Arms and the Man
is a comic play by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, first produced at the Avenue Theatre in 1894 and first published in 1898, in a collection of Shaw’s plays entitled Plays Pleasant
. Set during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war, the play follows Raina Petkoff as she chooses between her fiancé, the rather stupid war hero Sergius Saranoff, and a cynical mercenary from the opposing army, Captain Bluntschli. The play’s title is taken from the opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid
: “Arma virumque cano” (“Of arms and the man I sing”). Best-known for Man and Superman
(1912), and his political protest-play about prostitution Mrs. Warren’s Profession
(1893), Shaw was awarded the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The play opens as Raina, a Bulgarian heiress, learns from her mother, Catherine, that her fiancé Sergius has distinguished himself in a cavalry charge against the Serbs. Raina has romantic ideas about war, and she is delighted by this news.
Raina’s servant Louka enters to warn her mistress that fleeing Serbs might be in the area, seeking refuge in Bulgarian homes. Feeling herself to be too courageous to worry, Raina leaves her window unlocked, and in the night a soldier climbs through her window and threatens to kill her if she raises the alarm. He is not a Serb, but Swiss, fighting as a mercenary on the Serbian side.
Raina is shocked to see the reality of warfare: the man is exhausted and starving, and he has nothing glorious to say about his experience in battle. He is merely glad to be alive.
A Bulgarian officer arrives at the house, searching for Serbian soldiers. Raina helps the man to hide while the officer, accompanied by Catherine and Louka, searches her room.
When the search party has left, Raina gives the man some chocolate creams. He shocks her by telling her that he normally carries chocolates in his ammunition pouch instead of bullets. He explains to her that Sergius’s heroic cavalry charge was a stupid idea that succeeded by sheer good fortune. The Serbian gunners had been allocated the wrong ammunition: otherwise, they would have mown down Sergius’s horsemen without difficulty. Raina tells him off for making fun of her fiancé, but she agrees to help him escape, enlisting Catherine’s help to smuggle the man out in one of Raina’s father’s old overcoats.
Act II begins six months later, in the spring of the following year. Raina’s servant Louka is engaged to the household’s lead servant Nicola, but Louka is unhappy: she wants to be more than a servant. She tells Nicola that she knows some valuable secrets about the Petkoffs, but he refuses to blackmail their masters.
Major Petkoff, Raina’s father, returns from the war. He tells Catherine that Sergius is never going to be promoted above his current rank because he is unable to grasp strategy.
Sergius arrives and receives a warm welcome. Raina still sees her fiancé as a hero. He announces that he is leaving the army because he is angry about being overlooked for promotion. Petkoff and Sergius relay a story they have heard about two Bulgarian women hiding a Swiss mercenary during the Serbian retreat.
Sergius flirts with Louka, who hints to him that Raina might not be faithful to him.
A man named Bluntschli arrives, and Louka brings him to Catherine. Catherine sees that he is the man she and Raina helped to escape in Act I. She is anxious that Sergius and Petkoff shouldn’t learn about the escape: it is clear from the way they told the story of the Bulgarian women hiding a soldier that they would consider it dishonorable.
Bluntschli has come to return Major Petkoff’s overcoat. When Raina sees him, she is so happy that she exclaims, “The chocolate cream soldier!”
It turns out that Petkoff and Sergius already know Bluntschli from the war, and they ask him to stay a few days.
Angling to marry Sergius herself, Louka tells him that Raina is in love with Bluntschli. Sergius challenges Bluntschli to a duel, but Bluntschli talks his way out of it. It is discovered that Raina placed a photograph of herself in the coat she gave to Bluntschli, and she is forced to admit that she has feelings for the Swiss. Bluntschli declares his love for Raina. Major Petkoff is appalled.
Sergius and Louka reveal that they are having an affair. Nicola quietly and respectfully releases Louka from her engagement.
Bluntschli receives a telegram: his father has died and he has inherited a valuable business. Major Petkoff relents and allows his daughter to marry the newly wealthy man. Impressed by Nicola’s composure, Bluntschli offers the servant a job in his company. Bluntschli also proves his genuine understanding of warfare by clearing up a logistical problem which Major Petkoff has been struggling with since his first appearance. Sergius declares his admiration for Bluntschli, “What a man!”Arms and the Man
seeks to deflate romantic notions of war. Many readers, including George Orwell, have found that Arms and the Man
has aged better than Shaw’s other political plays because each new generation romanticizes warfare. The play continues to be widely produced.