Arms and the Man Analysis
Arms and the Man, the earliest of Shaw’s pleasant plays, is both amusing and thought provoking. It makes us laugh and it makes us think; for it has a serious message. The first important thing to be recognized is that although it is supposed to take in Bulgaria in 1885, with characters who are Bulgarian soldiers and their womenfolk, and a Swiss hotel-keeper’s son, these facts are hardly more important than the scenery and costumes. A Bulgarian setting for this play made a stage picture that was attractive to ordinary theatre goers who only wanted to be amused; but having once captured their attention. Shaw then set out to make them think and as a reward for thinking he also made them laugh.
Arms and the Man has two themes – one is war, and the other is marriage. These themes are inter oven, for Shaw believed that while war is evil and stupid, and marriage is desirable and good, both had become wrapped in romantic illusions which led to disastrous wars and also to unhappy marriage.
The romantic view of war prescribed by Shaw is based on the idealistic motion that men fight because they are heroes, and that the soldiers who takes the biggest risks wins the greatest glory and is the greatest hero. In this play Raina Petkoff intends, at the time the play opens, to become the wile of Major Sergius Saranoff, who is then away fighting the Serbs.
News has come home to Raina and her mother that Sergius has ridden bravely at the head of a victorious cavalry charge, and Raina rejoices because she can now believe that her betrothed is just as, splendid and noble as he looks that ‘world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory and men who can acts its romance!’ In the opening scene of the play, after adoring Sergius’s portrait, Raina goes to bed murmuring: ‘My hero! My hero!’ This is a romantic girl’s romantic view of life, but then reality suddenly breaks in upon her.
An enemy officer, in headlong retreat with the defeated Serbs, rushes into her room from the outside balcony to take refuge. He is desperate through exhaustion and fear, and Raina sneers at him. Nevertheless, when the pursuers come to search the house, Raina, hides the fugitive and denies having seen him. She learns, after the pursuit is over, that he is a Swiss fighting for the Serbs as a professional soldiers and she is again contemptuous when he tells her that instead of ammunition he carries chocolate in his cartridge cases, having found that food is more useful in battle than bullets.
At Raina’s request that he should describe the great Bulgarian Cavalry charge the man tells her that its leader (whom she knows was Sergius) rude “like an operation tenor …. with flashing eyes and lovely moustache …. thinking he’d done the cleverest thing ever known, whereas he ought to be court martialled for it. Or all the fools ever let loose on a field of battle, that man must be the very modest. He and his regiment simply committed suicide ……’ or they would have committed suicide, the man goes on to say, only the Serbs had no ammunition left and therefore could not repel the charge. The scene ends with the man falling asleep through uncontrollable weariness, and Raina finds herself moved to pity by the suffering he has endured. She had imagined war as an exciting sport; She has now seen it as a dreadful reality through contact with one of the defeated.
Until the war of 1914-18 came to support the view that professional skill, stamina and caution are no less desirable than physical courage. Shaw supposed to have be little soldiers in Arms and the Man, and it took two world wars to prove beyond doubt that chocolate (symbolizing all kinds of foods) is as necessary to any army as cartridges.
In the later scene of the play the other aspect of the play emerges upper most. The war has ended and the soldiers are home again. Sergius too has learned something of the realities of war and is so disgusted by them that he has sent in his resignation saying,
“soldering …. is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak”.
Yet Raina continues to treat him as hinted as a hero of romance until a Captain Bluntschli comes to visit the Petkoff’s house, and is discovered to be the man who took refuge in Raina’s room during the retreat.
In an amusing scene of the kind that is specially typical of Shaw, Bluntschli shows Raina her real character beneath the romantic mask that she has worm since childhood. Not only has she substituted an imaginary Sergius for the real one, but she also had built up an imaginary self. Bluntschli is not deceived. He says to her;
“When you strike that noble attitude and speak in that thrilling voice, I admire you; but I find it impossible to believe a word you say.”
After pretending to be indignant, Raina surrenders and asks:
“How did you find me out? …. How strange it is to be talked to in such away? You know, I’ve always gone on like that …. I mean the noble attitude and the thrilling voice…. I did it when I was a tiny child to my nurse. She believed in it. I do it before my parents. They believe in it. I do it before Sergius. He believes in jt.”
But her Swiss visitor does not believes in it.
Bluntschli is not deceived, either, by Sergius : not is Sergius blind to his own true nature. When he finds himself flirting with the servant maid, Louka, immediately after an adoring love scene with Raina, he analyses himself frankly,
“I am surprised at myself, Louka. What would Sergius, the hero of Slivnitza, say if he saw me now? What would Sergius, the apostle of the higher love, say if he saw me now? What would the half-dozen Sergiuses who keep popping in and out of this handsome figure of mine say if they caught us here?”
When Raina succumbs at last to the man she calls her ‘Chocolate Cream Soldiers‘, Bluntschli has cured her of the second of the two deceptions which ruled her life when the play began. She no longer thinks of war as a romantic game, nor does she any longer think of marriage as the mating of a beautiful heroine and a handsome hero in a life-long romantic dream. Instead of the ornamental and fickle Sergius, she takes, as her husband the plain Bluntschli, whose common sense and six hotels in Switzerland will give her stability and comfort.
The realities of love and marriage, become one of the most frequent themes in Shaw’s play through the remainder of his lifelong. He thought of marriage not as a means of satisfying the personal desires of individual men and women, nor as a means of strengthening family ties, but as a means of bringing to birth a new and a better generation. Though no one can predict with certainty the consequences of any marriage, Shaw never swerved from the conviction that marriage is a solemn contract, not a frivolous domestic excursion.
The rest of the play is mostly light hearted fun, though amid the fun there are several shrewd hits at two sorts of snobbery: the snobbery of the maid servant Nicola who regards her employers with cynical servility, despising them, yet humbling himself before them because ‘That’s what they like, and that’s how you’ll make most out of them’; and the snobbery of Petkoffs who think themselves better than their neighbors because they have a library and an electric bell.
As an upholder of social equality, Shaw was opposed to any idea that servants are an inferior class. He held that all necessary work, however menial, is valuable as a service to the community. He also believed that it was mean and foolish to act as though the possession of wealth, or any other material, is a sign of personal superiority. People may not any longer think it impressive to have an electric bell in the house, but there are countries now-a-days where families with Television sets and motor cars feel as stupidly proud as the Petkoffs did with their bell and library.
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