Set during the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885-86, Arms and the Man is a satire on the foolishness of glorifying something as terrible as war, and on the absurdity of basing one’s affections on idealistic notions of love.
Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli, fleeing from the Bulgarian army after the rout of the Serbian troops, takes refuge in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff, a young Bulgarian lady of high ideals. He later discovers that the cavalry charge that somewhat fortuitously succeeded in breaking his line was led by the young lady’s fiancée, Major Sergius Saranoff. Raina takes pity on the exhausted Bluntschli, feeding him chocolate creams and hiding him from the pursuing soldiers, abetted by her mother and maidservant – a secret that must never be revealed.
After the victory of the Bulgarian army peace is declared and Saranoff and Raina’s father, Major Petkoff, are greeted on their return as conquering heroes. However, cracks are beginning to appear in Saranoff’s façade of nobility and the unexpected arrival of Bluntschli throws the Petkoff household into romantic chaos.
The Play’s title refers to the opening words of Virgil’s Aeneid: ‘Of arms and the man I sing.’ In 1894 Shaw was best known as a music critic and Arms and the Man was one of his earliest attempts at writing for the stage. It was the first of his plays to receive a full-scale London production, albeit for only one season at an avant-garde theatre.
On the first night there was considerable confusion in the theatre. The opening scene led the audience to expect a melodrama, but Shaw’s burlesque of nationalist ardour took them by surprise. The play’s rapid shift towards drawing-room comedy and then farce left theatregoers uncertain whether they were being invited to laugh or were themselves the subject of the playwright’s mockery. Shaw was toying with – and in his fifty-year career as a dramatist would ultimately overturn – the theatrical conventions of the time.
The play has remained a firm favourite in the Shaw canon throughout the 20th century. A fast-paced and witty romantic comedy with a serious edge, Arms and the Man is a classic of late Victorian theatre to rival Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest.
January 28, 2007