Summary of Act II
It is March 6, 1886 in the garden of the Petkoff house. On a spring morning the laundry is spread on the bushes to dry, and breakfast is served on an outdoor table. Louka is defiantly smoking a cigarette in view of the house, speaking to a middle-aged servant, Nicola, an intelligent and calculating man, deferential to his employers. Nicola warns the young Louka not to be rebellious in her ways or she will be fired. Nicola is engaged to Louka but says he cannot marry her if she disgraces the house. His dream is to save enough money to open a shop in Sofia, but in any case, he is dependent on the good will of the Petkoff family. Louka upbraids him for cowardice; she knows family secrets that the Petkoffs would not like told. Nicola explains that they could destroy her reputation so that no one would believe her stories. He also knows family secrets, secrets that would ruin Raina’s engagement. Louka says she will never have the soul of a servant as Nicola does.
Just then they hear a knock on the gate; it is Major Petkoff, Raina’s father, home from the war. He is a cheerful man of fifty, and sits down to breakfast in the garden. Louka brings him coffee and brandy. Catherine comes out to greet her husband; he says the war is over, and the command to demobilize the army has come. They chat about household affairs, and Catherine announces they now have an electric bell in the library to call the servants. Petkoff sees nothing wrong in shouting for the servants.
Sergius comes in the gate just then and Petkoff asks his wife to keep Sergius from bothering him about a promotion. Catherine says he deserves a promotion, but Petkoff tells her no one will promote a foolhardy officer like Sergius to be a general unless there is a lasting peace. Sergius comes into the garden, with the cynical air of someone who has become disenchanted with himself and the world. Catherine gives him lavish praise for being the hero of the war, but Sergius is quite aware that he is being criticized for winning the battle in the wrong way. He says he has resigned. Catherine says he must withdraw his resignation, and he says proudly he never withdraws or backs down on his word.
Raina makes a dramatic entrance, beautiful and regal. Sergius kisses her hand. Sergius continues his speech, objecting to modern warfare as being a tradesman’s game and no longer chivalrous. He was advised by a Swiss officer to give up soldiering. Petkoff says that same Swiss Captain overcharged them on the horses. The women, hearing about the Swiss officer, exchange glances, and ask if there are many Swiss in the Serbian army. Only one, they are told. Sergius says there is a story going around about how he escaped with the help of two Bulgarian women. He was alone in the bedroom with the younger woman. Raina scolds him for telling them a vulgar story. Sergius apologizes, saying that war has made him coarse.
Petkoff asks Sergius to come into the library and help him plan how to demobilize the regiments. He has no idea how to get them to Philippopolis. Catherine says she will help her husband, to give the young people a few moments alone. The young lovers greet one another. Raina praises him as a hero; he praises her as his inspiration. Raina says they have found “the higher love” (p. 31). Louka comes out to clear the table, and the lovers decide to go for a walk to be alone. Raina goes in to get her hat.
Sergius asks Louka if she knows what “the higher love” is. She says, no. He comments that it is fatiguing to keep up. He needs relief. He begins flirting with Louka. He claims that he is half a dozen Sergiuses, and Sergius the hero has been replaced by another personality now. Louka at first resists him, then chides him for standing in view of the house, for Raina will be spying on them. Sergius enjoys Louka’s witty honesty and tries to kiss her. She evades him, saying the upper classes are hypocrites; both he and Raina are cheating behind the other’s back. Sergius asks who his rival is, but Louka says she will lose her place if she tells, but she knows if the man ever comes back, Raina will marry him.
Sergius grabs Louka’s arms until he hurts her and accuses her of the baseness of being a mere servant. Louka answers back that he has proved to her that he is no better than she is. She accuses Raina of being a liar and boasts she is worth six of her mistress.
Sergius suddenly apologizes to Louka for hurting her, but she says she wants more; she wants her hurt made well. She offers her bruised arm to be kissed. He says in his absolute manner, he never will. Raina returns with her hat, and Louka leaves.
Raina asks Sergius if he has been flirting with Louka, and he says no. Catherine enters and begs Sergius to go help her husband manage the troops. Sergius goes to the house. Catherine and Raina discuss their difficulty about the Swiss officer they helped. They are afraid of being discovered for their treason; Raina’s engagement is also at stake. Catherine says that her husband keeps asking for the coat that she loaned to the Swiss. Raina is furious with the Swiss for another reason—for telling other people about the incident. The story is all over town. Raina, in a moment of truth, says she wishes her mother could marry Sergius, for he is a favorite of her mother’s. She herself longs to shock Sergius. She doesn’t care if he finds out about “the chocolate-cream soldier” (p. 37).
