What is the dramatic significance of Act 1 of Arms and the Man?

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The first act of most plays functions as the setup. This is true of act 1 of Arms and the Man as well. It sets up three important things: the setting, the characters, and the main conflict.

The setting of the play is straightforward and mentioned at the very beginning: "A lady's bedchamber in Bulgaria, in a small town near the Dragoman Pass. It is late in November in the year 1885." Using contextual clues and the mention of the year, the audience and readers can infer that the play is set during the height of the Serbo-Bulgarian War, which began in 1882.

The characters are also introduced in this act. We meet Raina Petkoff; her mother, Catherine Petkoff; and their maid, Louka. We also learn of Raina's lover, Sergius Saranoff, who has not yet returned from the battlefield. Later on in the act, we also meet Bluntschli, although he remains unnamed for now.

Finally, this act sets up the major conflict between romanticism and realism. We see the romanticism in Raina at her very introduction, as she sits "on the balcony . . . intensely conscious of the romantic beauty of the night, and of the fact that her own youth and beauty is a part of it." We also see it in smaller scale in her mother, who is described as rather pretentious—a woman "who might be a very specific specimen of the wife of a mountain farmer, but is determined to be a Viennese lady."

The realism is shown through Bluntschli, the Serbian soldier who enters Raina's room, in his matter-of-fact descriptions of life as a soldier and in his tearing down of Raina's fantasy of Sergius as a romanticised picture of chivalry and strength. We also see it in smaller scale in practical Louka, who appears to always be concerned with the here and now, in stark contrast to Raina.

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George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man is a play about both love and war. In a sense, Shaw sees these two themes as connected, in that romantic attitudes, which glamorize war and relationships rather than looking at them realistically, lead to bad outcomes in both the relationships among individuals and nations.

The first Act of Arms and the Man sets up the major conflict in the play between romantic ideals and reality, a conflict that plays out in the growth of the central character, Raina. At the opening of the play, Raina's mother is presented as enthralled with the glamour of war and of Sergius, the young hero to whom Raina is engaged. Raina is somewhat more ambivalent, but has no alternative models of either military or romantic ideals with which to compare her mother's views.

With the intrusion of Captain Bluntschli, not only does Shaw introduce a romantic alternative but also an ideological one. Thus the first act not only introduces the main characters and conflicts of the play, but also the ideas about war that Shaw wants to investigate through the vehicle of the play. Captain Bluntschli will serve almost as a mouthpiece for Shaw in the play.

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