfiture] Bluntschli: my one last belief is gone. Your sagacity is a fraud, like everything else. You have less sense than even I!
Occasionally Sergius appears as a more knowing person than Bluntschli; and his spirited, virile character is not always presented in an unfavourable or ridiculous light.
The comedy of Arms and the Man is not completely devoid of political overtones, even though this is a comparatively minor aspect of the play. In the final scene of the play, Shaw gently underlines the fact that Bluntschli is a 'good Republican' and a 'free citizen'. Louka's engagement with Sergius constitutes some challenge to the rigidities of the class system in Bulgaria, though we feel that her most likely course after marriage would be to become herself a bastion of upper-class power. But in her Act III scene with Sergius, she has turned the play's preoccupation with courage very clearly in a new direction. She describes as schoolboyish Sergius's notion of the brave man as one who will 'defy to the death any power on earth or in heaven that sets itself up against his own will and conscience', and substitutes her own definition of 'true courage' as a willingness to become déclassé for love: 'if you felt the beginnings of love for me you would not let it grow. You would not dare: you would marry a rich man's daughter because you would be afraid of what other people would say of you.' She is not, of course, a disinterested pleader. But her spirited rejection of servanthood, set off as it is by Nicola's docile but adroit submission to it, is one feature of the play which extends its revolutionary thrust beyond the spheres of love and honour.
The unions which are foreshadowed at the end of the play hardly lend themselves to close analysis in political terms. But an ending in which the hussar marries a maidservant, and the well-bred young lady a hotel keeper, has more than a slight air of calculated indecorousness. Through the distancing perspective of Shaw's toyland Bulgaria, an English Victorian audience could no doubt afford to smile at the discovery of man alive and woman alive beneath the inhibiting conventions of a military caste system, and views of love and war based on romantic opera.
A. M. Gibbs, "Romance and Anti-Romance in Arms and the Man," in The Art and Mind of Shaw, Macmillan Press, 1983, pp. 69–79.
Charles A. Berst
In the following essay, Berst discusses the "complexities and ambivalences" often overlooked by audiences in Shaw's work, specifically the "mixture of the romantic and prosaic" in Arms and the Man.
The tightly knit humor of incident and character in Arms and the Man has tended to obscure the more inclusive range of Shaw's artistic achievement in the play. At the first performance, the audience reacted with uproarious laughter; it would seem that the play had been a triumph, but Shaw was seeking something more. Afterwards, in a letter to Henry Arthur Jones, he remarked:
I had the curious experience of witnessing an apparently insane success, with the actors and actresses almost losing their heads with the intoxication of laugh after laugh, and of going before the curtain to tremendous applause, the only person in the theatre who knew that the whole affair was a ghastly failure.
Apparently someone in the audience was in sympathy with Shaw's at least half-sincere reservations. When he appeared at the end of the performance, there was a solitary boo from the gallery, which called forth Shaw's famous response: "My friend, I quite agree with you—but what are we two against so many?" In this first play to follow his three unsuccessful "Unpleasant Plays," Shaw was no doubt experiencing one of his first tastes of popularity based on an appreciation for his humor, a popularity which sublimated his more serious concerns. In an attempt to educate audiences away from the sentimentalism and shallow naturalism of nineteenth-century drama, he sought a mode of social analysis, criticism, and satire. But from his awareness that "Unpleasant Plays" annihilated themselves through lack of a willing audience and from his own natural disposition to comedy, he turned to humor as a vehicle for thought. Audiences, however, were prone to take the humor and leave behind the thought, along with everything peripheral to it.
