The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Arms and the Man begins in November, 1885. Raina is seen at the open balcony window on the second floor of the Petkoff house in a small Bulgarian town. Her mother enters with the news that Raina’s fiance, Sergius, has just led the Bulgarians to victory in battle against the Serbians. Raina rejoices; her idealistic expectations of war and soldiers have been met. The servant Louka enters to tell them that the army has ordered people to stay indoors and lock and bolt all doors and windows while stragglers are being pursued in the streets. Catherine and Louka leave. There are shots outside, and Raina blows out the candles and takes to her bed. The figure of a man appears in the window and stumbles into the room. He closes the shutters, threatens to shoot Raina if she makes noise, and tells her to light a candle; he is revealed as a Serbian artillery officer, battered and exhausted, nervous and hungry. Soldiers at the door demand to search the room; a man has been seen climbing to her balcony. On impulse, Raina hides the man behind the drapes; an officer enters, is assured by Raina that there is no one else present, and leaves apologizing.
Raina and the man talk, she despising him for being a cowardly and ignoble soldier, he trying to explain to her the realities of battle. When he complains of hunger, she gives him a box of chocolate creams. The man identifies a portrait of Sergius as the man who led the cavalry charge that won the battle—but only because the Serbians had the wrong ammunition for their guns; the man thinks him a romantic fool who won the battle by doing the professionally wrong thing. Raina understandably objects strongly. Further noises from the street move the man, who is not nearly as fierce as he at first seemed, to leave and take his chances, but Raina, at pains to demonstrate her aristocratic ideals and background, says that she will save him. She goes to get her mother; they return to find him asleep on the bed.
Act 2 begins four months later in the garden of the Petkoff house; it is morning. Louka and Nicola are arguing; Nicola tells Louka that she must not be impertinent to the Petkoffs. If she is, they will discharge her—and he is depending upon the Petkoffs to be his customers when he sets up his shop; if the family turns against her, they will not patronize him. Major Petkoff returns from the war, and Catherine enters to greet him. Sergius, a romantically handsome, Byronic man, is shown in. He is bitter that, having won the battle the wrong way, the army now refuses to promote him; he intends to resign his commission in disgust. Raina enters and there is talk of a tale Sergius and Petkoff have heard of a Swiss officer being rescued by two Bulgarian women. Sergius and Raina are left alone and engage in romantic, high-minded, worshipful talk. Raina leaves to get her hat; Louka enters to clear the table, and Sergius attempts to cuddle and kiss her. Louka taunts Sergius about his lack of high-mindedness where she is concerned and says that she has a secret about his fiancee and a strange man. Louka leaves and Raina enters, but Petkoff calls...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
In the simplest view, Shaw presents his ideas by using the very old device of creating a closed unit—the Petkoff household plus Sergius—and then thrusting an outsider into the middle of it. The Petkoff household is perfectly content to live its life in its own small dreamworld (which the Bulgarian backwoods setting helps to emphasize), when suddenly their routines and their values are upset and called unintentionally into question by Bluntschli. The disruption follows automatically from the intrusion of the “reality” of the outside world. Bluntschli is a breath of fresh air to which each of the other characters in the play reacts according to his or her psychology.
Shaw’s dramatic approach in Arms and the Man makes use of many of the oldest and most stagy of devices, from the titillation of the strange man in the lady’s boudoir to the incriminating letter or photo. Shaw is reputed to have said that one could not be too stagy on the stage. His main characters, for example, are taken from the stock military melodramas of the period: the noble soldier, the cowardly soldier, the beautiful lady, the comic servant. Shaw then makes his own use of these stock characters. The beautiful lady does not end up in the arms of the noble soldier; the cowardly soldier is not really so, simply practical; the comic servant proves to be a man of considerable practical wisdom.
This use for his own purposes of stock characters points directly...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bedroom. Bedroom of twenty-three-year-old Raina Petkoff, a member of an upper-class Bulgarian family, in which the play opens with Raina’s mother rushing in to tell her that her fiancé, Sergius Saranoff, has led a victory in battle in the Russian-Austrian War. George Bernard Shaw’s stage directions describe the bedroom as “half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese,” with “oriental and gorgeous” drapes, bedclothes, and carpet, along with “occidental and paltry” wallpaper and a dressing table made of common pine. Thus, while the Petkoffs have money, they do not know how to decorate their home. Raina reveals her family’s snobbery when she brags to the Swiss army captain Bluntschli that her family has the only Bulgarian home with “two rows of windows . . . [and] a flight of stairs.” The final proof of her family’s being “civilized people” is they actually have a library in their home.
Library. Room symbolizing the Petkoffs’ mistaken belief in their own superiority that is the setting for act 3 of the play. In the first act, Raina brags about the family library to the enemy soldier; in the second act her father brags to his wife that he has made sure that every officer he has encountered while fighting in the war knows that he has a library. In the third act, the audience finally sees for itself this prized place: The library contains a single bookshelf lined with torn paper-covered novels. The play’s stage directions do, however, indicate that the room’s chairs and tables make it “a most comfortable sitting room.”
Garden. Part of the Petkoff home that is the setting for act 2. While the garden attests to the material wealth of the Petkoffs, the fact that Mother Catherine hangs wet laundry on garden shrubs to dry is another indication that the family is not as superior as its members think. When Catherine’s husband tells her that “civilized people don’t hang out their washing to dry where visitors can see it,” she merely responds, “Oh, that’s absurd.”
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Alexander, Nigel. A Critical Commentary on Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” and “Pygmalion.” London: Macmillan, 1968. A detailed critical exposition; includes an introduction on “The Play of Ideas,” discussion questions, and recommendations for further reading.
Bergquist, Gordon N. The Pen and the Sword: War and Peace in the Prose and Plays of Bernard Shaw. Salzburg, Austria: University of Salzburg, 1977. A detailed examination of the occurrence of soldiers and wars in Shaw’s plays and of Shaw’s thought on the military and related issues.
Carpenter, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art...
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