Shaw’s Arms and the Man – a critical reading

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                                                                                                                               Montu Saikia

            George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born in Dublin in 1856. His mother was a professional singer who performed under the music teacher George John Vandaleur Lee. At the start of his career Shaw wrote six very bad novels. Then he was engaged in a freelance job as a theatre critic, which he did badly. Thereafter he got a job as a music critic and he produced some of the best music criticism ever written. Finally he took to play writing on the street corners of London. This changed George Bernard Shaw to GBS. He played this new role for the rest of his life, a very difficult role he played well. Shaw’s political interest had been developed after he read Marx. He was soon working with and writing for the other members of the Fabian Society. London School of Economics was initially set up with the wealth of Charlotte, his future wife, a very rich Irish heiress.

Of his 63 plays, Pygmalion, Major Barbara and Man and Superman are perhaps the best known. These plays were mainly performed at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloan Square in London. Austrian playwright Treibitsch translated Shaw’s play into German. Shaw converted  Treibitsch’s three act tragedy, Julia’s Confession into a four act comedy. Shaw received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. Shaw’s witty plays helped to convert Victorian melodrama into a form where moral, feminist, political and economic issues were considered. This was possibly his most lasting and important contribution to dramatic art. He considered himself indebted to Ibsen, who pioneered modern realistic drama, which tries to heighten awareness of the important social issues. Shaw’s published plays come with lengthy prefaces. He has written more than 250,000 letters. Blanche Patch was his secretary. In 1906 the Shaw’s moved into a house, now called Shaw’s Corner, in Ayot St Lawrence, a small village in Hertfordshire.

The Modern English Drama has reached a great height in the 21st century. The Modern English Drama in Prose is the ‘Problem Play’ as it deals with all kinds of problems of the day namely – social, economic and political. The Modern Drama is also known as the ‘Drama of ideas’ as it is an intellectual exercise, discussing various viewpoints and offering arguments for and against the viewpoints. It was Henrik Ibsen who greatly influenced the style of writing in English polarities. The Modern prose drama popularly known as the ‘naturalistic’, ‘realistic’, ‘problem drama’ or ‘the drama of Ideas’ has become the mirror of modern life. Shaw was a disciple of Ibsen. Like Ibsen, he used the drama as a medium for ventilating his ideas. According to A.C. Ward, ‘His plays are a continuous record of the long struggle between artist and moralist’.

Shaw was politically a very active and shrewd thinker and activist. He was particularly inclined to Marxism, socialism and the Fabian Society. He even became an executive member of the Fabian Society and drafted the manifesto for it. That clearly indicates his progressive philosophical orientation towards the society, and the role of letters in shaping man’s destiny, and the relations and the destiny of the world as a whole.  It is therefore an exact orientation for the readers of Shaw while attempting at any piece of writing by him including his plays.


Arms and the Man

            Arms and the Man is a comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Its title comes from the opening words of Virgil‘s Aeneid, in Latin: Arma virumque cano (“Of arms and the man I sing”). It was first produced on 21 April 1894 at the Avenue Theatre and published in 1898 as part of Shaw’s Plays Pleasant volume, which also included CandidaYou Never Can Tell, and The Man of Destiny. Arms and the Man was one of Shaw’s first commercial successes.

