George Bernard Shaw wrote Arms and the Man in 1893 during the Victorian era when most plays were lighter dramas or comedies in the vein of The Importance of Being Earnest, which was a play about manners and other Victorian conventions. Still, in many ways, Arms and the Man, despite some of its themes, is a perfect example of Victorian literature. The play opened to the British public in 1894 to mixed reviews and was one of the plays included in the Plays Pleasant Volume which included a few of Shaw’s other, less popular works including “You Never Can Tell.” What is most interesting about Arms and the Man is that, although it is a comedy, it deals with several political and social themes covertly. Ideas such as the idealism behind war and the romanticism of love are attacked through satire and even more importantly, issues of class are brought to the forefront. Shaw was an avid socialist and had a number of beliefs about class that are appropriate to the historical situation in Europe. At the time the play was performed, Britain was experiencing a number of significant social and political changes as issues of class were coming to the forefront of national debates.
The idea of class struggle is at the heart of “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw but instead of making the reader or viewer keenly aware of them, he slips in a number of thought-provoking lines and makes one think about these issues after the laughter has faded. Unlike other plays of the time,Arms and the Man did not seek to merely entertain an audience with polite humor. Instead, it sought to expose some of the most pressing issues of the day in a palatable format—the comedy. This is a trademark feature of Shaw’s plays and he once wrote, “What is the use of writing plays, what is the use of writing anything, if there is not a will which finally moulds chaos itself into a race of gods” (Peters 109). In other words, George Bernard Shaw thought that there was no sense in writing something for mere entertainment, what he wrote had to serve a higher purpose and encourage people to think rather to sit and be content to be entertained.
At the time George Bernard Shaw wrote the Arms and the Man there were a number of class struggles taking place in Britain as a new wave of socialist ideology was taking hold. Up until this point, workers in Britain were often paid low wages and offered little security as their country became even further industrialized. In response there were several workers movements that rose up across the nation and this drew the attention of artists and writers such as Shaw. Issues of class struggle were coming to the forefront of both political and debates in Europe and Shaw began working with the socialist cause. His feelings that the British workers were not advocating their interests enough and that the political structure in England was making it impossible for them to have any success led him to speak out publicly, often at the risk of some of his personal friendships. In addition to writing plays, Shaw became a full-time advocate of socialism and joined the Fabian Society where he wrote a number of socialist documents. He also traveled to Russia, met with Stalin, and came home to declare how wonderfully he believed socialism was going in that country.
In “Arms and the Man” George Bernard Shaw chose to set his place in the midst of a foreign war, in part so that he could offer some commentary about war. The lead female in the play, much like English audiences of the time, is sucked into the idea of the war hero and finds it difficult to think that war is anything except not glamorous. Notions of love and war as well as class are turned upside down and the reader is forced to confront them just as British playgoers of the time would eventually have to face these issues when the First World War finally came around over a decade later. At this time though, war was still a vague enough notion that it could be romanticized and this is part of the criticism George Bernard Shaw offers in the play Arms and the Man. In addition to this is his commentary about class which is the most important in terms of the social context of this play. “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw occurs during the Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885. She is supposed to marry one of the heroes of the war who she thinks of in terms of the idealized version of soldiers many British held during this pre-World War I era. The peace of the beginning scenes is interrupted with the arrival of a Swiss soldier in Raina’s bedroom asking for a safe place to hide. Raina offers him refuge and laughs because he does not carry guns or ammunition but chocolate instead. As the play progresses, Raina eventually begins to understand that her betrothed does not fit into the same heroic image she has always had and instead begins to fall in love with the Swiss soldier. By the end of the play “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw she finally declares her love for the soldier and the story ends happily for nearly everyone. What is missing from this short synopsis is the way that George Bernard Shaw addresses the important social issue of class during this time. Throughout “Arms and the Man” George Bernard Shaw he constantly but with subtlety makes a number of important statements about his political and social beliefs about society and class that make reference to the social context of this play—Victorian England.
Throughout “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw, slight variances are used in the speech of the characters to indicate class distinctions. It is clear that Shaw, a noted socialist, has a great deal of concern about class issues and instead of making the reader keenly aware of these notions through any direct mention, he uses their dialogue as well as cues within the setting to reveal these elements. “Despite the prominence of debate and speechmaking in his plays, one sometimes forgets that before Shaw-the-playwright came Shaw-the-debater and public speaker. All were platform spellbinders” (Dukore 385). Part of the reason it is so easy to forget that there a number of encoded social messages within the text is because is remarkably deft at conveying injustices and problems through characterization and language. His writing style is thus very critical of the Victorian-era society yet instead of doing this overtly, he relies on gestures, dialogue, and setting to set the stage for the debate. His “public speaking” would, in this sense be limited to the voices of his characters who come from variable class backgrounds and have a system of language that is suitable for their class. Only through this mode can Shaw open a platform for class debates.
