Arms and the Man: Essay Q&A

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1. What is Byronism?

 

Byronism refers to a certain pose or attitude suggested by the poetry and life of George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), an English Romantic poet. Both Raina and Sergius have read Byron, but Sergius especially tries to imitate the Byronic hero. Byron’s famous works include Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), “The Prisoner of Chillon” (1816), Manfred (1817), Cain (1821), and Don Juan (1819-1824).

 

Byron was socially exiled from England for his controversial sexual affairs, debts, and scandalous lifestyle. He got his revenge by becoming a celebrity in spite of English censure by traveling through Europe and Albania, Italy and Greece, putting his travels into poetry that became fascinating for its colorful details of exotic places and people. He described Turkish harems; he studied Armenian culture and language. He had a portrait painted of himself wearing Albanian dress, including a turban. The world-weary disillusioned idealist who must wander without a home became a trademark pose for his various characters. The Byronic hero is a great passionate individualist who dares to turn his back on society, religion, and anything beyond his own will. Sergius’s comment is typically Byronic: “Oh, give me the man who will defy to the death any power on earth or in heaven that sets itself up against his own will and conscience: he alone is the brave man” (Act III, p. 58). Sergius is disillusioned because he won the war but is rejected for his reckless flamboyance. By setting himself up to be an outcast Byronic hero, Sergius has to take Louka’s dare to defy custom and marry a servingmaid.

 

Byron, like his characters, was irresistible to women, handsome, but with the taint of badness in his otherwise heroic behavior. He defended causes and died a hero in the Greek War of Independence, but he was largely depressed and self-destructive. This type of character became popular in Romantic and Victorian literature; for instance, as Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Shaw, of course, would see such a life as a selfish, adolescent waste of time. He satirizes Byronism, especially through Sergius.

 

2. How can Bluntschli be called an Anti-Hero?

 

If Sergius is the hero of Slivnitza, Bluntschli is the anti-hero. The anti-hero is the antithesis of the traditional brave hero. An anti-hero is commonplace, unlucky, clumsy, unattractive,  cowardly,  funny, or blunt. If things work out for him, it is often an accident, like Bluntschli’s sudden wealth. The anti-hero is often a relief for modern readers because he is more real, more like they are, with faults and mistakes. Examples are Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Herzog in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, or Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

 

In his Preface to Arms and the Man, Shaw reveals he is consciously creating such a character in Bluntschli, who outraged early critics because he denies patriotism and bravery. Shaw admits Bluntschli is “not a conventional stage soldier” (p. xxiv). He is truthful about his suffering hunger and lack of sleep. He is nervous, desperate, and asks for chocolate creams, a food associated with frivolous females. Early audiences thought Shaw cynical instead of realistic, but in his Preface he claims his view of warfare is justified by military experts and military history. Soldiers viewing the play during World War I laughed in recognition of the truthful conditions Shaw portrays about war.

 

Critics argued that Shaw was being perverse by turning everything upside down. Bluntschli is the exact opposite of literary heroes. When he invades Raina’s bedroom, he does not act romantic or try to make love to her. He eats chocolates and then falls asleep. He is impartial and calm, not passionate. He acts like a businessman, fighting not for principle, but for whichever side pays the most. He is friendly to people (the Petkoffs) who are supposedly his foes. Unmarried at thirty-five and believing he is unattractive to women, he is surprised by Raina’s interest in him. Raina has to pursue him, rather than the other way around. When Sergius wants to get in a fight over Raina, Bluntschli is indifferent. He will go through the motions but does not want to kill. Bluntschli is practical and does not live by high ideals. He doesn’t mind if Raina lies; he sees through her. Shaw speaks of the “romantic morality of the critics and the natural morality of the plays” (p. xxiv). Shaw is committed to the humor of realism.

 

3. How does Shaw’s socialism influence his drama?

 

George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, were founding members of the Fabian Society, a British socialist movement of the nineteenth century (still existing) that believed in social democracy through gradual change rather than revolution. It advocated principles of the welfare state to bring about social justice and equal opportunity, with capitalism controlled through regulation. It attracted such intellectuals as the Shaws, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, H. G. Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The popularization of their progressive ideas contributed to the modern Labour Party in Britain. Members like Shaw wrote pamphlets and articles that spoke of social problems and proposed solutions such as socialized health care, minimum wage, and the abolition of hereditary peerages.

 

Shaw sees his drama as another forum for social issues. He used his plays and the lengthy prefaces to raise awareness and foster discussion. He moves the audience through humor and emotional and intellectual appeal. For instance, Arms and the Man is not the usual romantic comedy of the time about the upper classes. All the social classes are included. A little like the British TV series, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the audience first sees the Petkoffs and their story, and then the scene switches to the servants and their lives—how they feel exploited, how they plan for their future. Finally, what is even more revolutionary, we see the servants breaking out of their class roles. Louka marries an aristocrat, and Nicola becomes a businessman.

 

Shaw brings out certain interesting facts about class distinction; for instance, all the men in the Bulgarian army put their lives on the line for their country, and yet, the poor man is still bullied by his own upper-class officers. Shaw shows there is no essential distinction between people of different classes. Sergius pretends that he and Raina have nobler principles than the servants, but Louka exposes the fact that the upper classes lie and cheat as much as the servants do. They are all human beings; they all want love and prosperity and respect. Nicola points out that the only thing Louka has to do to be a lady is to take on the role of expecting others to do her bidding. It is all an act. Shaw emphasizes in his Preface to this play, “I can no longer be satisfied with fictitious morals and fictitious good conduct, shedding fictitious glory on robbery, starvation, disease, crime, drink, war, cruelty, cupidity, and all the other commonplaces of civilization” (p. xxv). The illusion of romance that society has set up to favor the few must be replaced with justice.