The play begins in a small town “near the Dragoman Pass” in Bulgaria, in the bedroom of a young woman named Raina Petkoff in the fall of 1885 during the Serbo-Bulgarian War. Raina, a Bulgarian woman from a wealthy family, learns from her mother, Catherine, that the Bulgarian cavalry have won a battle against the Serbs. Catherine adds that Sergius, Raina’s fiancé, was at the head of the charge, and was as heroic in life as he appears in the picture Raina keeps in her bedroom. Louka, their maid, enters and warns Catherine and Raina that escaped Serbs fleeing the battlefield might be in the area, seeking refuge in the houses of Bulgarian families. Raina is not worried, and chooses to keep her window unlocked. In the night, a man enters the room through the unlocked window and says he will kill Raina if she makes a noise. The man is a Swiss and an escaped soldier, fighting as a mercenary for the Serbians. Raina is shocked to see that the man is tired and hungry, that he does not glorify battle. Raina saves him hiding behind a curtain just as Catherine, Louka, and a Bulgarian officer enter to search the room for any Serbs. Even Raina gives the hungry enemy soldier man chocolate creams to eat.  Shockingly she learns that the man has no ammunition for his pistol, as he normally only keeps candies in his pockets. The man argues that Sergius’s cavalry charge against the Serbs was foolish, and succeeded only by sheer luck. The Serbs had machine guns but were given the wrong ammunition by accident, and therefore could not mow down Sergius and his men. Raina agrees to help the man escape later that night.

The second act begins in the garden of the same house, with the affianced servant and maid of the household Nicola and Louka having quite contrary views about their station and the world. Major Petkoff, the head of the family, returns from the war. He reports to Catherine that Sergius will never receive the military promotion because Sergius has no command of military strategy. Sergius enters and is greeted warmly by the family, and especially by Raina, who still considers him a hero. Sergius says he has abandoned his commission in the army out of anger that he will never move up in the ranks. Sergius and Petkoff tell a story they heard about this Swiss soldier being hidden by two Bulgarian women during the soldier’s retreat. Catherine and Raina realize the story is about them, but decided to keep it a secret. Sergius speaks with Louka in private, and begins flirting with her. Louka reveals to Sergius that Raina might not remain faithful to Sergius, and Sergius is taken aback.

A man named Bluntschli enters the family garden and Louka brings him to Catherine. Catherine realizes that he is the man that hid in Raina’s room, the same man that she and Raina helped escape. Catherine worries that Sergius and Petkoff, who are conferring over military plans in the library, might encounter the soldier. Sergius and Petkoff have no idea that the story they heard about a soldier being helped by two Bulgarian women involves the Petkoffs. Bluntschli has come to return Major Petkoff’s coat that Catherine and Raina lent him to escape. Raina is so happy to see him that she blurts out, “the chocolate cream soldier!” when she walks in the room, only to recover herself and blame her outburst, implausibly, on Nicola. Petkoff and Sergius, who have in fact already met Bluntschli during the war, ask Bluntschli to stay and pass the time.

In the final act, the various tensions of the play thus far are exposed. Louka tells Sergius that the man with whom Raina is in love is Bluntschli. Sergius challenges Bluntschli to a duel because of this, but Bluntschli explains his way out of it. A picture of herself that Raina placed in her father’s cloak for Bluntschli to find is exposed, proving that Raina has not been entirely truthful to Sergius. Raina admits that she has had feelings for Bluntschli since they first met. Major Petkoff is aghast. When Bluntschli acknowledges that he has loved Raina, Sergius and Louka reveal that they have been having a secret affair at Sergius’ instigation, and Nicola releases Louka from their engagement. Bluntschli, whose father has just died, has come into a great deal of money, so Raina’s parents are glad to marry her off to him and his handsome fortune. Raina is revealed to be twenty-three rather than seventeen, enabling Bluntschli in good conscience to ask for her hand in marriage. Bluntschli promises to hire Nicola, whom he admires, to run the hotels he has just received as part of his inheritance. Sergius accepts Louka as his lover in public, thus satisfying Louka’s desire to move up in the social ranks. The play ends with Sergius exclaiming, of Bluntschli, “What a man!”


Mental states of the characters can be realized by the readers from the dramatic details there in. The notes describe Rainia’s room’s décor as lavish. There are chocolate cream candies visible on a dresser. Raina is overjoyed to learn that Sergius has been the hero of the Bulgarian victory. Raina has also wondered whether men in battle really are as heroic as she has read about in the works of Pushkin and Byron. Catherine tells Raina she should be ashamed to have doubted the Bulgarians, and Sergius in particular. Raina lies awake listening to the gunfire approach the house. At first Raina finds this exciting, but soon realizes that the scattered Serbian army is very close by. She hears the shutters rattle, and in a moment a man strikes a match in the room, telling Raina to be quiet or he’ll shoot her.

