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.