Themes and Meanings
Arms and the Man 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 noble and soldiers as brave, courageous, fearing nothing—resolved to conquer or die. Many military melodramas of the period upheld these virtues, but they were performed for a civilian audience; soldiers themselves did not think this way, as Shaw has Bluntschli make clear. Not a pacifist, Shaw is not opposed to war when necessary, but he does demand that it be seen for what it is—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 Raina and Sergius, the arch romantics of the play. The satire of the play is aimed at the poetic view of war and the soldier and at the commonplace conjunction between the soldier, aristocracy, and love. These were the staples of the standard military melodrama of the period; here, Raina breaks the pattern in which only the brave deserve the fair and chooses for her mate the practical, professional, middle-class Bluntschli.
The key elements of the play are really contained in Sergius and Raina, rather than in Bluntschli. Bluntschli really never changes in the course of the play; he is the standard against which the others are measured. Raina learns to disabuse herself of her impossible ideals, ideals which have no relation to real life, and thus becomes a fit partner for the cool and efficient Bluntschli. Sergius, however, never does come to see the lesson taught by Bluntschli and Shaw—that the problem is not with a man’s inability to live up to the ideals, but with a man’s initial acceptance of impossible ideals as reasonable and real. Thus Sergius believes that he, and life generally, is to be despised because as a flesh and blood man he finds himself unable to match the ideals. For Shaw, the problem is with the ideals, not with the man.
From this point of view, Arms and the Man is a classic statement of the anti-romantic view of life, and its commentary is not directed only at the military. For example, the play presents a version of a common Shavian theme: the professional versus the amateur. The difference is not simply a matter of training—it is fundamentally a matter of attitude. It is Sergius’ attitude, not his lack of expertise, which marks him as an amateur. Life is serious for Shaw and Bluntschli, and romantic idealism makes folly of life because of its unreality and its impossibility of attainment. As Shaw made clear throughout his career, he was hoping to change attitudes and not simply amuse by outrageous foolery.