The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Arms and the Man begins in November, 1885. Raina is seen at the open balcony window on the second floor of the Petkoff house in a small Bulgarian town. Her mother enters with the news that Raina’s fiance, Sergius, has just led the Bulgarians to victory in battle against the Serbians. Raina rejoices; her idealistic expectations of war and soldiers have been met. The servant Louka enters to tell them that the army has ordered people to stay indoors and lock and bolt all doors and windows while stragglers are being pursued in the streets. Catherine and Louka leave. There are shots outside, and Raina blows out the candles and takes to her bed. The figure of a man appears in the window and stumbles into the room. He closes the shutters, threatens to shoot Raina if she makes noise, and tells her to light a candle; he is revealed as a Serbian artillery officer, battered and exhausted, nervous and hungry. Soldiers at the door demand to search the room; a man has been seen climbing to her balcony. On impulse, Raina hides the man behind the drapes; an officer enters, is assured by Raina that there is no one else present, and leaves apologizing.

Raina and the man talk, she despising him for being a cowardly and ignoble soldier, he trying to explain to her the realities of battle. When he complains of hunger, she gives him a box of chocolate creams. The man identifies a portrait of Sergius as the man who led the cavalry charge that won the battle—but only because the Serbians had the wrong ammunition for their guns; the man thinks him a romantic fool who won the battle by doing the professionally wrong thing. Raina understandably objects strongly. Further noises from the street move the man, who is not nearly as fierce as he at first seemed, to leave and take his chances, but Raina, at pains to demonstrate her aristocratic ideals and background, says that she will save him. She goes to get her mother; they return to find him asleep on the bed.

Act 2 begins four months later in the garden of the Petkoff house; it is morning. Louka and Nicola are arguing; Nicola tells Louka that she must not be impertinent to the Petkoffs. If she is, they will discharge her—and he is depending upon the Petkoffs to be his customers when he sets up his shop; if the family turns against her, they will not patronize him. Major Petkoff returns from the war, and Catherine enters to greet him. Sergius, a romantically handsome, Byronic man, is shown in. He is bitter that, having won the battle the wrong way, the army now refuses to promote him; he intends to resign his commission in disgust. Raina enters and there is talk of a tale Sergius and Petkoff have heard of a Swiss officer being rescued by two Bulgarian women. Sergius and Raina are left alone and engage in romantic, high-minded, worshipful talk. Raina leaves to get her hat; Louka enters to clear the table, and Sergius attempts to cuddle and kiss her. Louka taunts Sergius about his lack of high-mindedness where she is concerned and says that she has a secret about his fiancee and a strange man. Louka leaves and Raina enters, but Petkoff calls Sergius into the house to help settle details of getting several regiments back to base. Raina and Catherine are left to discuss the caddishness of the Swiss soldier in revealing to strangers his escape at the hands of two women; Raina then exits. Louka announces a Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss officer. Catherine realizes that he is the man who took refuge in her room; he has come to return the coat he was given as a disguise when making his escape. When he appears, she begs him not to reveal the identities of the women who aided him and tries to get him out of the way quickly. Just as he is going, Petkoff appears and insists that he stay, especially to help with the transport of the regiments. Raina enters and blurts out: “Oh! The chocolate cream soldier!” She manages to cover her mistake, and Bluntschli is prevailed upon to stay as a guest.

Act 3 occurs after lunch the same day. In the Petkoffs’ library, Sergius and Bluntschli are writing orders for the movement of troops while Petkoff reads his paper. Petkoff wants his comfortable old coat but cannot find it. Catherine says that it is in the blue closet (where she has put it after getting it back from Bluntschli). To Petkoff’s amazement, Nicola returns with the coat. All leave except Raina and Bluntschli, who talk of lies (Raina’s), gratitude, and practicality versus the false idealism of romanticism. Bluntschli sees through her pretense of noble ideals, and when Raina suddenly realizes this she admits that he has found her out. Raina says that she put a photograph of herself in the pocket of the loaned coat. Bluntschli, however, pawned the coat; since he never found the photograph, it is presumably still in the coat. Bluntschli receives delayed mail which tells him that his father is dead and has left a number of big hotels to him; he determines to leave for Switzerland within the hour and exits.

