Knight in a Tournament
Raina and Sergius make a romance out of their love, using phrases and ideas they have read in books. Sergius claims he has gone through the war “like a knight in a tournament with his lady looking down at him” (Act II, p. 31). The lovers attempt to act out what Raina calls a “higher love” (Act II, p. 31), full of noble ideals. Sergius calls Raina “My lady and my saint” (Act II, p. 31). Both Sergius and Raina pose when they enter a room, as in a melodrama. Raina speaks in a “thrilling voice” (Act III, p. 51), and Sergius plays the disillusioned Byronic misfit. Bluntschli humorously accuses Sergius of playing soldier “like an operatic tenor” (Act I, p. 13), “charging like Don Quixote at the windmills” (Act I, p. 14). Even Major Petkoff does not want his future son-in-law to be made a general for fear he will throw away “whole brigades instead of regiments,” (Act II, p. 26), referring to Sergius’s dramatic flare but incompetence at warfare. After all, the soldiers on both sides laugh as he mistakenly makes a charge at the enemy that should have killed everyone. Instead, he comes out as a hero who wins the war.
Raina is often referred to by herself and her family as a dreamer. When the play opens, she is dreamily looking out at the romantic night on her balcony. She tells her mother about “our heroic ideals” referring to the cavalry charge that fulfills the lovers’ mutual dream of a noble life (Act I, p. 3). A dreamer is one who can see the poetry of life and who can act the poetry of life, she tells her mother. She refers to her sitting at home as the mere “dreaming” of life (Act II, p. 31). When her father speaks to her, she is in a trance or reverie and does not answer. He says, “She’s dreaming, as usual” (Act III, p. 48).
Bluntschli, on the other hand, disturbs Raina’s romantic dreaming, bringing her down to earth. He is practical and knows how to get things done. He is blunt, like his name, and does not pretend. He points out to Raina that she lies and that her life is a lie, not based on the truth. This implies her dreams are illusions rather than ideals to live up to. The fact that she is attracted to him, and that she likes it when he sees through her act of being a heroine in a novel, means she is ready to give up her childish dreams. Sergius, too, is “fatigued” by the higher love (Act II, p. 32) and responds to Louka’s earthy love-making. The message of the play is that romantic dreams are both silly and dangerous to life.
Peas Against the Window Pane
Bluntschli attempts to correct Raina’s romantic ideas of war by explaining to her what a cavalry charge is really like. He compares it to throwing a handful of peas against a window pane. First one pea hits the pane, then two or three more, then the rest in a lump. The first one to the front is not brave; his horse is running away from him. That is usually a young soldier. The seasoned soldiers come behind the others in a lump. They hide behind the ones who are eager to get glory and get there first. Their injuries are thus not from being shot, but from the horses jamming together.
Bluntschli goes on to tell Raina other details about how warfare is actually conducted, not according to ideals, but necessity. The old soldiers, for instance, carry extra food instead of ammunition. He himself carries chocolate. The soldiers seem to have no illusion about being cannon fodder, and this sense is implicit in the comparison to a charge as “flinging a handful of peas” (Act I, p.13). There is therefore nothing noble in a cavalry charge; it is about the probabilities of survival according to when a soldier arrives at the front line. When Raina accuses Bluntschli of cowardice, saying some soldiers are not afraid to die, he reminds her that “It is our duty to live as long as we can” (Act I, p. 7), belying the idea that it is patriotic to die for one’s country. Soldiers must continue to live so that they again and again be like peas being flung against more window panes.
The Chocolate-Cream Soldier
Raina refers to Bluntschli as her “chocolate-cream soldier” because he carries chocolates instead of ammunition. The metaphor has several implications. It is an anti-romantic image, suggesting either a cowardly effeminate soldier, or at best, a practical soldier, who thinks of food and survival more than the art of warfare. Shaw humorously criticizes the value of warfare through this unusual metaphor. The soldiers are not thinking noble thoughts of patriotism as they risk their lives; they are just blundering through to the next bed or meal.