Raina leaves as Louka enters, announcing a Serbian officer. He has been asking for the lady of the house. Catherine looks at his card: “Captain Bluntschli.” Louka says it is a Swiss name. Catherine realizes it is the fugitive who has come back to return the coat he borrowed. She asks that he be brought into the garden, and that Nicola should bring his bag with the coat in it right away. Captain Bluntschli enters the garden from the house, now looking presentable in his uniform.
Catherine informs him he must leave at once before her husband sees him. He is disappointed but agrees. He goes towards the house to collect his bag, but Catherine says his bag will be sent to him. He must leave by the gate. As Bluntschli writes his address on his card, Major Petkoff comes from the house and greets him warmly. Sergius follows, and the three have a happy reunion, while Catherine looks on nervously. The men ask Bluntschli to help with sending the regiments home. Bluntschli agrees to stay, and the three go arm in arm to the house. Raina, coming out, is surprised by Bluntschli’s appearance and blurts out, “The chocolate-cream soldier!” (p. 41).
Raina tries to cover up for her blunder by explaining she had made a chocolate-cream soldier ornament for the pudding, and Nicola had spoiled it. Petkoff begins ranting against Nicola, who used to be efficient. Now, he is making mistakes, like showing Bluntschli into the garden instead of the library. Catherine scolds Nicola for bringing the bag out to the garden. Nicola, confused, takes the insults as part of his servant’s job of taking the blame for everything. Petkoff says he will fire the servants, who have gotten out of hand while he was gone. Meanwhile, everyone urges Bluntschli to stay, including Raina.
Commentary on Act II
As the comic complications pile up, characters reveal themselves and switch places from their expected behavior. It is not only Sergius who has more than one face. Raina and the servants do as well. Shaw also develops the themes of class distinctions and modernization in this act.
Sergius and Raina both subscribe to romantic ideas about their place in society and what constitutes love and genteel behavior. Both are shown up as hypocrites in this act, saying one thing and doing another. They pledge the higher love to one another but are secretly attracted to more earthy and honest people—Bluntschli and Louka. Louka tells Sergius that Raina will marry the other man (Bluntschli) because “I know the difference between the sort of manner you and she put on before one another and the real manner” (p. 34). Sergius and Raina are acting a part for one another; it is like opera or Byron. Sergius comes swaggering home from the war in a Byronic mood of disillusionment, making love to whatever woman is there and complaining of vague ailments. Louka is a reality check to Sergius’s overdramatic behavior, as Bluntschli (like his name) is to Raina. Though the romantics protest, they rather like being brought down to earth, for as Sergius says, the higher love is fatiguing to keep up.
The theme of class prejudice is a major one for Shaw, who was a socialist, one who believed in doing away with the injustice of class distinctions. One group of people should not be subservient to another, in his philosophy. Louka represents the force in the lower class that will not be repressed, that is rising up to challenge the status quo. She looks down on Nicola who has accepted his place and merely wants to get on using the current system. He plays his part with his employers, accepting the role of blame, acting dumb, when he is, in essence, a smart businessman. Nicola warns Louka that the upper class has enough power to crush her, even though she knows their secrets. Louka is ambitious and honest about it with Sergius. She claims to be equal to him: part of him is “very like me” (p. 34).
Bluntschli represents the middle class or bourgeois practical mind. He is competent and knows how to get things done, a man of experience. Sergius has been convinced by the common sense Bluntschli to quit the military because it is not the chivalrous life Sergius had hoped for. Bluntschli is at first ridiculed by the Bulgarian upper-class landowners (the Petkoffs) for knowing how to drive a hard bargain (the skill of a tradesman), until they need his help at getting the regiments home.
The Petkoffs come in for a lot of ribbing as they pretend to be aristocratic, bullying their servants, with their grand “library” consisting of a few paperback books. They are relatively well off for the obscure countryside of Bulgaria but reveal their backward habits of not washing very often, drying their clothes on the bushes, and believing as Major Petkoff does, that it is better to shout for the servants than ring for them with an electric bell.
This latter detail also raises the topic of modernization. Bulgaria is an undeveloped country trying to become modern and more European, symbolized by the electric bell and other modern conveniences. Raina brags in Act I that she has even been to Vienna, the Austrian capital and a center of culture.
Shaw raises the question of whether this modernization is a good or bad thing. For instance, Petkoff mentions that the Bulgarians and Serbs wouldn’t have had a war by themselves because they don’t know how to fight. They needed officers from Russia and Austria: “We shouldn’t have been able to begin fighting if these foreigners hadn’t shewn us how to do it” (p. 29). Bulgaria is portrayed in the play as a beautiful rural mountain country, simple in its ways. European Romanticism may be unsuitable to it. Raina and Sergius, for instance, are overly influenced in their behavior by the literature of Russia (Pushkin) and England (Byron), and the Italian opera of Guissepe Verdi (Ernani).