The play begins November of 1885 in a lady’s bedchamber in small-town Bulgaria at the end of the Serbo-Bulgarian War. The room is a confusing mixture of Bulgarian and Viennese decorations and furniture; the native pieces are rich and beautiful, but the occidental pieces are cheap and paltry. Between the door and the bed sits a chest of drawers covered with a pile of paperback novels, a box of chocolate creams and a photo of a handsome officer. A beautiful young lady, Raina Petkoff stands on the balcony admiring the “romantic beauty of the night” and knowing that “her own youth and beauty are part of it” (2).
Raina’s mother Catherine Petkoff enters looking for her daughter. Though beautiful in an earthy way, Catherine’s class pretensions - always wearing a fashionable tea gown - make her a somewhat ridiculous figure. She informs Raina that her fiancé Sergius headed a daring cavalry charge, winning a major battle. Raina and her mother become ecstatic, rapturously contemplating the Bulgarian maneuver. Yet Raina admits that as Sergius was leaving for war she had doubts as to whether all their ideas about heroism and love would be borne out in reality. She explains that she suspected their ideas were only the product of plays and operas, but she happily asserts that hearing news of Sergius’ exploits confirms that their ideas were real and correct.
Louka, the Petkoffs' beautiful and insolent female servant, enters the room and explains that the windows should be closed and locked, as retreating Serbians are being hunted down in the streets. Raina is appalled by the violence and cruelty of war but Catherine is only concerned with securing the house, demanding that Raina lock her windows. After Catherine departs, Louka suggests leaving the window unlocked and is immediately scolded by Raina who is insistent that one must do as one is told. Before climbing in bed to read a romance novel, Raina holds Sergius’ portrait above her, as if in prayer, murmuring “My hero! My hero” (5).
Outside a distant shot and then two nearer ones ring out. Raina turns off all her lights and jumps in bed. The window is forced from outside and a shadowy man clambers into the room. Raina cries out in the darkness and is answered by a threatening and commanding voice that warns her that screaming will be answered with shots. At the voice’s command, Raina lights a candle and sees a blood- and mud-splattered, haggard-looking Serbian soldier.
The man explains that if he is found he will be killed and he does not yet intend to die. He notices that Raina is dressed in a skimpy nightgown and cunningly snatches her cloak, explaining that if she is to allow Bulgarian soldiers into her room she must do so in her undressed state. Raina is disgusted both that the Serbian soldier is unwilling to die nobly and that he would resort to using such an ungentlemanly tactic to save his life.
Louka begins knocking furiously on Raina’s door, explaining that the Bulgarian army is demanding to search her room. The intruder realizes his defeat and hands Raina her cloak. Overwhelmed with compassion, Raina pulls him into a hiding place behind her curtains before opening the door. A polite Russian officer in the Bulgarian army enters asking to search the room. Raina throws open the shutters, revealing an empty balcony while standing in front of the soldier's hiding place, blocking it from sight. A bullet shatters one of her windows from outside but she holds her position. The Russian officer, satisfied that the room is empty, yells at the men in the street to cease fire and bids the family farewell. As she is leaving, Louka glances at a gun lying on the ottoman and then towards the hiding place, smirking.
The Serbian soldier reveals he is actually a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbian side and requests to stay in the room a few more moments, until the danger outside has passed. Raina expresses regret that he will have to face danger again. She then cries out when she sees the man’s gun on her ottoman, scaring him. She teases him about his reaction, saying he may use the gun to protect himself from her. The Swiss mercenary replies that he has no cartridges, only chocolates, triggering more disdain from Raina. Mockingly, she brings him a half-finished box of chocolate creams and he devours them hungrily.
The soldier explains that he has been in battle and under fire for three days and is starving and exhausted. Raina is touched by his predicament but still feels that his behavior is not befitting of a soldier, explaining that Bulgarian soldiers do not show weakness as he does. The Swiss mercenary retorts that they certainly do and even more - the Bulgarian army is unprofessional. He explains that the Bulgarian cavalry charge earlier that day was an idiotic maneuver that succeeded because of sheer luck: Sergius led a suicidal cavalry charge against a line of bristling machine guns. Fortunately, the Serbians had, through an obscure logistical mistake, procured the wrong kind of cartridges. If not for this lucky coincidence, the Bulgarian army would have been mowed down immediately.
Highly offended, Raina refuses to believe the mercenary’s version of events, insisting that Sergius is heroic. Raina shows the mercenary a picture of her fiancé Sergius and he confirms that this was indeed that man that was “charging like Don Quixote at the windmills” (14). The mercenary has trouble stifling his laughter and Raina becomes even angrier, demanding that he climb back down from the balcony.
At the thought of having to leave, the mercenary is filled with despair and exhaustion. He claims he does not have the strength to continue, as he has not slept in 36 hours. Raina is filled with motherly concern at his predicament. The intruder rouses himself and prepares to leave, claiming danger and exhaustion are merely part of being a soldier. In a moment of pity Raina gently calls him a “chocolate cream soldier” (15). Raina insist that he stay, explaining that her family, which is one of the most noble and rich families in all of Bulgaria, is civilized enough to be trusted to offer temporary asylum to a guest. She references Ernani, an opera where a noble family harbors a fugitive despite their disagreements with him. Raina’s boasts about her family’s position - that they have an indoor staircase and the only personal library in the country, or that they wash their hands daily - sound comical. The soldier teases her good-naturedly about her pretensions as she describes her wealth and manners.