Raina leaves, and Louka and Nicola talk. Nicola, a practical man, suggests that in the long run it would be better if Louka and Sergius married and became very profitable customers for Nicola—but Louka must not be impertinent or she will lose her (and his) chances. Sergius enters and, after Nicola leaves, plays up to Louka again, since he is still disillusioned about life and his own inability to measure up to his ideals. Louka tells Sergius that Raina will marry Bluntschli, the secret lover she had intimated to Sergius earlier. Bluntschli enters and Sergius challenges him to a duel; Bluntschli agrees, taking a very practical view of the affair—he chooses machine guns. Raina enters and wants to know why they are going to fight. Raina now suspects what is going on with Louka and becomes disenchanted with Sergius. Sergius concludes that life is a farce and now there is no need for a duel. Raina comments that Sergius will have to fight Nicola, since he is Louka’s fiance; Sergius becomes even more disillusioned with life.

Louka has been listening at the door, and Sergius pulls her in just before Petkoff enters and wants his coat again. Raina gets it from Nicola, helps her father put it on, and slips the photograph (which Petkoff had found earlier and had been mystified by) from the pocket. Bluntschli reveals to all that he was the chocolate cream soldier. Louka and Sergius become engaged. Bluntschli laments that, in spite of his cool, efficient exterior, he has always had a romantic streak which led him to run away from home, to join the army, and to return the coat in person, hoping to see Raina again. When Bluntschli discovers that Raina is really twenty-three and not seventeen, as he had supposed, he swiftly proposes. When challenged by the Petkoffs about his station and prospects, he informs them that he has just inherited six hotels, many horses and carriages, and much equipment. Catherine is now impressed, and Raina, after pretending to sulk, agrees to marry Bluntschli. With a final businesslike remark to Petkoff about troop movements, Bluntschli promises to return punctually in two weeks and takes his leave. Sergius supplies the final comment: “What a man! Is he a man!”

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In the simplest view, Shaw presents his ideas by using the very old device of creating a closed unit—the Petkoff household plus Sergius—and then thrusting an outsider into the middle of it. The Petkoff household is perfectly content to live its life in its own small dreamworld (which the Bulgarian backwoods setting helps to emphasize), when suddenly their routines and their values are upset and called unintentionally into question by Bluntschli. The disruption follows automatically from the intrusion of the “reality” of the outside world. Bluntschli is a breath of fresh air to which each of the other characters in the play reacts according to his or her psychology.

Shaw’s dramatic approach in Arms and the Man makes use of many of the oldest and most stagy of devices, from the titillation of the strange man in the lady’s boudoir to the incriminating letter or photo. Shaw is reputed to have said that one could not be too stagy on the stage. His main characters, for example, are taken from the stock military melodramas of the period: the noble soldier, the cowardly soldier, the beautiful lady, the comic servant. Shaw then makes his own use of these stock characters. The beautiful lady does not end up in the arms of the noble soldier; the cowardly soldier is not really so, simply practical; the comic servant proves to be a man of considerable practical wisdom.

This use for his own purposes of stock characters points directly to the most common dramatic manipulation in the play—the old device of the descent from the sublime to the ridiculous. This is Shaw’s main method of achieving the humor of the play. For every one of Raina’s noble aspirations, Bluntschli has a deflating answer or response; thus, for example, the practical possibility of a soldier being burned to death because he cannot escape is seen by Raina as too low and common for words. Yet this descent from sublime to ridiculous is not merely a device to evoke laughter; it stands, rather, at the heart of the play. When Sergius descends from his sublime ideals to his self-loathing for not being able to live up to such ideals, the audience may laugh (and should), but Sergius and the audience should also realize that what is being called into question is not Sergius but his ideals. The inability of persons to live up to certain ideals is a staple of comedy, but Shaw has elevated it from a simple comic device to a means of questioning philosophical stances.