Shaw later found it necessary to plead that Arms and the Man was "a classic comedy and not an opera-bouffe without the music." It was not a Chocolate Soldier. His concern over the problem is evidenced in his commentary on the character of Sergius. Realizing that this role was likely to be overplayed and hence misinterpreted, he sought, in vain, to have Richard Mansfield play Sergius instead of Bluntschli in the American production. The danger was that the genuine subtlety and seriousness of Sergius, which render him truly high comedy and effect the most interesting contrast with Bluntschli, would be lost in an opera bouffe interpretation. Shaw remarks:
The whole difficulty was created by the fact that my Bulgarian hero, quite as much as Helmer in A Doll's House, was a hero shown from the modern woman's point of view. I complicated the psychology by making him catch glimpse after glimpse of his own aspect and conduct from this point of view himself, as all men are beginning to do more or less now, the result, of course, being the most horrible dubiety on his part as to whether he was really a brave and chivalrous gentleman, or a humbug and a moral coward. His actions, equally of course, were hopelessly irreconcilable with either theory. Need I add that if the straightforward Helmer, a very honest and ordinary middle-class man misled by false ideals of womanhood, bewildered the public, and was finally set down as a selfish cad by all the Helmers in the audience, à fortiori my introspective Bulgarian never had a chance, and was dismissed, with but moderately spontaneous laughter, as a swaggering impostor of the species for which contemporary slang has invented the term "bounder"?
Notably, Shaw was seeking to portray not a bounder, but a "comedic Hamlet" awakening to a tentative consciousness of his own absurdity and tortured by it. As such, Sergius is sensitive and reasonably complex, neither brave nor cowardly, neither a gentleman nor a humbug, but a hollow soul seeking the meaning of life on the periphery of experience. He is comic in his uncertainty and childishness, but it is the comedy of the incongruity between a soul flying with noble impulses on the one hand and exploring itself dubiously on the other, the comedy of disparity between ideals and actions rather than the comedy of a bizarre, over-stuffed character-type. Shaw felt that this distinction was lost in the laughter of his audience.
The critical consensus about Arms and the Man is epitomized in Archibald Henderson's comment that "the play has for its dramatic essence the collision of romantic illusion with prosaic reality." This calls forth a rather simple formula, generally equating Raina and Sergius with romantic illusion and Bluntschli with prosaic reality. A close look at the play, however, shows that this formula is too generalized and too simple. Shaw's artistic accomplishment is in fact highly subtle, complex, and philosophically challenging, creating at its best a high comedy which is a synthesis of both tragicomic sensitivity and penetrating social perception.
Rather than contrasting the fantastic with the prosaic, or portraying an evolution in Raina's vision from the romantic to the realistic, the play expresses the interlocking relationship and mutual dependence of romanticism and realism. Through the three major characters, it reveals the double standard of the human mind which is genuinely thrilled with absurd heroics, yet at the same time reserves a realistic level of awareness regarding its own self-deception. It involves Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief, translated into life. As usual in Shaw, simple absolutes are undercut by multifaceted qualifications and second thoughts. The play is thus a revelation of the psychology of romanticism, exploring its coexistence with, rather than its distance or dissociation from, reality. Such an inclusive, nonabsolutist approach is the essence of Shavianism. Shaw expresses his principle clearly in the Preface to this play:
But the obvious conflicts of unmistakeable good with unmistakeable evil can only supply the crude drama of villain and hero, in which some absolute point of view is taken, and the dissentients are treated by the dramatist as enemies to be piously glorified or indignantly vilified. In such cheap wares I do not deal.
Although by comedic and philosophic nature Shaw had a disposition to cut through illusion to reality, he was too good a dramatist to serve them up as distinct alternatives. Especially in Arms and the Man, through the interaction of character, temperament, and event, he achieves a subtle fusion of the fantastic and the prosaic which gives texture and depth to the surface elements of a comic situation.
Raina Petkoff would be too much a fool for dramatic credibility were it not for a leavening of skepticism with which Shaw provides her as early as the opening lines of Act I. Her mother recounts the success of the cavalry charge led by Sergius; her words are given a mock-heroic ring which swings the moment into absurdity: "Cant you see it, Raina: our gallant splendid Bulgarians with their swords and eyes flashing, thundering down like an avalanche and scattering the wretched Serbs and their dandified Austrian officers like chaff." Raina echoes her mother's enthusiasm, but not without a constant counterpoint of negation in terms of her former doubts: she had kept Sergius waiting a year before consenting to a betrothal, because Byron and Pushkin and the opera at Bucharest were too much like dreams. Now it would seem that a brave new world has opened before her.