Shaw introduces, in this first section of the first act, some of the motivating ideas and problems of the play. One of them is the nature of “genteel,” or wealthy, society, and the harsher reality of war, which is, in this sequence, just outside Raina’s windows. Raina idolizes Sergius, who is conveniently represented only as a perfect photograph in these scenes. In her own home and bedroom, Raina thinks of Sergius as an engaging hero in battle. She is pleased, therefore, to have her mother Catherine corroborate this fantasy.

Bluntschli, is arguably the play’s most captivating presence, apart from Raina. He is from Switzerland, and as he notes here, he fights not out of a sense of patriotism to Serbia. He is a professional soldier, or mercenary, who fights for whatever army needs soldiers and can pay them. He could have chosen another career path, but his gift is clearly for the art of war. While he is talented and knowledgeable about war, Bluntschli the soldier does not have the idealized version of military behavior. He carries candy instead of ammunition in his pockets. He gets scared when Raina screams. In short, Bluntschli, the “chocolate cream soldier,” is not a hypothetical soldier. He is a real man, and his strengths and weaknesses point to something deeper about him, which is a kind of self-honesty that the other characters do not seem to possess.

Bluntschli isn’t prepared to die for a cause, as society’s ideal heroic soldier would. He is in fact more knowledgeable about war than Sergius. Shaw’s characters mirror the complexity and murkiness of war, as the “hero” turns out to have major flaws, and the more practical, knowledgeable soldier carries chocolates instead of ammunition. Sergius and Bluntschli seem to destroy the idea of war as a glorified act.

            Beginning of Act Two to Sergius’s first interaction with Louka

The stage notes say that it is now March of 1886. The setting is still the Petkoffs’ house in rural Bulgaria, but the action now takes place in an adjacent garden. Nicola, the male servant of the home, converses with Louka. Louka complains about her mistresses, Catherine and Raina, and Nicola scolds her for it. As he does it, he reveals that he and Louka are engaged. Nicola argues that he could never marry someone who didn’t behave according to the rules of good service. Louka says she doesn’t have the soul of a servant like Nicola does. Louka also says she knows many of the Petkoffs’ secrets, and could use them against the family. Nicola counters that he also knows many secrets, but warns her that it is a servant’s job never to betray these secrets to anyone. Nicola reveals to the audience that he one day hopes to purchase his freedom and open a shop in Sofia, the capital, at which Louka can work.

Nicola and Louka hear a man’s voice outside the gate. The family’s patriarch, Major Paul Petkoff, has returned from the war. The household scurries about to receive him. Nicola and Louka provide coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes. Catherine greets her husband excitedly but modestly. She is surprised and offended when Petkoff reveals that the Bulgarians and Russians have brokered a peace with the Serbians, instead of simply vanquishing them without conditions. In response, Petkoff says that it would have been nearly impossible to achieve total victory. Catherine tells her husband that, in his absence, they have installed an electric bell for the servants in the house, so no one needs to impolitely shout for help. Catherine finds the bell more civilized, but Petkoff thinks it unnecessary. They hear Sergius arriving, and before he enters the scene, Petkoff tells Catherine she’ll need to get Sergius off Petkoff’s back. Sergius is angling for a promotion that Petkoff fears will never come, because Sergius has no tactical military skill or intelligence.

The servants’ intrigue is an important feature of nineteenth- and twentieth-century drama and fiction. The actions of servants usually serve to reflect the actions of the main characters, their employers. Often in these narratives, the servants’ actions disrupt and interfere with the plot.

