Comment on the historical elements in the play Arms and the Man
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Shaw's play 'Arms and the Man' is based on a historical war.Prince Alexander I, the Regent of Bulgaria, led the Bulgarian army against the Serbs who had declared war in November ,1885.In the war, the Bulgarian were helped by the Russians where the Serbs were led by Austrian Army. In the war the Swiss supplied a large number of mercenaries and captain Bluntschli is one such soldier fighting on the Serbian side.Shaw has deliberately chosen this incident to use it as setting of his play to prick the hollowness of the romantic notion or illusion about war and love.
Shaw first sketched out the play without an historical setting. His friend, Sidney Webb, came up with the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885 as the model scenario. Shaw did research in the British Museum Reading Room and chose Bulgaria as the setting. The character of Bluntschli may have been suggested by the life of Johann Kaspar Bluntschli, a Swiss professor of law. He chose the name “Arms and the Man” from the first line of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid: “Of arms and the man [the hero Aeneas] I sing.” Shaw’s title is ironic, for Virgil told the story of a hero, while Shaw’s play is about Bluntschi, the “chocolate-cream soldier.”
The play mentions historical details of the Serbo-Bulgarian war, such as the Battle of Slivnitza that was the turning point of the war, resulting in the Unification of Bulgaria. Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, which was predominantly Bulgarian, announced their unification in 1885, against the will of the Great European Powers, especially Austria. Serbia used the pretense of a border dispute to invade Bulgaria. The Serbians had modern guns but as in Shaw’s version, they had trouble with their cannon. They also underestimated the Bulgarians and used mostly young recruits. Shaw shows them running away as Bluntschli did. The Russian officers allowed the Bulgarian officers like Sergius and Petkoff to conduct the war. They were not as experienced as the Russians, but they had strong patriotism and morale. Shaw makes Petkoff say that without the intervention of the Great Powers, the Serbs and Bulgarians would not know how to fight. In the past, the Serbs and Bulgarians fought on the same side against the Turks, but the Serbian soldiers were tricked into fighting their former allies. Austria intervened after Slivnitza, disallowing more fighting. The Bulgarian victory settled the Unification question and boosted the prestige of Bulgaria, since the Serbs had not before known defeat.
Shaw uses Bulgaria as an example of a backward nation wanting to join the family of modern European nations. Bulgarians objected to Shaw’s stereotyping them as comic bumpkins who didn’t wash their hands and thought that a library was a few paperback books. Shaw does, however, bring out the political plight of such a country as Bulgaria, fighting for its identity among the bigger, modernized nations. He shows that Louka and Nicola, the servants, are in fact, the strength of the country, being closer to its roots. The Petkoffs and Sarnoff, wanting to be thought advanced, adopt the culture of foreign countries that do not properly educate the people. Saranoff wastes his time trying to be Byronic, and Catherine focuses on having an electric bell. This same phenomenon is still seen today when poorer nations copy what is trivial and popular in richer countries.
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