Arms and the Man, subtitled An Anti-Romantic Comedy, is most obviously an attack on the false ideals of warfare and the soldier’s profession. Late nineteenth century British society, especially the aristocratic element, tended to see war as a noble undertaking and soldiers as brave, courageous, fearless, and honorable. Many military melodramas of the period upheld these ideals, but they were performed for a civilian audience. As George Bernard Shaw has Bluntschli make clear, soldiers themselves do not think this way. Although far from being a pacifist, Shaw demands that war be seen honestly: War makes men tired and hungry, afraid and nervous. In the person of Bluntschli and in his comments about battle, Shaw establishes the opposition with the archromantics of the play, Raina and Sergius. The satire of the play is aimed at the poetic view of war and soldiers and at the commonplace conjunction between soldiers, aristocracy, and love, the staples of the standard military melodrama of the period. When Raina chooses for her mate the practical, professional, middle-class Bluntschli, Shaw breaks the pattern in which only the brave deserve the fair.
Shaw’s dramatic approach in Arms and the Man makes deliberate use of many of the oldest, stagiest of devices, ranging from the titillating circumstance of the strange man in the lady’s boudoir to the appearance of an incriminating letter or photo. Shaw is reputed to have said that one cannot be too stagy on the stage. His main characters are taken from the stock military melodramas of the time: the noble soldier, the cowardly soldier, the beautiful lady, the comic servant. Shaw turns these stock characters to his own use, however: The beautiful lady does not end up in the arms of the noble soldier; the cowardly soldier is not really cowardly, just practical; the comic servant proves to be a man of considerable practical wisdom.
The key elements of the play are really contained in Sergius and Raina, rather than in Bluntschli. Bluntschli never changes in the course of the play; he is the standard against which the others are measured. Raina learns to divest herself of her impossible ideals, ideals that have no relation to real life, and thus becomes a fit partner for the cool and efficient Bluntschli. Sergius believes that he is to be despised because he finds himself unable to match his ideals. Sergius never does come to see the lesson taught by Bluntschli—that the problem is not an inability to live up to ideals but an acceptance of impossible ideals as reasonable and real.
From this point of view, Arms and the Man is a classic statement of the antiromantic view of life. Its commentary is not only directed at the military, however, for the play also presents a version of that common Shavian theme: the professional versus the amateur. The difference between the professional and the amateur is fundamentally one of attitude. Sergius’s attitude marks him as an amateur. Romantic idealism makes folly of life because it is unreal and impossible to attain.
Shaw presents his ideas by using the old device of creating a closed unit—the Petkoff household—and then thrusting an outsider into its midst. The members of the Petkoff household had been perfectly content to live in their small dreamworld (which the Bulgarian backwoods setting helps to emphasize), until their routines and values are suddenly called into question by the appearance of Bluntschli, who represents the “reality” of the outside world.
Shaw achieves the humor of the play with the old device of the descent from the sublime to the ridiculous: For each of Raina’s and Sergius’s noble utterances, Bluntschli has a deflating answer or response. This is not merely a device to provoke laughter; rather, the repeated puncturing of poses lies at the heart of the play. The audience may laugh at Sergius and Raina, but both the audience and the characters are made to realize that it is their fake ideals and poses that are being called into question. The human inability to live up to ideals is a staple of comedy, but Shaw elevates it from a simple comic device to a means of questioning a set of philosophical beliefs.
Arms and the Man is an important play for Shaw because it is the first of his plays to be a public success. In this play, Shaw makes his first fairly direct attack upon false idealism, an attack aimed not so much at conscience as at attitudes. Certainly, the play elicits more laughter than any of Shaw’s other plays, either before or after. In contrast to the other plays, the laughter in Arms and the Man tends to be more agreeable to many because Shaw uses so many of the traditional devices of comedy.
The play is also important because it marks the shift from Shaw’s earlier propagandistic plays on social topics to more benign-seeming attacks on the romantic, idealistic follies of humankind. The social reformer of the earlier plays has shifted methods, though not goals, realizing that he must change attitudes before he can appeal to consciences. Whether propagandist or anti-idealist, however, Shaw does not simply want idle laughter. He maintains that it is easy to make people laugh—he wants to make people think.