What do we learn from the opening of George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man?
The opening scene of George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man serves to establish Shaw's theme concerning the absurdity of holding romantic views about war. Based on his writings, we know that Shaw was not a pacifist but believed that many people of his time period romanticized war rather than saw it for the horror, sometimes senseless horror, it truly is. As a member of the Irish gentry who grew up poor due to his father's alcoholism, Shaw was a staunch critic of Irish and British upper-class society alike. Until the experience of the horrors of World War I, which started 20 years after Arms and the Man was written, British upper-class society romanticized war as a glorious chance to bravely fight for an ideal, a belief Shaw criticized in his writings, starting with this play. Similarly, the characters in Shaw's opening scene equally romanticize war.
Shaw's theme concerning the romanticism of war is first developed when the stage directions describe Raina, the protagonist, as standing out on the balcony on a snowy night in late fall, "gazing at the snowy" Balkan Mountains. When her mother, Catherine, enters the scene and chides her for standing out in the freezing cold, Raina remarks on how beautiful the stars are. Clearly, standing out in a nightgown, wrapped in a fur, on a freezing cold night just to see the beauty of the snow and stars is impractical, and Shaw uses this impracticality to express Raina's romantic ideals. In addition, Shaw shows us that just like standing out in the cold is impractical, so are Raina's ideals.
As soon as her mother enters the room, Raina's and Catherine's conversation relays their romantic views of war. For example, Catherine very jubilantly calls the "great battle at Slivnitza," a battle that led to the loss of 3,000 Serbs and 2,500 Bulgarians, a "victory!" without giving any thought to the devastating consequences of war. Likewise, Raina, according to the stage direction, "ecstatically" exclaims, "Tell me, tell me. How was it!," as if she is asking about the most wonderful piece of news in the world. Furthermore, Raina's only thoughts concern how proud she is of her betrothed, Sergius, for his bravery and that the army's success proves their patriotic ideals concerning an independent Bulgarian state are realistic. Since Raina's and Catherine's conversation clearly shows they think war is a beautiful and glorious thing, it is clear that Shaw is using this conversation to satirize romantic ideas about war.
Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw opens with a dialogue between Raina and her mother Catherine. Raina is standing on her balcony looking out at the stars when her mother enters the room to tell her about the battle at Slivnitza.
The placement of Raina on the balcony looking at the stars sets up two things. First, her appreciation of the beauty of the stars shows her as a very romantic character. Second, for the educated reader, it sets up a parallel with the famous "balcony scene" of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a parallel that primes the audience for precisely the sort of romantic episode Shaw will be satirizing by having a tired, pragmatic, older mercenary concerned with food and sleep appear rather than a young, handsome Romeo talking of love.
Next, the dialogue also gives us background information about Raina's relationship with Sergius. Catherine's comment about the victory is intended to illustrate the naiveté and absurdity of Sergius, something on which Bluntschli will soon comment. Catherine says:
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.
Raina's response, in which she wonders if their ideas of heroism are inspired by reading romantic authors and perhaps are actually dreams rather than reality, introduces the main theme of the play.
The opening scene, between mother Catherine and daughter Raina, does three important things: it tells of the expository off-stage action of the battle, it establishes the romantic view that Raina carries through her life, and it shows Catherine’s equally Romantic view of war. Raina is on the balcony, admiring the stars; the important maid character, Louka, who will provide an important contrast of practicality to the mix, is also mentioned. The balcony will soon be the point of entry of the “chocolate soldier,” Bluntschli, a contrast to the falsely heroic soldiers mentioned here, Sergio, “the hero of the hour”. There are also the first hints of the family’s socioeconomic position. The scene thus sets the dramatic (comic) conflicts between the Romantic and the realistic views of war, love, and heroism, and begins the dramatic discussion of the difference between “arms and the man.”