Arms and the Man is one of the plays included in Plays Pleasant. Shaw being originally a comic artist maintains his comic effect to the full in this play. Shaw’s comedy is shrewdly built intellectual one where he leaves no stone unturned to expose the vanity of the late Victorian English society. It must at the same time be remembered that the Bulgarian setting for the playwright is completely a metaphorical one. The all encompassing comic effect in the play results out of the playwright’s mockery at the popular vainglorious ideas about man’s ideas about himself, about his relationship with fellowmen and to the society at large. That is the secret of the play’s inescapable projection as an anti-heroic and anti-romantic play where the playwright while mocking at the vanity of his contemporary men and manners, project his unique alternatives. Thus the play   ends as one of Shaw’s most potential ‘Plays of Ideas’.


The first and foremost projection is that of war and heroism since metaphorically speaking the immediate context that the play is builds upon is a historical development- the Serbo-Bulgarian war. The characteristic Shavian determination for social satire is evident in the very title of the play “Arms and the Man”. It is an adaptation of the opening words of Virgil‘s Aeneid, in Latin: Arma virumque cano (“Of arms and the man I sing”). Here in the original phrase the epic poet following the classical epic tradition announces the theme of the poem to follow. But in the play the playwright applies the same phrase ironically as if he wants his audience to realize the very nature of their concept of hero (Sergious) and heroism (the blunder of foolishly charging with swords an enemy armed with machine guns). For the popular hero of the moment is but a ‘Don Quixote’ for the Man. The popular vanity about warfare can be realized through the notion of the same held here by Raina.

The Man appearing Raina’s bed chamber declares his irresistible love for life “Well, I don’t intend to get killed if I can help it.” None should forget that Shaw had been an avid philanthropist. But the daughter of a ‘major’ and a member of an aristocratic Bulgarian family replies quite sarcastically- “Some soldiers, I know, are afraid to die.” The Man immediately explains- “All of them, dear lady, all of them. It is our duty to live as long as we can”, and also when he says- “nine soldiers out of ten are born fools.” Readers (audience) feel like Shaw the philanthropist announcing his life-long hostility against warfare. As if Shaw the humanist cautions the Victorian world not to glorify this merciless engagement of killing and of getting killed without realizing the horror of war, when the Man questions Raina- “You never saw a cavalry charge. Did you?”

Raina and Sergius are a betrothed couple most probably on the ground of the shared equality of bourgeois inherited wealth and family status. Raina’s dedicated love for her lover can best be seen when she adores the photograph of her hero fighting in the war- ‘Then she goes to the chest of drawers, and adores the portrait there with feelings that are beyond all expression’. The night scene of the Balkan Peninsula that can be viewed from her balcony deepens the romantic air of the moment. Again the passionate reception she offers her lover at his return from the war is indicative of the sincerity of her love towards Sergius:

Raina [ placing her hands on his shoulders as she looks up at him with                                          admiration and worship]: My hero! My king!


She is deeply convinced with the sincerity of their love- “And you have never been absent from my thoughts for a moment… Sergius: I think we two have found the higher love. When I think of you, I feel that I could never do a base deed, or think an ignoble thought.”

Sergius too is apparently not less a lover when he expresses his love and affection towards Raina- “Dearest: all my deeds have been yours. You inspired me.” Next moment he even goes to further extent- “Let me be the worshiper, dear. You little know how unworthy even the best man is of a girl’s pure passion!”

The essential anti-romantic thrush of the playwright becomes more evident when the same lover Sergius flirts with the maid Louka at the absence of his beloved. The mischievous and hypocritical nature of Sergius is equally ‘ignoble’. Louka, a clever maid, a servant only by profession, not at heart exploits the moment of Sergius’ flirting as if for her benefit- “Gentlefolk are all alike: you making love to me behind Miss Raina’s back; and she doing the same behind yours.” A lover thus turns a traitor. In the course of the play Sergius of course enquires, finds out and resolves the matter of his betrayal and being betrayed. Finally quite pitiable he declares- “Raina our romance is shattered. Life’s a farce.”

