Text: George Bernard Shaw, “Arms and the Man: A Pleasant Play.” Introduction by Rodelle Wientraub. Edited by Dan H. Laurence. Penguin Books, 2006.
Summary of Act One
The scene is set in Bulgaria in November of 1885, during the Serbo-Bulgarian war. In a small town near the Dragoman Pass, a young lady loiters on the balcony off her bedchamber, looking out at the romantic night in the Balkan Mountains. Raina Petkoff is dressed in a nightgown but covered by a costly fur mantle. Her mother, Catherine Petkoff, interrupts her, telling her of the recent nearby battle at Slivnitza. The Bulgarians won, and it was her own fiancé, Sergius Saranoff, who was the hero! They embrace with delight as Catherine tells the details. There was a cavalry charge, and Sergius defied his own Russian commanders, scattering the Serbs and their Austrian officers by surprise.
Raina says that it only proves their ideas were right. The ideas of heroism and patriotism that she has doubted really do exist! She admits that as she buckled on her hero’s sword she wondered if the ideals were only in books and poems. Now she knows that Sergius is as brave as he looks.
Louka, a pretty servant girl, comes in to announce that the windows must be shut and fastened; there is fighting in the street. The Serbs are running away and could be dangerous. She locks the shutters, and Catherine goes to see to the house. Raina begs for the shutters to stay open, saying that she wishes her people would not be cruel to the fugitives. Louka slyly shows Raina how to open the shutters again, and then leaves.
Raina throws her cloak on the ottoman and goes to the chest to admire a portrait of Sergius. As she prepares to get into bed, she hears a shot. Raina blows out the candles but sees someone come in through the balcony shutters. A man’s voice warns her to be careful and to strike a light so he can see her. In the light she sees a Serbian officer in distress, spattered with blood and mud. He takes a threatening tone with Raina, as she is an enemy, explaining he does not intend to get killed. Raina treats him disdainfully, comparing him to her brave Sergius, who, she believes, is not afraid to die. The man takes up her cloak so she will not go out to call someone. He tells her if they catch him they will butcher him in front of her in her room; then he throws his pistol on the ottoman.
A Bulgarian patrol comes to the door of the house. Raina and the stranger hear the commotion as the search begins. The fugitive suddenly gives in and says it’s all over. He gives Raina her cloak and tells her not to look when they shoot him. Raina generously says she will save him. She puts him behind the window curtain.
Louka enters saying that a Serb was seen climbing up to her balcony. She exhorts Raina to dress and leave. Then Louka sees the pistol on the ottoman and freezes. Catherine rushes in and asks if Raina has seen anything. Raina lies and says no. A Russian officer comes in to the bedroom to search. Raina says there is no one there and throws open the balcony doors. The officer withdraws, but Louka takes in the scene, realizing what Raina is doing, and laughs insolently at her young mistress, assuming she wants the fugitive for a lover.
When everyone is gone, the man thanks her and explains he is not a Serb; he is a Swiss mercenary, and now he wishes he had joined her side instead. He calls himself a professional soldier and says he does not have ammunition for the pistol; he carries chocolate instead. Raina is outraged by his vulgarity, and haughtily gives him some chocolates from the dresser when he says he is hungry. He explains that you can tell an old soldier from a young one. The old ones carry food, the young ones, ammunition. She mocks him for acting frightened, and he reminds her that she would be frightened too if she had been on the run with no sleep for three days.
When the man begins to describe the cavalry charge, Raina is radiant with expectation, but she is shocked when he reveals Sergius’s brave act was due to his horse running away with him. The only reason the Bulgarians won was that the Serbians had the wrong ammunition for their guns. The victory was a bizarre accident led by a fool. Raina shows him the picture of Sergius, and the man says, yes that is the one. Raina is insulted and asks him to leave, but the man is too tired to climb down from the balcony, and falls asleep in Raina’s bed as she goes to find her mother. She has pledged to give asylum to their enemy, as she once saw happen in a romantic opera.
Commentary on Act One
The focus of Act One is to replace a romantic view of warfare with a more realistic view. Shaw uses humor to deflate notions of chivalry and bravery. Raina is determined to see Sergius as a knight in armor. He is her ideal, while the Swiss intruder seems vulgar to her. A mercenary and professional soldier, the Swiss (Captain Bluntschli) describes Sergius’s heroic charge as the blunder of a novice, an act of suicide except that the Serbian guns didn’t work. It is only the rookie soldier who is romantic and brave; the old soldier is a realist, and it is because he is a realist that he is still alive, he says. Bluntschli tells her, for instance, that in a charge the lead rider is usually trying to rein in the horse because it is running away with him, not that he is trying to be the first one there. Experienced soldiers carry extra food, rather than extra ammunition.
These statements challenge Raina’s notions of heroism and romance, which she admits, come from poets, such as Pushkin and Byron. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was the founder of Russian literature and wrote such classics as Boris Godunov (1825), Eugen Onegin (1825-32), and “Mozart and Salieri” (1830). His hero Eugen Onegin, like Raina and Sergius, tries to live a life he has read about in literature. George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was an English Romantic poet who also mixed together his personal life and literary life. An exile from Britain because of his dissolute behavior, Byron traveled to exotic places, writing of his adventures. Sergius copies Byron’s pose.
Raina is a young woman of the country with little experience of the world. She is sheltered and of the Bulgarian upper class, used to getting her way. She can afford to live in a world of romance with her fiancé. True, she admits to doubts about the everyday world matching her dream world, but Sergius’s heroism seems to confirm her ideals. Her helping the enemy, Bluntschli, is a curious fact in her character. It raises interesting speculations about Raina’s motives. Does she help out of noble ideals, or because of a sense of common humanity, or because she finds him attractive, or because it is a situation like the opera plot she has seen? This suspense keeps the audience interested. Shaw’s comedy works because our expectations are continually surprised. Bluntschli is not the escaped Serbian desperado we think, nor is Raina the simple romantic county girl. They have more depth than meets the eye.
Primarily George Bernard Shaw was known for writing the “drama of ideas.” Certain characters represent ideas or philosophies that clash with each other. As the characters or philosophies confront one another, illusions are shed, motives are clarified. The audience goes away thinking freshly about the subject. Bluntschli stands for realism and Raina for romanticism.
Shaw himself was part of the new realistic theater that was replacing romantic and Victorian melodrama. Shaw’s audience in fact was used to melodrama and was upset by his satire on war and romance. Shaw means to place romanticism as an outdated and unhelpful view of life. It supports war and class struggle and inequality, with its medieval view of chivalry, knights and ladies, and conversely, lower classes that don’t count. Raina sees herself and Sergius as part of the elite who can appreciate lofty ideals and looks down on others.
Another major theme introduced is the idea of modernization. Bulgaria is shown to be behind the modern European nations, though the Petkoffs believe they are in the forefront of Bulgarian progress with an inside staircase, a library, and an electric bell. This theme is more fully explored in Act II.