Raina Petkoff is a young Bulgarian girl with a mind full of romantic idealism. Sometimes she is prickled by doubts, but she is ashamed of herself for questioning her glorious ideals. But just when she thinks that she can at last truly believe in her ideals with all her heart, a man enters into her life and jeopardizes everything. This man is a refugee, a Swiss soldier who gains entry into her bedroom in order to hide from the Bulgarian forces. Raina, who has heard about the unconditional hospitality of noble households, agrees to hide him from the soldiers.
Bernard Shaw’s childhood was overshadowed by the failure of his parents’ marriage. And the realities of human relationships and the bond of marriage became one of the most important themes in his plays. To Shaw, marriage is not the domesticity of lovers with rosy dreams of a beautiful future, it is a solemn contract between two people who share the responsibilities of providing a better future to the world. The other important theme of the play is the brutality of war. The play, published in 1898, showed the viewers what war is actually like. Shaw was criticized for belittling soldiers, the brave patriots who sacrifice their lives to save their country. But the two world wars of the twentieth century proved the power of Shaw’s prophetic vision.
The language of the play is very simple and charmingly fluid. Arms and the Man is a piercing satire and it is full of laughter and humour. At the same time it is extremely thought-provoking.
The play begins with very detailed stage directions, which annoyed me somewhat when I first read it. But slowly I realized that the stage directions do not inhibit the reader’s imagination. On the contrary, they help to create a space which is as real as our own home, our own world. Bernard Shaw shows the world as it is, and for that he has to create a world that lives beyond fiction, and the meticulous detailing is necessary. Raina is not a girl like any other, but she seems very familiar, and the Swiss soldier is an endearing figure. The latter reminds us of Wilfred Owen, who pointed out that in a war all soldiers are besieged with the same problems. One camp demonizes the enemy camp and believes all evil of the enemies, but the enemies are also scared people who just want the war to be over. In Sergius we see the man who has started doubting the naïve convictions of his youth. He doesn’t understand himself, and wonders why he should want things that he doesn’t feel good about wanting. Arms and the Man is a wonderful exploration of the human psyche, and as such it is a timeless classic.
Book Reviewed by Amrita Dutta
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