But the artificiality of such a moment of enthusiasm cannot last long without being confronted with facts of life, and Shaw confronts it immediately with the inglorious sequel to glorious cavalry charges, the cruel pursuit and slaughter of fugitives. Within ten minutes the vision of the battle degenerates from the noble abstraction of a heroic victory to the reality of a tattered, dirty, bloody, exhausted fugitive standing starkly incongruous in the lady's bedroom. The prosaic human element is thus brought into immediate juxtaposition with the romantic heroic element, causing the latter to vaporize in its insubstantiality. The sequence of the total act deftly turns from the unreal romance of an absent hero's operatic victory, to the imminent danger of a pursued fugitive, and finally to a more real, "prosaic" romance of compassion and maternal affection.
Danger is the catalyst through which Raina's vague romantic dreams become a romance of life. Ironically, it is Aristotle's tragic components, pity and fear, which bring her into immediate psychological sympathy with Bluntschli. She conceals him partly out of romance, but more basically out off compassion for him and fear of the brutal bloodshed which will undoubtedly ensue if she does not. His obvious weakness and exhaustion, his childlike taste for chocolate, and his frightening admission that the slightest provocation will make him cry awake in her the spontaneous womanly instinct of maternal affection. The psychology of her emotion is not unlike Candida's for Morell, though Raina has the awe and innocence of a younger woman. She can be temporarily indignant at Bluntschli's laughter about Sergius as Don Quixote, but his laughter reflects her own earlier doubts, now enforced by the greater reality of the present. All that is instinctive, vital, and maternal in Raina confronts her romantic dreams of Sergius in this first act, and though she may not immediately recognize it, her servant Louka realizes whom she will marry. Already Shaw has brought his two antagonists, romance and reality, onto the battlefield, and there is no doubt as to which wins out. The question of victory is too inconsequential to occupy the serious attention of the play: what is interesting is the nature of the battle and its ability to reveal fully the strengths, weaknesses, and similarities of the contending qualities.
As Act I portrays the prosaic viewpoint of Bluntschli, Act II allows free play to the romantic world of Raina and Sergius, a world which meets restrictions and difficulties even in its simplest contacts with life. That the romantic disposition simply cannot sustain the burden of a normal existence is surely no new insight on Shaw's part, but what is valuable and effective here is his stark objectification of its difficulties, revealing how a basic folly in one's outlook toward life ramifies itself into dozens of little follies which incapacitate normal action and end in boredom and fatigue. Since her romantic love is no instinctive part of her, Raina must stage-manage it. "She always appears at the right moment," says her father. "Yes," says her mother, "she listens for it." The entrance on cue, the noble air, and the spying out of the window on Sergius, which Louka suspects, are all contrivances to support an artificial pattern. "Higher love" in a young lady of twenty-three is an adolescent hangover; it obviously tires Sergius very quickly—he turns to Louka for relief—while Raina herself is not slow to indicate her own rebellion: "I always feel a longing to do or say something dreadful to him—to shock his propriety—to scandalize the five senses out of him." This is one step beyond her previous skepticism: this is clear irreverence, indicating that the natural focus of a realistic perspective in her has undercut the foolishness all along.
By Act III, Raina is merely clinging to the vestiges of her heroic romance with Sergius. Her remark, "My relation to him is the one really beautiful and noble part of my life," is as false in her own mind as is her subsequent assertion that she has lied only twice in her life. This is obviously play-acting, and though she still may have some illusions about Sergius, she certainly has few about the fraudulence of her own pretensions. When Bluntschli comments that he finds it impossible to believe a single word she says, she collapses from the heroic into the familiar: "How did you find me out?" She flatters herself that no one else has penetrated her façade, whereas Shaw has made it abundantly clear elsewhere that Louka, her mother, and her father all see through her. Only she and Sergius are fooled by her dream world, and even they cannot keep up with its demands. Recognizing the truth about herself, Raina can recognize the truth about Sergius as well; and when she discerns his flirtation with Louka, she tears him into little pieces of humiliation, laughing at herself at last in complete purgation, guessing Bluntschli's state of mind: "I daresay you think us a couple of grown-up babies, dont you?" In Act I she had concealed Bluntschli partly in the spirit of the romance of the situation, but more basically out of compassion and maternal affection, the two qualities of romance and reality being joined. This joining is never present in her relationship with Sergius, a relationship she instinctively mistrusts, but it reappears in Act III, along with the realization that Bluntschli takes her as a woman, not as a tinsel goddess. Hence, Raina's role may generally be an evolution from romance to reality, but it is by no means uncrossed by contradictory currents. She undergoes an education under the influence of Bluntschli, but it involves an awakening of her latent impulses and insights more than an alteration of her basic disposition.