 

4. What is “Ibsenism” and the New Drama that Shaw championed?

 

At the time Shaw was writing his first plays, Victorian melodrama dominated the English stage. The plays were formulaic emotional appeals with predictable villains and heroes and happy endings. An example is “The Corsican Brothers” by Dion Boucicault (1867). The plays were overacted,  as Shaw complains in his Preface to Arms and the Man when he mentions that his plays tax the ordinary actor’s “nuances of execution” (p. xxii). Shaw gives minute and detailed stage directions in his plays to correct for this lack of subtlety in the acting of his day.

 

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was meanwhile pioneering realism in theater. Shaw wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism in 1890, explaining Ibsen’s methods and evaluating his plays. Ibsen has been called the father of modern drama, turning it away from the stereotypes in sentimental drama that upheld the traditional view of family, war, love and marriage, religion, and society. Ibsen’s plays audaciously challenged the established views and caused public outrage. His characters do not find happiness or success by following the moral codes of society. Their lives are facades that crumble upon deeper investigation. Ibsen brought up issues like women’s rights (“A Doll’s House,” 1879), veneral disease (“Ghosts,” 1881), dark family secrets (“The Wild Duck,” 1884), and the tragic manipulative psyche (“Hedda Gabbler,” 1890). Ibsen’s work was influenced by the existential Danish philospher, Soren Kierkegaard, who explored moral choice, subjective truth, and religious ambiguity. Ibsen’s was a drama of ideas, and later playwrights, such as Shaw and Chekhov, took their cue from his work.

 

These playwrights established the modern theater that confronts social and psychological dilemmas in a realistic context. Often, they raise complexities of the human psyche that are left open for the audience to interpret. Both Ibsen and Shaw helped to modernize public awareness of social problems. In his Preface to Arms and the Man Shaw speaks of this “New Drama” and his commitment to keep producing it (p. xxi). He also speaks of “the incapacity for serious drama” of the playgoers of his day (p. xxiii). They want to be entertained and think he gives them “modern pessimism” (p. xxii). Shaw’s commitment to realism, however,  largely avoids the tragedy of Ibsen’s realism through its farce and humor. Shaw finds “plenty of good in the world working itself out as fast as the idealists will allow it” (Preface, p. xxv). Idealism he equates with “lying” (p. xxvi), the obstacle to progress. Shaw pictured the gradual evolution of the human race to a more benign future (“Back to Methuselah,” 1921), but romantic illusions about how life works get in the way. For instance, Raina and Sergius keep up a pretense of being in love when their instincts clearly prefer someone else who is a better match. Sergius wants to believe in the romance of the cavalry charge though it endangers lives.

 

5. What is the historical background of this play?

 

Shaw first sketched out the play without an historical setting. His friend, Sidney Webb, came up with the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885 as the model scenario. Shaw did research in the British Museum Reading Room and chose Bulgaria as the setting. The character of Bluntschli may have been suggested by the life of Johann Kaspar Bluntschli, a Swiss professor of law. He chose the name “Arms and the Man” from the first line of Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid: “Of arms and the man [the hero Aeneas] I sing.” Shaw’s title is ironic, for Virgil told the story of a hero, while Shaw’s play is about Bluntschi, the “chocolate-cream soldier.”

 

The play mentions historical details of the Serbo-Bulgarian war, such as the Battle of Slivnitza that was the turning point of the war, resulting in the Unification of Bulgaria. Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, which was predominantly Bulgarian, announced their unification in 1885, against the will of the Great European Powers, especially Austria. Serbia used the pretense of a border dispute to invade Bulgaria. The Serbians had modern guns but as in Shaw’s version, they had trouble with their cannon. They also underestimated the Bulgarians and used mostly young recruits. Shaw shows them running away as Bluntschli did. The Russian officers allowed the Bulgarian officers like Sergius and Petkoff to conduct the war. They were not as experienced as the Russians, but they had strong patriotism and morale. Shaw makes Petkoff say that without the intervention of the Great Powers, the Serbs and Bulgarians would not know how to fight. In the past, the Serbs and Bulgarians fought on the same side against the Turks, but the Serbian soldiers were tricked into fighting their former allies. Austria intervened after Slivnitza, disallowing more fighting. The Bulgarian victory settled the Unification question and boosted the prestige of Bulgaria, since the Serbs had not before known defeat.

 

Shaw uses Bulgaria as an example of a backward nation wanting to join the family of modern European nations. Bulgarians objected to Shaw’s stereotyping them as comic bumpkins who didn’t wash their hands and thought that a library was a few paperback books. Shaw does, however,  bring out the political plight of such a country as Bulgaria, fighting for its identity among the bigger, modernized nations. He shows that Louka and Nicola, the servants, are in fact, the strength of the country, being closer to its roots. The Petkoffs and Sarnoff, wanting to be thought advanced, adopt the culture of foreign countries that do not properly educate the people. Saranoff wastes his time trying to be Byronic, and Catherine focuses on having an electric bell. This same phenomenon is still seen today when poorer nations copy what is trivial and popular in richer countries.

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