As has been announced by Sergius, the romance between Sergius and Raina gets shattered. The hero of Slivnitza miserably withdraws and surrenders before Blunschli- the defeated soldier- “I refuse to fight you”. Gradually Raina gets drawn towards the Man, Bluntschli. At the end of the play the Man gets his prize and he is engaged with Raina as he deserves. Sergius on the other hand is trapped in the snare of his hypocrisy and is compelled to get engaged to the maid of the house- Louka.

Shaw’s three-fold agenda in Arms and the Man– the play as an anti- romantic document, as an anti-heroic reality and as a projection of class struggle is all interlocked. The real world is not something as has been perceived by Raina. In the course of the action in the play she therefore travels from ignorance to knowledge as she realizes the distinction between the appearance and reality of men and manners. For Shaw, a philanthropist with progressive ideology, the world in no way can be interpreted in terms of romanticized views. The big bad world is a world of problems and conflicts. It requires practical attention and resolutions- the one as the playwright tries to project. That is why romance faces miserable failure in the play. Typical heroic ideals are the constructs of the bourgeois class of the society. It is the same class that is to be held responsible for causing war and warlike situations. Hence war is in no way something to be glorified. For all philanthropic reasons war is a condemnable affair. Shaw uses his anti-heroic thrush as a means of condemnation of warfare. His criticism of war and warlike environment is appropriately revealed through the buffoonery of Sergius who commands his cavalry to challenge artillery armed with machine guns. Another indirect Shavian social critique lies in the way Petkoff and Sergius being made majors not the least for their military prowess, rather for their social status. This in no way is supportable in military tradition and the science of war. That also results in failure from militaristic perspective, hence the blunder of Sergius. Shaw the socialist thinker in Shaw the playwright thus quenches his thirst for satirizing the feudal world order as an unjust and illogical distribution of wealth and pelf.

Louka the maid to certain extent is the Shavian spokesperson in terms of socialistic worldview. Especially she is projected in contrast to her male counterpart- Nikola. When the latter cautions her about her daring attitude and advises her to maintain submission to her employer, she resists immediately-“I do defy her. I will defy her. What do I care for her?” The playwright’s resistance against the class divided social pattern gets echoed in her voice. She cherishes a higher dream of transcending her social standing. And even though a mere house maid, out of her diligence and cleverness she attains that by being engaged to a rich fellow- Sergius.

Nicola is a servant with all possible sense of servitude. He even advises Louka to be one- “Well, take my advice and be respectful; and make the mistress feel that no matter what you know, she can depend on you to hold your tongue and serve the family faithfully. That’s what they like; and that’s how youll make most out of them.” But Louka is a servant made of different stuff. She recognizes up to the ‘soul’ of Nicola- the servant- “You have the soul of a servant, Nicola.” Further she appropriately remarks- “You were born to be a servant. I was not.” This sense of revolt is essential for the part of the proletariat maintaining the minimum urge for change of the prevailing order of the society. Shaw makes her succeed in her dream of attaining higher her social status. In the inter-woven story of the play she is made to utilize the loopholes of the bourgeois class- the ignorant major and ignoble lover Sergius. Ultimately Louka succeeds in promoting herself from a maid to a mistress completing Shaw’s socialist agenda of diminishing the essential class difference on which the class divided feudal society is built.

Thus Bernard Shaw through his inter-woven story with a metaphorical war at the backdrop brilliantly shatters the illusion of romantic idealization of war and of life in Arms and the Man. A defeated captain (Bluntschli) conquers a conquering major (Sergius), an expectantly  timid maid breaks through the ivory tower of the bourgeois class and ultimately the vanity and illusion of romantic perception of love and war gets smashed as if a big blow is posed on the face of imperialistic expansion devouring love, servitude and geographical expansion. That is convincingly the secret of the first commercially successful dramatic venture by George Bernard Shaw in the late nineteenth century among the English audience still engrossed in Victorian melodrama.


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