Shaw’s ideas are further developed by the traditional device of contrasts between characters and what they stand for; the most obvious contrast is between Sergius and Bluntschli, but also of importance are the contrasts between Raina and Bluntschli, between Raina and Sergius, between Raina and Louka, and between Louka and Nicola. The one dramatic method not usually found in traditional comedies, but which Shaw uses here, is the discussion. Much of the intellectual element of the play is conveyed conversationally in the scenes between Raina and Bluntschli in act 1, the discussions between Nicola and Louka in act 2 and act 3, and, perhaps most important, the discussion between Bluntschli and Raina in act 3.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Bedroom. Bedroom of twenty-three-year-old Raina Petkoff, a member of an upper-class Bulgarian family, in which the play opens with Raina’s mother rushing in to tell her that her fiancé, Sergius Saranoff, has led a victory in battle in the Russian-Austrian War. George Bernard Shaw’s stage directions describe the bedroom as “half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese,” with “oriental and gorgeous” drapes, bedclothes, and carpet, along with “occidental and paltry” wallpaper and a dressing table made of common pine. Thus, while the Petkoffs have money, they do not know how to decorate their home. Raina reveals her family’s snobbery when she brags to the Swiss army captain Bluntschli that her family has the only Bulgarian home with “two rows of windows . . . [and] a flight of stairs.” The final proof of her family’s being “civilized people” is they actually have a library in their home.


Library. Room symbolizing the Petkoffs’ mistaken belief in their own superiority that is the setting for act 3 of the play. In the first act, Raina brags about the family library to the enemy soldier; in the second act her father brags to his wife that he has made sure that every officer he has encountered while fighting in the war knows that he has a library. In the third act, the audience finally sees for itself this prized place: The library contains a single bookshelf lined with torn paper-covered novels. The play’s stage directions do, however, indicate that the room’s chairs and tables make it “a most comfortable sitting room.”


Garden. Part of the Petkoff home that is the setting for act 2. While the garden attests to the material wealth of the Petkoffs, the fact that Mother Catherine hangs wet laundry on garden shrubs to dry is another indication that the family is not as superior as its members think. When Catherine’s husband tells her that “civilized people don’t hang out their washing to dry where visitors can see it,” she merely responds, “Oh, that’s absurd.”

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Victorian Rule

Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, was born in 1819 and ruled from...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Ruritanian Romance

Although already established as a model for romances prior to the publication of Anthony...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1890s: After centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks, in 1878, northern Bulgaria becomes autonomous, and a united Bulgaria gains its...

(The entire section is 191 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Shaw greatly admired the artist and socialist William Morris. Write a brief biography that identifies Morris and his legacy.


(The entire section is 189 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A film version of Arms and the Man, adapted by Shaw and produced by John Maxwell, was created for British International Pictures in...

(The entire section is 23 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Shaw wrote The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1927) as a political primer for women, who had just gained...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)


Adcock, Arthur St. John, “George Bernard Shaw,” in The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of...

(The entire section is 386 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Alexander, Nigel. A Critical Commentary on Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” and “Pygmalion.” London: Macmillan, 1968. A detailed critical exposition; includes an introduction on “The Play of Ideas,” discussion questions, and recommendations for further reading.

Bergquist, Gordon N. The Pen and the Sword: War and Peace in the Prose and Plays of Bernard Shaw. Salzburg, Austria: University of Salzburg, 1977. A detailed examination of the occurrence of soldiers and wars in Shaw’s plays and of Shaw’s thought on the military and related issues.

Carpenter, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Destroying Ideals: The Early Plays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. A clear exposition of Shaw’s methods in attacking idealism in Arms and the Man and other plays.

Crompton, Louis. “Arms and the Man,” in his Shaw the Dramatist, 1969.

Crompton, Louis. Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. An excellent consideration of the social, philosophical, and historical background of Arms and the Man.

Dukore, Bernard F. Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man”: A Composite Production Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. Covers Shaw’s directions and advice for four different productions of Arms and the Man. Includes Shaw’s directorial notes, manuscript changes, and costume designs. Invaluable for preparing an actual staging of the play.

Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. Vol. 1, 1856-1898: The Search for Love, 1988.

Meisel, Martin. Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater, 1963.