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...
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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...
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Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, was born in 1819 and ruled from 1837 to 1901. She was married in 1840 to her cousin, Prince Albert, and it was he who insisted on the straitlaced behavior and strict decorum that have become known as Victorian values. They had nine children, whose marriages and prodigy entangled most of the thrones of Europe, including grandchildren Emperor William II of Germany and Empress Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II of Russia. Prince Albert died in 1861 and Victoria largely withdrew from public life, thus damaging her popularity and the political clout she had previously wielded.
When Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister in 1874, he flattered Victoria into resuming some involvement in public affairs, and she regained admiration as well as the title of Empress of India. Disraeli worked for social reform while promoting the growth of the British Empire. In contrast to Disraeli, Victoria greatly disliked William E. Gladstone, who served as prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894. Considered a great statesman, Gladstone championed tax reforms, an end to colonial expansion, and Irish home rule.
Relative prosperity existed in the late 1800s in England, although there were some years of high unemployment. Agricultural production was at its height. The Crimean War (1854–1856) had been a disaster for England, but otherwise the empire spread...
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Although already established as a model for romances prior to the publication of Anthony Hope’s popular 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda, Ruritanian romance takes its name from the imaginary country of Ruritania found in Hope’s book. This type of story generally includes intrigue, adventure, sword fights, and star-crossed lovers, ingredients that are all found in Arms and the Man. However, Shaw ultimately attacks this genre by exaggerating the absurdities of the plot and by transforming the typically cookie-cutter characters into people facing reality. He thus inverts the conventions of melodrama and inserts critical commentary into the cleverly funny lines of his play. There is the threat of a sword fight that never comes to fruition, since Bluntschli is too sensible to accept Saranoff’s challenge—which illustrates Shaw’s belief that dueling is stupid. Romance also plays a big role in Arms and the Man, but, again, Shaw turns the tables by having the heroine and her fiancé abandon their idealized relationship, which would have been prized in a Ruritanian romance, for a more realistic and truer love.
One standard trait of comedic plays—often used by Shakespeare and also used by Shaw in Arms and the Man—is the use of an ending in which all the confusions of the play are resolved, and every romantic figure winds up with his or her ideal...
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Compare and Contrast
1890s: After centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks, in 1878, northern Bulgaria becomes autonomous, and a united Bulgaria gains its independence in 1908.
Today: A German ally in both world wars, Bulgaria falls to Soviet domination during World War II and remains under its control until 1990. Upon signing of the European Constitution in 2004, Bulgaria is de facto considered a full-fledged member of the European Union. Bulgaria also joins NATO in 2004.
1890s: After becoming an autonomous principality in 1829, Serbia is recognized in 1878 as an independent country. In 1882, the ruling prince, Milan Obrenovi, is proclaimed king. Obrenovi establishes a liberal constitution, but his son Alexander, who rules from 1889 to 1903, rejects it, evoking hostility in Serbia until he is assassinated in 1903.
Today: From 1992 to 2002, Serbia and Montenegro are joined as the country of Yugoslavia. After 2002, the two states are in a loose federation, and a referendum in each republic concerning full independence is to be held in 2006.
1890s: Arms and the Man is in limited production and is not appreciated until its publication several years later.
Today: Arms and the Man is produced around the world and is one of Shaw’s most popular plays.
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Topics for Further Study
Shaw greatly admired the artist and socialist William Morris. Write a brief biography that identifies Morris and his legacy.
The title of Arms and the Man comes from the opening line of Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid.” Write a summary of this poem and contrast its message to that of Shaw’s play.
Shaw identified himself as a socialist and he helped to organize the Fabian Society. What is the Fabian Society, what were its goals, and what were some of the works that Shaw wrote while a Fabian?
Arms and the Man was set during a war in the Balkans between the Bulgarians and the Serbians. The Serbians were recently again involved in a war that resulted in international intervention. Trace and report on the history of the various Balkan conflicts from the late 1800s to the present day, including the Serbian involvement in the start of World War I.
Shaw is credited with initiating the “theater of ideas.” What does this term mean? How were Shaw’s plays different from most theater during the Victorian era and what was Shaw’s impact on the theater world?
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A film version of Arms and the Man, adapted by Shaw and produced by John Maxwell, was created for British International Pictures in 1932.
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What Do I Read Next?
Shaw wrote The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1927) as a political primer for women, who had just gained suffrage in Britain. Available in a 1984 reprint edition from Transaction Publishers, this book strongly advocates socialism as the best economic solution.
Shaw’s Complete Plays with Prefaces (1962), published by Dodd Mead, is a collection of all of Shaw’s dramatic works, including the famous prefaces that are so valuable to the study of Shaw and his messages.
Shaw wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1890) as a tribute to the great Norwegian playwright and critic Henrik Ibsen, whose philosophy about the power of literature to instruct inspired Shaw’s career. This book was reprinted in 1994 by Dover Publications.
Henrik Ibsen greatly influenced Shaw and other dramatists of his age. A collection of Ibsen’s plays can be found in Henrik Ibsen: The Complete Major Prose Plays (1988), published by Plume Books.
Oscar Wilde is another of Britain’s greatest playwrights. Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, first produced in 1895, is arguably his best work and perhaps the most famous comedy of manners in theater history. Numerous editions are available, including a Dover Edition from 1990.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Adcock, Arthur St. John, “George Bernard Shaw,” in The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors, Stokes, 1928, p. 1.
“Bernard Shaw,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, Vol. 2, W. W. Norton, 1986, pp. 1759–62.
Borges, Jorge Luis, “For Bernard Shaw,” in Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, University of Texas Press, 1964, pp. 163–66.
Brecht, Bertolt, “Ovation for Shaw,” translated by Gerhard H. W. Zuther, in Modern Drama, Vol. 2, No. 2, September 1959, pp. 184–87.
Chesterton, G. K., George Bernard Shaw, John Lane, 1909, pp. 118–20.
Fisher, Barbara M., “Fanny’s First Play: A Critical Potboiler?” in George Bernard Shaw, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, p. 252.
Nevinson, H. W., “George Bernard Shaw,” in New Leader, August 23, 1929.
Shaw, George Bernard, Arms and the Man, in Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, H. S. Stone, 1898.
Booth, Michael Richard, and Joel H. Kaplan, The Edwardian Theatre: Essays on Performance and the Stage, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
An overview of the Edwardian entertainment industry, this book is a collection of essays...
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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 of Destroying Ideals: The Early Plays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. A clear exposition of Shaw’s methods in attacking idealism in Arms and the Man and other plays.
Crompton, Louis. “Arms and the Man,” in his Shaw the Dramatist, 1969.
Crompton, Louis. Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. An excellent consideration of the social, philosophical, and historical background of Arms and the Man.
Dukore, Bernard F. Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man”: A Composite Production Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. Covers Shaw’s directions and...
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