The character of Bluntschli reverses the order of the romance-reality evolution. In Act I, he appears to be the antithesis of a romantic hero. He introduces, with a shock of contrast, the grisly proximity of war. His uniform is torn and splattered with mud and blood. He is prepared to fight to the death only because he knows that, if caught, he will either be slaughtered like a pig or taken into the street for vengeful amusement. Stuffing himself with chocolate and tending to cry and sleep, he is more like a helpless child than a man. What there is of the man seems hopelessly antiheroic—his fear of death, his laughter at Sergius, and his description of a cavalry charge in terms of a handful of peas thrown at a window pane. In exhaustion, the prosaic soldier is almost schizophrenic: in his coolness, professionalism, and laughter, he is the subtle cynic of warfare, yet at odds with this cynicism are the tastes and incapacities of a child. The final effect is to remove war from noble abstractions through the humanizing element of one who has no illusions about it and who is, in fact, a walking negation of it.
Bluntschli's character shifts and grows in Act II by verbal report. The prosaic and professionally pragmatic approach to war is deftly contrasted with the ineffectuality of romantic amateurs. Petkoff and Sergius reveal him as the highly experienced and competent captain who had the clear sight to advise Sergius to resign, had the best of them in a horse-soldier barter, and managed a miraculous escape while enjoying the favors of a Bulgarian lady. Sergius disparages Bluntschli's competence in terms which reveal his own incapacity—the Swiss captain is a commercial traveler in uniform, a bourgeois. Several quick strokes render a remarkable class distinction. The gentleman is helpless in the hands of the tradesman; a consummate soldier and bourgeois can make a child of a gentleman. A basic social change of the nineteenth century is clarified briefly in passing—the genteel classes, adhering to their codes, are linked to custom and illusion. Their decline is inherent in the inefficiency of these illusions, which are taken full advantage of by the bourgeoisie, whose values and actions are based on practical experience and skills. Thus Sergius has only scorn to compensate for the fact that he was bested in the practical barter of war by a commercial traveler. This is a child's scorn, half-suppressing an uneasy sense of admiration for one whose ability is manifestly superior. Bluntschli's image thus evolves from one of ragged, inglorious defeat to one of keen military know-how and cunning—half-romantic in his prosaic genius, as compared to his bumbling Bulgarian foes.
It is a paradox that, as Bluntschli's bourgeois, shopkeeping abilities become more apparent, he grows in pseudoromantic stature. In Act III, he operates almost like a highly competent machine, first in disposing of the Bulgarian regiments, then in his facetious choice of a machine gun as his weapon for the proposed duel with Sergius. Sergius at last refuses to duel with him because "Youve no magnetism: youre not a man: youre a machine." Yet Bluntschli is not a representative of Henri Bergson's automaton—one who is funny because he loses contact with the vital flow of life and becomes machinelike. Rather, efficiency and humdrum are clearly means to an end for him and involve the most flexible mental contact with the realities of life. His very prosaicness, cutting through the automatism of convention and pretense, gives him the true freedom of action which is at the heart of all that is serious in life. When Raina collapses from her imperious acting, she remarks: "Do you know, you are the first man I ever met who did not take me seriously?" He responds very truthfully: "You mean, dont you, that I am the first man that has ever taken you quite seriously?" This genuine seriousness is the key to Bluntschli's humor. He has the true Shavian perspective of amusement at anything which is intrinsically false or absurd, from his own desperate plight in Act I to Raina's pretensions and her cat-and-mouse fight with Sergius in Act III. To the somber or romantic mind, the little melodramas of life are bloated with importance; to the truly serious mind, a sense of their comedy reduces them to proper proportions.