At the very beginning of “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw, the reader is already cued into the class differences that will plague the text until the end. For instance, the introduction of Raina in “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw is not one that values her inner life, but those of outer appearances, something that is of great importance to her and her family. Without dialogue, she is introduced in one of the important quotes from Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, “On the balcony, a young lady, intensely conscious of the romantic beauty of the night, and of the fact that her own youth and beauty is a part of it, is on the balcony, gazing at the snowy Balkans. She is covered by a long mantle of furs, worth, on a moderate estimate, about three times the furniture of the room” (Shaw 4). Here, it is not important who she is or what she thinks about her class position, but rather it is made clear that she is within an upper class and strives to maintain the outward appearances through her luxurious clothing while the representative items of her “inner life” (in this case her bedroom) are shoddy and unremarkable. Without being told the first thing about this character’s thoughts, it is clear that reader should be immediately attentive to class distinctions through outward appearances. It should also be noted that this setting is beautiful, but we are not expected to focus on the beauty in a traditional way, but rather to pay attention to the social statement—that there is a woman who obviously pays more for her clothes than the upkeep of her living quarters. In the mind of one critic, “The world, as he [Shaw] looks out upon it, is a painful spectacle to his eyes. Pity and indignation move him. He is not sentimental, as some writers are, but the facts grind his soul… in a word, art has an end beyond itself; and the object of Shaw’s art in particular is to make men think, to make them uncomfortable, to convict them of sin” (Salter 446). This is an especially succinct observation in this scene since there is opportunity for sentimentality and romanticism (since she is framed by a lovely setting) but this is not enough for Shaw; he must shift the object of the reader’s gaze away from physical beauty to the darker world of class and character.
Descriptions go beyond setting as well in “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw. The class of characters is not only revealed and critiqued by the setting itself, but by the narrated actions and stage directions for particular characters. For instance, consider the graceful language and the almost fairy-tale nature of the “dance” of Raina and her fiancée as they simply sit down for dinner. The narrator states in one of the important quotes from “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw, “Sergius leads Raina forward with splendid gallantry, as if she were a queen. When they come to the table, she turns to him with a bend of the head; he bows; and thus they separate, he coming to his place, and she going behind her father’s chair” (25). This is a very detailed and complex routine these characters act out and is representative of the codified ideals of chivalric behavior typically associated with the elite. This stands in sharp constant to the plodding nature of the exchanges between Nicola and Louka, whose settings and stage directions are not filled with the same dreamy interludes. While Sergius and Raina literally appear to dance in the aforementioned scene, the lower class scenes of the two servants are much less stunning, the narrator only stating where they are in physical space and their language being stunted and free from the dramatic connotations and Byron-like feel of the upper class characters.
This same shift in possibilities, from the potential sentimentality to the social critique, is apparent in terms of language as well as setting descriptions. According to one scholar, “Characters whose impulses are conventional or traditional will use language reflecting their mechanical responses and will be satirized accordingly, while characters who posses a Shavian vitality will express that spontaneity through a freedom not only from moral and ethical formulas but from verbal convention as well” (Weintraub 215). This is apparent when contrasting two particular classes represented in the play. First of all, it should be noted that those of the lower class, especially the solider who enters Raina’s room and the servant girl Nicola are all exciting and interesting characters. They posses the “Shavian vitality” and their language is free from the ornament and needless over-romanticized talk of the upper classes. Consider, as a comparison, the meaning that is compressed, while remaining vital when Louka scolds her servant friend, saying with “searching scorn” no less, “You have the soul of a servant, Nicola” (31). Some of the most powerful emotion in the text is present in these short but potent thesis statements. Another example of this would be when the solider tells Raina, “I’ve no ammunition. What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead; and I finished the last cake of that yesterday” (14). In many ways, it seems as though these characters with clipped but highly powerful statements are much like Shaw. They are making massive overarching statements about their world without seeming to do it, as if any implied social critique might have been incidental. These short bursts of meaning for much farther to reveal genuine sentiment than Raina’s long winded proclamations of love when she confesses, breathlessly and dramatically, Well, it came into my head just as he was holding me in his arms and looking into my eyes, that perhaps we only had our heroic idea because we are so find of reading Byron and Pushkin, and because we were so delighted with the opera that season at Bucharest. Real life is so seldom like that—indeed never, as far as I knew it then” (Shaw 10). While at the end she makes a powerful statement, she is too caught up in the class-driven notions of how a lady should speak to be able to make a direct and succinct statement that has the gravity of the aforementioned quotes from the lower class characters.
In sum, Shaw is not overt in his social critiques in this play. His style requires that the reader interpret not only the varied language of his characters, but of the deeper meanings behind the settings and speech. While a particular scene’s description might seem, on first glance, to offer a beautiful setting or something simple, underneath these images are deeper layers of meaning that are geared towards society. In terms of dialogue and Arms and the Man, Shaw writes his characters as complete individuals whose class and deep thoughts lay masked behind relatively simple-sounding speeches. The ultimate effect of this writing style is that the reader becomes implicated in class debates (as well as other equally prominent debates about the nature of war as well) and is left with a moving story as well as something more to consider. In more broad terms, the play, Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw reflects some of the intense class conflicts of the day and addresses several of Shaw’s ideas about society and politics as well.
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