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Not only is Arms and the Man an anti-Romantic comedy, but its author, George Bernard Shaw, was the quintessential anti-Romantic writer. The period known as Romanticism was characterized by a more liberal and less literal approach to the arts, with idealism a major element of that movement. It ended right about the time Shaw was born, and his plays, including Arms and the Man and Major Barbara, would prove enduring representations of the end of Romanticism.
Arms and the Man takes place during the exceedingly brief the Serbo-Bulgarian War of November 1885. The play opens in the bedroom of Raina, a young, beautiful Bulgarian woman who is standing on her balcony admiring the scenery. Her mother, Catherine, rushes in excitedly with good news: “There has been a battle!”
RAINA. Tell me, tell me. How was it! (Ecstatically) Oh, mother, mother, mother! (Raina pulls her mother down on the ottoman; and they kiss one another frantically.)
CATHERINE (with surging enthusiasm). You can't guess how splendid it is. A cavalry charge—think of that! He defied our Russian commanders—acted without orders—led a charge on his own responsibility—headed it himself—was the first man to sweep through their guns. Can't you see it, Raina; our gallant splendid Bulgarians with their swords and eyes flashing, thundering down like an avalanche and scattering the wretched Serbian dandies like chaff. And you—you kept Sergius waiting a year before you would be betrothed to him. Oh, if you have a drop of Bulgarian blood in your veins, you will worship him when he comes back.
Shaw’s purpose in depicting this enthusiastic exchange is to establish an atmosphere of idealism and naivete regarding the nature of war. Throughout human history, war has been viewed by millions of people – mainly by those who never fought in one – as an expression of their nations’ character and as a cause for national pride. That the Serbian soldier, probably a deserter, who takes refuge in Raina’s room while revealing that his pockets that should contain extra bullets instead contain only chocolate, emerges as something of a coward is the first nail in the coffin of any notion that Shaw’s play intends to portray militarism as inherently romantic. The initial exchange between Raina and the Serbian soldier, an officer, suggests that the war the young woman has viewed so romantically is anything but:
MAN: If I’m caught I shall be killed. (Determinedly) Do you understand that?
MAN: Well, I don’t intend to get killed if I can help it. . .
RAINA: . . .Some soldiers, I know, are afraid of death.
MAN: (with grim good humor) All of them, dear lady, all of them, believe me. It is our duty to live as long as we can, and kill as many of the enemy as we can.
As the two continue their introductory exchange, momentarily interrupted by the appearance of a Russian officer searching the area for errant Serbian soldiers, the Serbian soldiers Raina has hidden reveals himself to actually be Swiss, not even Austrian like Raina had begun to suspect. Shaw is illuminating the multinational characteristics of even the smallest conflicts, as mercenaries and friendly countries eagerly rush to join their respective allies in the war.
As Arms and the Man progresses, the story becomes less about the war and more about romantic infatuations and relationships gone awry. In other words, Shaw’s play becomes a more conventional farce. At no time, however, can it be considered in any way representative of the Romantic period; on the contrary, it is anti-Romantic in its rejection of the idealism and romance associated with depictions of history that were characteristic of that period.
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