Thus in Act III it is Bluntschli who has that combination of prosaicness and imagination which is necessary to solve the problem of the disposal of the Bulgarian cavalry; it is Sergius who is the machine, rubber-stamping the orders which come from Bluntschli's practical mind. The romantic image of Sergius deteriorates, not only in itself, but especially by contact and contrast with the efficiency of the Swiss captain. Bluntschli's ability and cool common sense tend to assume a romantic aura: he grows in stature as some of the elements of a superman begin to radiate from him, the man who has the natural genius to succeed where others fail. The crowning union of romance with the prosaic temperament occurs when Bluntschli admits to "an incurably romantic disposition." Romantically he ran away from home as a boy, romantically he joined the army, romantically he climbed Raina's balcony instead of seeking her cellar, and romantically he has returned. It is clear at last that his relationship with Raina has all along been more truly romantic than Sergius'. The point, however, is scarcely made before the Shavian brilliance juxtaposes it with Bluntschli's compromising misjudgment of Raina's age, followed by his prosaic proposal and the magnificently bourgeois attraction and encumbrance of a chain of Swiss hotels. The romantic and the prosaic end in a magician's shuffle, and Sergius' final exclamation and question—"What a man! Is he a man?"—come too fast for the ambiguous reflection that in his romance Bluntschli is quite human, while in his prosaicness he is to some degree the Superman.
One critic interprets Bluntschli as a debased Falstaff, playing opposite Sergius' debased Hal and therefore making an ironic comment on the shallow alternatives offered to nineteenth-century man. But the facts and tone of the play bely this ingenious comparison and conclusion. Sergius is more a Hotspur than a Hal. He finally offers no true alternative to Bluntschli, because Bluntschli is concurrently humanized and exalted with the qualities of both Falstaff and Hal. And if, in the general emphasis of the action, Bluntschli progresses from an image of reality to one of romance, Raina evolves in the opposite direction, from romance to reality, the two characters creating an aesthetic tension in their development and interaction which reveals multifold aspects of both qualities. Both qualities, of course, have actually existed in each character from the beginning, but for dramatic effectiveness the most forceful indications of this do not come until late in the development of the play.
In the character of Sergius, Shaw reveals a third element in the relationship of romance and reality—that of tortured self-consciousness, the tragedy and comedy of a man caught in bewilderment between his noble impulses and the ignominiousness of life. Even before Sergius appears, the daring heroism of his cavalry charge is pulverized by prosaic fact. First, it is brought into question by the essentially mock-heroic tone of Catherine Petkoff's description and by Raina's extravagant, foolish reaction. Then, it is utterly demolished by Bluntschli's humorous perspective which typifies the entire action as the folly and ignorance of an operatic tenor or a Don Quixote, who in this case survived only by a bit of uncanny luck. G. K. Chesterton asserts that sentimentalism is necessary because it is one of the very practical incentives behind action. Shaw would generally agree, but he indicates that this is a dangerous truth in warfare, where sentimentalism often leads to annihilation. When Sergius appears in Act II, he is uncomfortably trying to avoid this fact by retreating inside a new romanticism, that of Byronic cynicism. As would be expected of Shaw, Sergius is no mere romantic clown, which would be an easy duck to shoot down. Rather, he has "the physical hardihood, the high spirit, and the susceptible imagination of an untamed mountaineer chieftain." He is aware of the disparity between his own romantic disposition and the dull facts of the world. Heroic charges are out of place in the prosaicism of modern warfare, where soldiering is a coward's art of attacking when strong and retreating when weak. What he fails to see is that the disparity invalidates his romanticism—rather, he would have it invalidating reality. His outlook is distorted by confusion and cynicism resulting from the irony of his position: he remains a major because he won a battle in the wrong way, while others are promoted for losing battles in the right way. For consolation, he turns to Byronic disillusionment and scorn, a romantic pose much more interesting and complex than that of a mere war hero.
