Title: Arms and the Man
Author: George Bernard Shaw
Publisher: Penguin/80 pages
George Bernard Shaw takes the title for this play from the opening life of Vergil's epic poem Aeneid, which begins Of arms and the man I sing. Vergil glorified war and the heroic feats of Aeneas on the battlefield. However, Shaw attacks the romantic notion of war by presenting a more realistic approach.
The action takes place in Bulgaria in 1885 against a backdrop of war between Bulgarian forces and Serbian and Austrian coalition army. Raina Petkoff is the young and beautiful daughter of the Bulgarian Major Petkoff who is engaged to Major Serguis Saranoff. Serguis is out in the battles. An enemy soldier, Captain Bluntschli, takes refuge in her room and this is what makes the whole drama happen. Next morning she and her mother Catherine see him off but consequences of sheltering an enemy soldier are not to be waved off so easily. Once the war is over, he comes back, forcing each of the primary characters to re-evaluate their values and their relationships
Raina's "hero" Serguis comes back from the war with the aura of heroism, gallantry and victory along with her father, Major Petkoff. The various dimensions of human nature are poignantly depicted, the character’s masks are exposed, and each one of them is stripped down into imperfect and susceptible individuals. Serguis turns out to be a flirt and far from a contented happy model of a soldier; Major Petkoff is discerned to be a man who cannot see beyond the battlefield.
There is a vivid usage of humour and comedy to convey the futility and harm of old-fashioned social analysis. The theme is effectively that of war and love---and by extension marriage---and a combination of both. The play is replete with brilliant dialogue, flashing wit, buoyant humour and bitter sarcasms which reach their acme in this statement of Captain Bluntschli to Serguis, "I'm a professional soldier: I fight when I have to, and am very glad to get out of it when I haven't to. You're only an amateur; you think fighting's an amusement". First published in 1894, Arms and the Man is also remarkable for its explicit treatment of sexuality, which was either denied or shyly elucidated, in early Victorian literature.
Even after 100+ years, this has a contemporary feel to it and is as relevant as it was then. War cannot be anything but futile and there is no heroism in it for those who resort to it.
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