Criticism

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658

      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.

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      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, Catherine replies that she has learned that civilized people never shout for their servants. He counters that he has learned that civilized people do not hang their laundry out to dry where other people can see it. Catherine finds that concept absurd and declares that really refined people do not notice such things, as if she knew. Obviously, neither of them have any idea what refinement is, especially if they have only recently begun learning proper habits.

      In his essay “Ovation for Show,” Brecht wrote that “Probably all of [Shaw’s] characters, in all their traits, are the result of Shaw’s delight in upsetting our habitual prejudices.” For example, Saranoff assumes that Bluntschli is bourgeois because Bluntschli’s father is a hotel and livery keeper. He has jumped to the wrong conclusion because Bluntschli is too humble to brag about his father’s holdings. Louka challenges Saranoff’s prejudices when she says, “It is so hard to know what a gentleman considers right” after Saranoff jumps back and forth between familiarity with her and putting a barrier between them because he is supposedly a gentleman and she only a maid. In one minute, Louka is worth chasing; in another, she is “an abominable little clod of common clay, with the soul of a servant.” But Louka retorts that it does not matter what she is because she has now found out that he is made of the same clay. Shaw is, of course, making the point that virtue and baseness are not the properties of any one class but that we are all human.

      Louka is resentful of a society that tries to restrict her to a certain “place.” The audience can tell that Louka is better suited to being a mistress than a maid. Nicola tries to convince her that a rigid structure of classes is part of the natural order of things, and that people are more content when they accept their place and stop torturing themselves with useless aspirations. Louka replies disdainfully that Nicola has “the soul of a servant.” He may have capitulated to social restrictions, but she will not. In The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw argued that women should not fall for society’s dictum that they be self-sacrificing, but should instead take care of themselves first so that they could then be in a position to help others. Louka is an example of a woman following this advice.

      In Act 3, the audience is finally shown the famous “library” and learn that, in truth, it contains only a few books. Once again, Shaw is making fun of the Petkoffs’ attempt at upward mobility. In a conversation between Sergius and Louka, Louka asks if poor men are any less brave than rich men. He replies, “Not a bit.” However, he qualifies his answer by adding that they are just as brave in battle, but cower before officers. Shaw’s voice is heard as Sergius concludes: “Oh, give me the man who will defy to the death any power on earth or in heaven that sets itself up against his own will and conscience: he alone is the brave man.” Louka challenges his definition of true courage. She says that servants do not have the liberty to express their own wills, to show bravery. If she were an empress, though, she would show courage by marrying the man she loved, even if he were far below her in station. She accuses Sergius of not having that kind of courage, and he claims that he does but he loves Raina. Of course, Louka is setting him up to be without excuses for marrying her once he learns that Raina loves Bluntschi, and Shaw has successfully set forth a debate about class and courage for his audience to ponder.

      Class distinctions become all muddled at the end of the play, and barriers are broken, as Shaw hoped they would be in real life. Nicola becomes a servant to a servant, or is it a compatriot, when he declares that Louka has “a soul above her station; and I have been no more than her confidential servant.” Then Sergius becomes engaged to Louka, so the class barrier between them comes down. In a further blow for equality, Louka addresses Raina by her first name. Raina and her mother are indignant at the liberty a mere servant has taken, but Louka says, “I have a right to call her Raina: she calls me Louka.” It seemed logical to Shaw, and he hoped his audience would see the sense of this peer treatment. The final jab at snobbery is taken when Catherine objects to Raina marrying Bluntschli until she finds out that he is rich. Then he becomes instantly acceptable. The hypocrisy of basing marriage on money instead of love could not have been lost on the audience.

      Arthur St. John Adcock, a British poet, novelist, and journalist, understood why Shaw took his moral and socialist preaching to theatre audiences rather than to a lecture podium: “it would bear the more fruit because it fell upon their minds like a pleasant and enlivening dew and not like a destroying thunderstorm.” He added: “I doubt whether any man has attacked more social evils and respectable shibboleths, or had a profounder, more far-reaching influence on his own time.” Ultimately, Shaw was an optimist. He could present social reform in a comedy because he found humor in the human situation. He knew it was better to laugh than cry, and he truly believed that good sense and justice would prevail. He would not have bothered to present his ideas if he did not think that people were capable of reasoning their value. For that faith in their innate goodness and intelligence, Shaw’s audiences have rewarded him with a lasting reputation as one of the greatest playwrights of all time.

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Arms and the Man, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

 

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