The "higher love" is another aspect of the search for Truth above reality; but as war has an ingredient of cowardice, love has an ingredient of biology, and nineteenth-century idealism lacked the medieval savoir faire that allowed Chrétien de Troyes to depict Launcelot genuflecting before Guenevere's bed, which he had just familiarly occupied. The strain of higher love necessitates a release for the lower, but the romanticism of Sergius as a late Victorian, albeit a Bulgarian, is not sophisticated enough to combine them in the same person. So he grabs Louka, and in doing so, he merely adds to the doubts which nurture his schizophrenic split between illusion and reality. Like Hamlet, he is acutely aware of his many-sided personality, which is a romantic estimate of himself, but also true to life. Is he hero, buffoon, humbug, blackguard, or coward? Certainly he is all of these. But one thing he definitely is not: he is not a noble lover. The strain of higher love is too great because it has no meaningful contact with the true personalities of either Raina or Sergius. Since higher love involves the mere acting of a foreign role, it cannot be maintained with prolonged consistency. Bergson points out that the essence of the true self is a continuity flowing through time. Sheer physical drives render a continuity of higher love impossible: Sergius is subject to lust on the one hand, Raina to her maternal-womanly instincts on the other. Shaw passes off his observation with the candor of a piquant smile.
Just as Bluntschli's sense of humor gives him a considerable depth of seriousness, Sergius' intense seriousness makes him comical. His heroic propensities and subsequent doubts render him both a comic machine and tragicomic introvert, and it is a revelation of Shaw's skill that both elements deterministically converge, bringing Sergius to his fate. His tragicomic introspection in Act III, carrying over the self-analytical strain of the previous act, is highly active and varied. It is a soul-searching which, though seemingly at odds with romanticism, is highly romantic in its Byronism. First, he questions the concept of authority—who is he to give orders to the soldiers? Next, he goes to the very heart of his predicament: "Mockery! mockery everywhere! everything I think is mocked by everything I do." At last, he is convinced by Louka that true courage exists in such things as defying the whole world in order to marry the person you love, no matter how far beneath you that person may be. Louka takes advantage of his image of himself and traps him intellectually. He agrees that if he touches her again, he will wed her.
Concurrently, the mechanical aspect of his nature guides his action. The stubbornness of the self-assured hero asserts itself first in Act II. When Catherine Petkoff suggests that he withdraw his resignation, he folds his arms and exclaims: "I never withdraw." This mechanical pattern repeats itself in Act III. As an officer, he mechanically signs Bluntschli's orders; as a gentleman, he mechanically challenges Bluntschli to duel; and finally, after he has refused to withdraw or apologize in a number of situations, he at last touches Louka—and she dares him to keep his word: "You can withdraw if you like." To which, quite consistently, the conditioned man replies: "Withdraw! Never!" The trap has been sprung, introspectively consistent, according to the code of a gentleman's word, mechanically perfect, penetratingly comic. Significantly, this is the point of truth for Sergius, equally as realistic and illuminating as that for Bluntschli and Raina.
In Act III, the horror and ludicrousness of war are brought into graphic focus through Bluntschli's account of his friend who was wounded and burned alive in a wood yard, and the true instincts of love are revealed in Raina's love for Bluntschli, active and vital, beneath her feigned love for Sergius. The truth converges upon Sergius, and although his reaction is strongly tinged with Byronic despair, he is caught in the essence of reality which propels him toward Louka. He can now with an honest mind legalize his normal biological drives toward a pretty wench, and at the same time he can fulfill his sense of courage in doing so. It is romantic in its prosaicness. Sergius is a notable advancement over the gull of Jonsonian and Restoration comedy: he is both duped and dupes himself into a lowly marriage, but in doing so he is being true to his genuine nature, and he finds himself in spite of himself.
The characters most in touch with reality are the two servants, Louka and Nicola. It is a necessity of their class that, though they may have romantic daydreams, these dreams should always be in touch with potentially profitable facts. Here again Shaw draws a telling contrast, differentiating between the strictly prosaic temperament and the prosaic temperament with romantic ambition. Nicola is the absolute realist; in his clarity of insight is etched the predicament of an entire social class. He remarks to Louka: "Child: you dont know the power such high people have over the like of you and me when we try to rise out of our poverty against them." His eyes are open to his dependence on the wealthy classes, and within this framework he operates with complete efficiency and cleverness, getting all he can out of it, planning to set up a shop in Sophia with the Petkoffs as his principal customers. In his pursuit of economic security, he even forgoes marriage to Louka, since as Sergius' bride she will be a good customer rather than an expensive wife. Such clearheadedness attracts the admiration of Bluntschli, who remarks: "Never mind whether it's heroism or baseness. Nicola's the ablest man Ive met in Bulgaria. I'll make him manager of a hotel if he can speak French and German." Nicola is the prosaic ideal, and Bluntschli's prosaic side is naturally keenly attracted to him. Yet what makes Bluntschli rounded and human is that he also has a strong motivating romantic temperament. Lacking this balance, Nicola is more base than heroic. He would make an excellent hotel manager. There is something mundane, lifeless, and dehumanizing in this prosaic perspective. For a servant—or a hotel manager—its end is clever servility.
