Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shaw Festival Review: Arms and a Man

George Orwell once described ‘Arms and a Man’ as Shaw’s wittiest play.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 2nd, 2014 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

George Bernard Shaw used humour to gently open people’s minds; to challenge the traditions and expose the hypocrisies of his era. It was entertainment with a higher purpose and that became Shaw’s trademark as he earned his reputation as a social critic and activist. One of Shaw’s earliest plays, Arms and the Man, was first produced in London in 1894 and is still or perhaps more relevant today than it was in his time. Despite a century of increasingly violent conflicts we still harbour romantic ideas about heroism and glorify war, perpetuating a culture of terrorism and exploitation.

George Orwell said, “It is probably the wittiest play he ever wrote, the most flawless technically, and in spite of being a very light comedy, the most telling.” The Shaw Festival has recreated Arms and the Man, showcasing Shaw’s use of irony, wit and satire to engage audiences while underlining the intrinsic absurdity of our idealistic notions about patriotism, bravery, love, and morality.

For Victorian British audiences, Arms and the Man was set in a faraway place, exotic and foreign. It is almost a fairy tale; a princess-like beauty awaits her heroic fiancé, Sergius, to return from battle. The conflict is the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885; a territorial dispute between neighbouring countries. Serbia is backed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bulgaria is being supported by the Russians. They provide officers to teach them the art of war and supplies, while Swiss mercenaries provide experience and skill on the battlefield in exchange for cold hard cash.

Although Shaw did not know it at the time, the Balkans would become the powder keg where nationalism, imperialism, and militarism would combine to ignite The Great War. But in this tale, it is merely a backdrop to his story about a ‘professional soldier’ working for the Serbian army who forces his way into our Princess’s bedroom to hide from the Bulgarian soldiers who are chasing him after their victory in the Battle of Slivnitza. Captain Bluntschli, a thirty-four year old Swiss mercenary, carries chocolates rather than cartridges and is more interested in surviving than winning. Our ‘princess’, Raina Petkoff, sees him as a pathetic figure of a man and decides to help him escape but cannot accomplish this without the help of her mother who becomes an accomplice in their plan to sneak him out of their house. Raina’s father is not only a Major in the Bulgarian army but a wealthy aristocrat whose reputation and status affords them a life of privilege and relative luxury in their small village. When the war ends, Paul Petkoff and Sergius return home with tales of an impressive Swiss soldier who helped negotiate the peace. When Captain Bluntschli shows up at the Petkoff home to return the coat that the women gave him for his escape, he is welcomed by the men who seem to admire his expertise and professionalism.

The story unfolds as a battle of wits and ideologies that pit the ambitions of household servants against their employers, and cause idealists Raina and Sergius to question themselves and their views about nobility, war, and love. It is these irrational emotions that Shaw questions about right and wrong that ultimately inflame the intense nationalism and ethnic hatred that erupt in the Balkans and throughout Europe that lead to the First World War.

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