Arms and the Man Criticism
by George Bernard Shaw

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(Drama for Students)

      Although the dominant themes of Arms and the Man are the foolishness of romanticized love and of glorified war, there is another theme concerning social classes. Shaw was one of the key figures in the establishment of the Fabian Society, a middle-class socialist group that believed reform should come through the gradual education of the people and through changes in intellectual and political life, not through revolution. One of the reforms sought by the Fabian Society was the establishment of equality, legally and socially, for all people. Therefore, in Arms and the Man, as with the stereotypes that Shaw targets concerning heroes and the conventions of romance, he also takes aim at the stereotypes and false tenets of class.

      Shaw greatly admired the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. According to the Norton Anthology of British Literature, Shaw preferred Ibsen’s plays that “attacked middle-class conventionality and hypocrisy rather than those which probed more subtly and poetically into deeper aspects of experience.” Indeed, it is this conventionality and hypocrisy that Shaw targets in Arms and the Man. For one thing, Shaw makes fun of the high-class pretensions of the Petkoff family. In the stage directions to Act 1, Shaw describes Raina’s bedroom as “half rich Bulgarian and half cheap Viennese.” He describes Catherine as “a very splendid specimen of the wife of a mountain farmer, but is determined to be a Viennese lady, and to that end wears a fashionable tea gown on all occasions.”

      When Raina informs Bluntschli that he is in the house of Petkoff, “the richest and best known [family] in our country,” she expects him to be impressed. She brags that her father holds the highest command of any Bulgarian in the Russian army, but it is only the rank of major, which does not say much for the Bulgarians. Raina also brags that hers is the only private house in Bulgaria that has two rows of windows and a flight of stairs to go up and down by. When Bluntschli feigns being impressed, she adds that they have the only library in Bulgaria. She condescendingly tells Bluntschli that he has shown great ignorance, but the audience recognizes that Raina is the one who is pathetically ignorant. She advises Bluntschli that she tells him all these things so that he will know he is not in the house of ignorant country folk. As proof, she declares that she goes to the opera in Bucharest every year and has spent a month in Vienna. Bluntschli says, “I saw at once that you knew the world” when what he is seeing is that she is very unworldly. Bertolt Brecht, in his 1959 article “Ovation for Show” in Modern Drama, wrote that Shaw insisted “on the prerogative of every man to act decently, logically, and with a sense of humor” and that a person was obligated to behave this way “even in the face of opposition.” Apparently, Shaw gave this attribute to Bluntschli.

      Shaw further shows the vulgarity of the Petkoffs when Raina explains that “Bulgarians of really good standing—people in OUR position—wash their hands nearly every day.” Raina thinks that simply washing hands is a sign of a gentleman, not knowing that her primitive lifestyle sets her standards low. In Act 2, Major Petkoff blames his wife’s chronic sore throat on washing her neck every day. His lecture on the foolishness of frequent bathing is a further sign from Shaw that we are dealing with people who have only recently barely risen above the great unwashed masses. Throwing in the comments about washing being the fault of the English whose climate makes them so dirty is a playful barb at Shaw’s own audience.

      The repeated reference to their library once again shows that the Petkoffs think that all they need to be gentry is to have a room called the library. Putting a bell in it just heightens the ludicrousness of their pretensions. When Petkoff asks why they cannot just shout for their servants,...

(The entire section is 1,658 words.)