In contrast, Louka combines clear prosaic vision with imagination, ambition, and romance, and succeeds thereby in rising above servility. Between Nicola and Louka there is a Pygmalion-Galatea relationship foreshadowing Higgins and Eliza. Nicola has taught her not to overuse make-up like common Bulgarian girls, and to be clean and dainty like a lady. But, like Higgins, he has created a monster beyond his control—he has made a real woman out of a servant. His advice promotes social stratification: "The way to get on as a lady is the same as the way to get on as a servant: youve got to know your place." To Louka, this is but "cold-blooded wisdom," and one may anticipate Eliza's words: "the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated." As Nicola introduces in a natural fashion a didactic element regarding the social and economic dependence of the servant class, Louka brings into question the superstructure of gentility. She sees clearly that Nicola has the soul of a servant and that the effect of such souls is to reinforce class distinctions. But she views such distinctions as not very flattering to the social elite. The moral laxity of the upper classes tends to put her on a par with them. This feeds her natural ambition. Thus she can say familiarly to Sergius: "Gentlefolk are all alike: you making love to me behind Miss Raina's back; and she doing the same behind yours." She has the insight all along that Raina will marry Bluntschli if she has the chance. Obviously, biological drives are more basic than "higher love," and this fact encourages Louka's hope of climbing above her class to marry Sergius. In his abandoning higher love and in her marrying for social advancement, there is a sexual and economic honesty which is in accord with the play's denouement. As with Raina and Bluntschli, the fairy-tale romance of the general situation is undergirded by natural and prosaic impulses.
The mixture of the romantic and the prosaic which Shaw achieves in his characters he carries further into a contrast between the characters and the events and setting. In Act I, the pervasive prosaicness of Bluntschli is in contrast with the romantic setting of a lady's bedroom and with the melodramatic events of a heroic cavalry charge, a strange man at the window, and Raina's daring concealment of him. In Act II, the romantic, Byronic Sergius is in contrast with the laundry on the fruit bushes and the after-breakfast atmosphere. The servants are quarreling, an ignominious peace has been established—it is a time for flirting with the servant girl, disposing of troops, and telling vulgar stories about the war. Act III offers a fusion of the prosaic and the romantic, with troop dispersion, the plotting of servants, flirting, the domestic comedy of Petkoff's coat, and practical concerns over eligibility in betrothal, all offering a constant counterpoint to the threat of a duel over a lady, the development of romantic love between the two couples, and the romance of a double marriage in the offing. By constantly juxtaposing the prosaic and romantic in such ways, Shaw achieves a maximum reflection of their many facets and interrelationships. His ideas on the matter, which are more an intuitive grasp of multifold ironic interplays between romance and reality than straightline logical conclusions, are thus given full expression and pertinence in a dramatic situation.
The play develops three major themes. First, there is the satire on war, its heroics represented by Sergius, its prosaicness by Bluntschli. This brings into focus both the nature of the individual soldier and the tactics and psychology of warfare. Second, there is the satire on the nature of the genteel classes, on what comprises a lady, a gentleman, and a servant. Third, there is an exploration of the spectrum of human disposition which ranges from the romantic to the prosaic, the two elements being not just opposites, but, paradoxically, capable of appearing in life as shadings of each other. All the characters serve an illuminating function in this area. The themes run concurrently, coalescing at last in Act III in terms of paradox.