Chocolate also has sexual overtones. Raina significantly hides and feeds Bluntschli chocolates in her bedroom and lets him sleep in her bed, symbolizing her attraction to him. She covers up her act and the nickname to her family by pretending that she means something innocent: a chocolate-cream soldier on a pastry. The title and image of the chocolate soldier are anti-heroic. Bluntschli is not a fierce fighter at all. He is homey, tasty, domestic, and somewhat passive. He is as manageable by Raina as a chocolate figure on a dessert cake. She prefers a chocolate-cream soldier whom she can consume rather than the pretentious Sergius she would have to admire and look up to.
In the simplest view, Shaw presents his ideas by using the very old device of creating a closed unit—the Petkoff household plus Sergius—and then thrusting an outsider into the middle of it. The Petkoff household is perfectly content to live its life in its own small dreamworld (which the Bulgarian backwoods setting helps to emphasize), when suddenly their routines and their values are upset and called unintentionally into question by Bluntschli. The disruption follows automatically from the intrusion of the “reality” of the outside world. Bluntschli is a breath of fresh air to which each of the other characters in the play reacts according to his or her psychology.
Shaw’s dramatic approach in Arms and the Man makes use of many of the oldest and most stagy of devices, from the titillation of the strange man in the lady’s boudoir to the incriminating letter or photo. Shaw is reputed to have said that one could not be too stagy on the stage. His main characters, for example, are taken from the stock military melodramas of the period: the noble soldier, the cowardly soldier, the beautiful lady, the comic servant. Shaw then makes his own use of these stock characters. The beautiful lady does not end up in the arms of the noble soldier; the cowardly soldier is not really so, simply practical; the comic servant proves to be a man of considerable practical wisdom.
Bedroom. Bedroom of twenty-three-year-old Raina Petkoff, a member of an upper-class Bulgarian family, in which the play opens with Raina’s mother rushing in to tell her that her fiancé, Sergius Saranoff, has led a victory in battle in the Russian-Austrian War. George Bernard Shaw’s stage directions describe the bedroom as “half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese,” with “oriental and gorgeous” drapes, bedclothes, and carpet, along with “occidental and paltry” wallpaper and a dressing table made of common pine. Thus, while the Petkoffs have money, they do not know how to decorate their home. Raina reveals her family’s snobbery when she brags to the Swiss army captain Bluntschli that her family has the only Bulgarian home with “two rows of windows . . . [and] a flight of stairs.” The final proof of her family’s being “civilized people” is they actually have a library in their home.
Library. Room symbolizing the Petkoffs’ mistaken belief in their own superiority that is the setting for act 3 of the play. In the first act, Raina brags about the family library to the enemy soldier; in the second act her father brags to his wife that he has made sure that every officer he has encountered while fighting in the war knows that he has a library. In the third act, the audience finally sees for itself this prized place: The library contains a single bookshelf lined with torn…
Shaw once remarked: “I avoid plots like the plague … … My procedure is to imagine character and let them live.”
Shaw reached against “the well-made” conventional play that held the stage at the time, and rejected the Aristotelian dictum of the primacy of plot. Yet, “Arms and the Man” is a well-made play with much in it that is conventional. It may be a “drama of ideas”, but it is also a masterpiece from the purely theatrical point of view.It is the least didactic of the plays of Shaw
The opening of the play is conventional and melodramatic. There is news of war and heroism, sound of shooting in the streets, a fugitive from the field with soldiery at his heels, a lone maiden in her bedroom and the entrance of the fugitive with a pistol aimed at her head. The purpose of the dramatist is to get attention of the audience after which the melodramatic thrills subside and the dramatist settles to more serious purpose. Shaw often expressed himself against the use of chance and accident. He regarded it as a fake device and a serious fault of the conventional drama. It is a sheer chance that Bluntschli enters the room of the betrothed of the ‘hero’ of Slivnitza and tells her the truth about his cavalry charge. The confrontation of Bluntschli and Raina is the confrontation of the romantic and the realistic and is of great psychological interest. Shaw has succeeded in making discussion as interesting as action itself. The discussion ends after the psychological change in Raina. Bluntschli falls asleep as soon as he becomes Raina’s “poor darling”. There is no superfluity, no long speeches or philosophical discussions. There is no dull moment throughout the Act I, suspense is well-maintained through little surprises. Discussion, though psychologically essential, in no way comes in the way of the play’s theatrical effectiveness.
