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July 1, 2017

Shaw’s Treatment of Love and War in “Arms and the Man”


The 19th century plays mostly centered on the idealistic aspects of life, frequently recounting the incredible deeds and exploits of the heroes. However, during the latter half of the very century George Bernard Shaw came forward and brought about an epoch-making change in the presentation of plays. His technique placed reason over emotion with a view to disillusion humanity of its cherished ideals. Hence, Shaw strongly liberated himself from the infatuation of romanticism and enacted his plays to reform the society. For this reason Shaw often regarded as an anti-romantic playwright.

George Bernard Shaw applied his anti-romantic technique most brilliantly in his 1894 play Arms and the Man. Shaw was realistic enough to ascertain that people hold an idealized notion about love and war since the society defines these from clichéd standpoint. Therefore, Shaw opted to define love and war from practical point of view, isolating all their traditional attachments or the romantic glamour.

In practical life, love is full of complexities and is not devoid of blemishes, such as inconstancy, carnality, etc. But in fairy tales or romantic stories the picture is quite the opposite. In such works love is portrayed ideally, i.e., from Platonic viewpoint, hence it lacks negative sides. On the other hand, in practical life, war stems from unavoidable circumstances and it entails violence, bloodshed, and atrocity. The warriors participated in war are made of flesh and blood like us, possessing all human qualities, especially hunger, fear, and an urge for preserving life. They only battle when it is essential and never exhibit courage unnecessarily. In fairy tales, however, war is a ground for the soldiers to showcase heroism. They are desperate in fighting and reckless in courage. In Arms and the Man, Shaw mainly focused on eliminating the fairy tale or romantic elements from the notions of love and war.

Arms and the Man

The opening scene confronts us with Raina, the heroine, whose thoughts and attitude are moulded greatly by romanticism since she hovers around the pages of Byron and Pushkin. As a result, her outlook on love and war is illusive.  To her, war is an act of heroism, a deed of glory and patriotism in which the brave soldiers risk their lives for the sake of their country. Her ideals get visible when she becomes a strong enthusiast of her fiancé, Sergius when she was informed about his cavalry charge in the battle at Slivnitza. The incident gives her a faith that the man she is going to marry will be brave and patriotic.

But very soon Shaw shatters Raina’s obsession with the romantic notion about war by introducing an antithetical character, Captain Bluntschli, a runaway Serb officer. With Bluntschli, Shaw has presented a realistic portrait of an average soldier who is of common stature, is ready to fight when he must and is glad to escape when he can. Bluntschli’s character also reveals the truth that a solder is not a superman, he suffers from hunger and fatigue and is roused to action only by danger.

However, observing Bluntschli’s concern about fear and death, Raina considers him to be a coward and proudly claims that in her country there are soldiers like Sergius who can lead to victory. But soon Bluntschli shatters her false ideals by revealing the fact that Sergius’ cavalry charge was not an act of bravery rather was a complete foolish and suicidal attempt. Bluntschli further clarified that Sergius made a heroic charge on the artillery of the Serbs Ignoring the orders of his Russian commander, thereby putting his entire brigade to fight. Pursuant to Bluntschli’s opinion, Sergius’ action was absolutely unprofessional and it was a so serious offence that he should be court-martialed for it. He and his regiment survived since the Serbs couldn’t shoot because of wrong ammunition:
He and his regiment simply committed suicide—only the pistol missed fire, that's all.
With this, Raina could understand that Bluntschli is not a coward, though he likes to save his life as far as possible. Thus Raina is moved by his realistic views on war and she determines to save his life. Afterwards, Sergius himself is also fully disillusioned about the glory of war when he finds that he has not been promoted for his bravery. Even though his country won the battle he still holds the rank of a major. Petkoff remarked that he should not be promoted to put in danger the whole brigade. Thus Sergius realizes that he won the battle by sheer of chance:
Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward's art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm's way when you are weak. That is the whole secret of successful fighting. Get your enemy at a disadvantage; and never, on any account, fight him on equal terms.
After war, Shaw concentrates on the misconceptions of love. Shaw proves that the higher love between Raina and Sergius is tinged with sentiment and deceit. Apparently they glorify each other and are blind to the faults of each other. On his return from the war Sergius calls her his “Queen” and “goddess” and she calls him her “King” and “hero”, which recalls the legend of the medieval knight. The medieval knight dedicated his life to his beloved and fought his whole life against injustice and evildoers. Like the knight, Sergius fights solely for Raina and risks his life to get applause. He is not ready to accept that someone else desires his beloved. But at the same time he is getting tired of dealing with this higher love which is full of failure, incompleteness, and emptiness:
… do you know what the higher love is? … Very fatiguing thing to keep up for any length of time, Louka. One feels the need of some relief after it.
Hence, Sergius wants a type of love that is compatible with practical life. So he rejects Raina and accepts Louka as his wife.

Coming in contact with Bluntschli, Raina could realize that her love for Sergius is nothing but an illusion. She doesn’t find Sergius fit for her as his character is full of incongruities and contrarieties. On the other hand she is amazed by Bluntschli’s practicality, wisdom, determination, and strong personality. Although Raina wants to keep her feelings secret, ultimately the fact is exposed to everybody. This love is heart-felt and is devoid of feigned sentiment.

In fine, Arms and the Man is an amazing anti-romantic play exposing the synthetic appearances of love and war. With great comic sense, in this play Shaw endeavours to make his readers aware of the impracticality of romantic ideals.
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