The war theme is brought to a head in Bluntschli's recounting of his wounded friend being burned alive in a wood yard. Raina exclaims on its horror, Sergius remarks on its ridiculousness. In fact, it is both, just as Sergius' charge was both brave and ridiculous and Bluntschli's preference for chocolates over ammunition involves both realism and foolhardiness. The tragedy and humor of war tend to coexist. The theme satirizing the genteel classes is brought to a conclusion in the betrothal of Sergius and Louka. The common concept that a gentleman is a gentleman only if he behaves like one is subjected to the inquiry—but what does a gentleman behave like? By seeking consistently to maintain genteel love with Raina in Act II, Sergius is both noble and idiotic; by sticking to his gentlemanly code of honor regarding Louka in Act III, he is both honorable and ridiculous. To descend below one's class is to be both courageous and self-indulgent; to climb the social ladder is to be both ingenious and conceited. The theme regarding the romantic and prosaic in life quickly destroys the simple abstraction of "higher love" in Act II, and in Act III achieves a more nearly lifelike resolution in ambivalence. Prosaic Louka marries romantic Sergius, romantic Raina marries prosaic Bluntschli. Yet, in her social elevation, Louka attains romance, and in following his biological instincts, Sergius capitulates to prosaic impulse. In the same vein, Raina pursues her natural maternal-sexual drives, and Bluntschli culminates his romantic act of climbing to a lady's balcony with the romantic conclusion of marrying the lady.
The ending of the play consequently involves a fusion of disparate elements, from prosaic fact to romance, resolving themselves on a pragmatic biological level and evoking from all the characters concerned a higher degree of honesty and self-awareness than they had possessed at the beginning. It was Shaw's hope as artist and philosopher that some of this heightened awareness would rub off on his audiences. But in making his art popular, he made his point obscure. The increase in perception he sought tended to be drowned in laughter. Further, his ideas are less subject to strict analysis than to intuition; consequently, the deceptively easy single-line approach, which asserts that "Shaw says this" or "Shaw says that," simply is not accurate, since it fails to grasp the complexities and ambivalences of Shaw's artistic thought and method. Yet it is these complexities and ambivalences that give depth and subtlety to his art. In Arms and the Man he wishes to reveal the blindness of the romantic element in life more than he desires to satirize romantic characters. All life is a mixture of the romantic and the prosaic; what is important is that the prosaic temperament properly assimilate and control the romantic element. Life simply cannot support sustained romance. By its very dreamlike nature, romance must be essentially discontinuous, and hence out of touch with what Bergson called "the fluid continuity of the real." Illusions about war, gentility, and love are ultimately given their true perspective through prosaic awareness, but at the same time Shaw reveals with artistic sensitivity that such awareness is most vitally attached to life when it is combined with the incentive power of romance.
Charles A. Berst, "Romance and Reality in Arms and the Man," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, June 1966, pp. 197–211.
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Adcock, Arthur St. John, "George Bernard Shaw," in LitFinder.com, Ross Publishing, Inc., 2005.
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Shaw, George Bernard, Arms and the Man, in Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, H. S. Stone, 1898.
Booth, Michael Richard, and Joel H. Kaplan, The Edwardian Theatre: Essays on Performance and the Stage, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
An overview of the Edwardian entertainment industry, this book is a collection of essays that cover cultural studies and the inner workings of the theatre in this age.
Davis, Tracy C., George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre, Praeger, 1994.
This book traces the theatrical and political influences on Shaw and discusses his economic practices and theories as they relate to his work in the theatre.
Henderson, Archibald, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1956.
Henderson was Shaw's official biographer and knew the playwright for 47 years. This book, edited by Shaw himself, is a comprehensive examination of Shaw's life and work, including his correspondence.
Innes, Christopher, The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
This popular and comprehensive guide to all things Shaw includes essays by leading scholars on a wide variety of topics.
Jackson, Russell, Victorian Theatre: The Theatre in Its Time, New Amsterdam Books, 1990.
A sourcebook about the Victorian stage containing articles, letters of actors and managers, memoirs, contracts, and more, this book provides a detailed look at the world of Victorian theatre.
Jenkins, Anthony, The Making of Victorian Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Jenkins examines seven playwrights, including Shaw, who contributed to the theatre of ideas and who helped to gain respectability for the theatre. Jenkins also looks at the social and political context in which these playwrights worked.