Act I introduces us directly to the principal characters of the play as Raina, Bluntschli, Catherine and Louka and indirectly, through conversation between Catherine and Raina, to Sergius and Major Petkoff. The two basic themes of the play, war and love, are also introduced and it is suggested that it is the romance of war which feeds the romance of love.
Act I is built round the conflict of the romantic and realistic attitudes towards war; Act II is built round the conflict between romantic and realistic attitudes towards love. In Act I, it is Bluntschli who shatters Raina’s romantic notions of war and makes her realize the truth about war; in Act II, it is the practical Louka who exposes the hollowness of romantic love. The love scene between Sergius and Louka is a parody of the scene of higher love between Sergius and Raina. Similarly, Raina’s conversation with her mother soon after reveals the state of her heart. As Eric Bentley points out:
“The play is hung, as it were, on the cunningly told tale of the lost coat with the photograph in its pocket.”
Numerous hints and suggestions bring out the vital importance to the plot of Petkoff’s old coat. It is this coat in which Bluntschli is smuggled out of the house by Raina and Catherine. It provides Bluntschli an excuse for a second visit to Petkoff’s. His arrival with the coat is one of the major complications of the play. Catherine gets into a difficult situation. Raina’s arrival and hasty exclamation, “Oh! My chocolate cream soldier” brings in a minor crisis. Yet, the situation is saved by the tact and wits of Catherine, and Raina, too, acts her part well. Discourse is again in danger as Nicola arrives with the bag of the Swiss but his tactfulness saves the situation.
In Act III, the complications are resolved to a satisfactory conclusion. Nigel Alexander says:
“It is the theatrical and farcical device of the Major’s overcoat and the photography in its
packet inscribed, ‘from Raina to her chocolate cream soldier’ which is now used to extricate
his characters from their intellectual confusions and bring the play to a satisfactory conclusion.”
In Act III Shaw introduces three important conversations – between Bluntschli and Raina, Nicola and Louka, Louka and Sergius – which are of great psychological and theatrical interest. There are witty retorts and repartees. The dialogues are quick and lively with characters trying to uphold his or her opinion. The conflict is not of characters or of wills but of ideas. Finally the romantic mask is turn off Raina’s face and she is made to realize the truth about romantic love. Sergius is equally disenchanted. Their romantic ideals are punctured and they come out through the “conflict of ideas” much sadder and wiser. The play revolves round a double love-triangle – Sergius engaged to Raina but flirting with Louka, Louka engaged to Nicola but ambitious to marry Sergius and Raina turning to Bluntschli away from Sergius, her betrothed. In the resolution of this love-triangle, Raina’s photograph plays a crucial role. Failing to find in his pocket the photograph, the Major utters:
“Raina, to her chocolate cream soldier.”
He suspects something black in the bottom. Explanation now becomes necessary and is provided by Bluntschli. Nicola denies his engagement to Louka but by a lucky chance the father of the Swiss died a short while ago and he has ‘inherited his enormous wealth’. Thus a suitable conclusion of the complication becomes possible.
The technical novelty of the play lies in its wide use of bathos. Bluntschli and Louka do not rise to the romantic heights of Sergius and Raina; instead Sergius and Raina drop down to the level of Louka and Bluntschli. Sergius is shown as a romantic fool; Raina is proved as hypocrite and liar, and the realist Bluntschli is shown to have a romantic nature. Bluntschli “is shown an enchanted soul whom nothing will disenchant”. This is resolution by anticlimax which raises the play to the heights of pure comedy despite pure farcical elements.
Those who criticize “Arms and the Man” for lack of action, forget that it is a play of idea, unlike traditional theatre. There is enough action in it but this action is internal rather than external indicated by the clever verbal-exchanges between characters. The chief source of interest lies in the way in which psychological change is induced in Raina and her romantic ideals are punctured. Mentally she moves down to the level of Bluntschli. The play is of psychological interest and theatrically effective arising form its melodramatic opening and its numerous intriguing and farcical situations. It is a successful stage-play and an effective “drama of ideals”. It makes the readers laugh and think. In short, the play has a natural and happy development with numerous little surprises to keep up the interest of the audience.
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