Feeling safe for the first time in three days, the soldier is overtaken by exhaustion. Raina leaves to find her mother and the poor mercenary collapses on her bed. Raina returns with Catherine and the two women attempt to rouse the sleeping soldier to no avail. Raina is touched by his vulnerability and tells her mother to let him sleep. Catherine is appalled by her daughter’s sympathy for the enemy.
Arms and the Man is a romantic comedy that centers on the “clash of ignorance and knowledge” (Lee 101); the play pits realism against the romantic ideas and delusions that surround the topics of love and war. In Act I the practical Swiss mercenary, later identified as Captain Bluntschli, represents knowledge and realism. Bluntschli has little regard for heroic conventions that might call for daring cavalry charges or willingness to face death with ease. He understands that when fighting multi-day battles food rations can be more important and effective at ensuring survival than weapons. He has no romantic or nationalistic notions of honor and glory in battle; he approaches soldiering as an accountant might approach accounting, simply as a professional. Though George Bernard Shaw satirizes romanticized notions of war, he retains respect for war itself; Bluntschli, a professional soldier, is perhaps the play’s most grounded and competent character.
Bluntschli’s knowledge quickly collides with Raina’s romantic delusions. When Raina rapturously asks about the “great” cavalry charge, he explains that Sergius’ grand military gesture was unprofessional and would have ended in slaughter if not for dumb luck. He disabuses her of the notion that real soldiers never tire, never hunger and never fear. After 36 hours without sleeping and 72 hours of being under fire, Bluntschli is exhausted, famished, and understandably apprehensive.
Though Bluntschli manages to complicate Raina’s understanding he does not yet dispel her delusions, which are deeply rooted. Raina imagines war to be a stage for grand gestures of bravery and honor. Her ecstasy at hearing of Sergius’ charge is so exaggerated as to be comical. When confronted with Bluntschli’s pragmatic approach to war she is appalled and thinks him a coward unfit for battle. Her approach to love is similarly theatrical and ludicrous: she holds Sergius’ picture above her like “a priestess”, worshiping at an altar of love (5).
Yet the first act hints that this romanticism is a veneer and Raina’s true views are more complicated. Her romantic posturing is self-conscious, as when she stands on the balcony at the very beginning of the play. Moreover, she reveals that she had serious doubts about Sergius’ participation in war, as she was worried that their grand ideals were nothing more than a fantasy absorbed from poetry and operas. Raina is also the only woman in the play to acknowledge and be concerned about the violence and cruelty of war. This impulse leads her to protect Bluntschli. Finally she has some attraction to the practical if unheroic Bluntschli, showing her affection when she calls him a “poor dear” after he finally passes out.
The play effectively mocks Raina’s class pretensions, which seem to spring from the same source as her romantic delusions. Raina imagines a world filled with dashing soldiers, pure ladies and elegant nobles. She strives to emulate the wealthy nobility in the fiction she consumes, as when she decides to harbor Captain Bluntschli after remembering an opera in which a noble family protects a fugitive. Yet Raina’s aspirations are ridiculous. She wears fur coats that cost more than all her furniture; she proudly calls a room with a single bookshelf a library; and she decorates with cheap Viennese furnishings. Likewise, Catherine insists on wearing tea gowns and adopting other habits of the upper Western classes.
Chocolate serves as an enduring and complex symbol throughout Arms and the Man. When first introduced it serves as a symbol of Captain Bluntschli’s pragmatism and disdain for romanticism. Instead of carrying his cartridges, which are later revealed to be useless as they are the incorrect size, the Swiss mercenary carries chocolate. During this time period, soldiers often carried chocolate with low milk content as rations; such chocolate rarely spoiled, even in humid conditions, and could provide a significant amount of calories, even in small portions (Satran 26). Some readers may, like Raina, incorrectly assume Bluntschli was carrying sweets or other luxurious treats. The chocolate soldiers carried was dry, gritty and brittle; it was not an indulgence, but a practical ration for the field.
In contrast, Raina has a box of chocolate creams, luxurious confectionary treats that spoiled quickly and were above the reach of most lower and middle class citizens. In this form, chocolate represents Raina’s romantic and impractical notions. Bluntschli gratefully devours the chocolate creams, but out of very practical hunger, not out of any desire for indulgence. In her ignorance about the use of chocolate as field rations, Raina misunderstands Bluntschli’s real purpose in keeping chocolate in his cartridge boxes, viewing him as ridiculous and naming him a “chocolate cream soldier” (15). Yet Bluntschli is anything but, he is the most practical and professional soldier depicted in the play.
The title of Arms and the Man is a reference to the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic poem describing the journey and heroics of Aeneas. The poem begins by announcing that it will sing of arms and the man and continues to celebrate the glorious story of Aenas. George Bernard Shaw satirizes the poem by mirroring it throughout his play. At every opportunity Shaw reflects the Aeneid and then effectively undercuts it. Aeneas, an extremely handsome man, arrives as a fugitive at his future wife Dido’s magnificent and opulent home, having been driven inland by a sea storm. When soldiers from an opposing force come looking for him, Aeneas uses supernatural means to stay hidden within a cloud; his deception is flawless. Comparatively, Bluntschli, an average looking man, arrives at a house whose greatest claim to local fame is having an indoor staircase. He is in the middle of actively fleeing from battle. When the Bulgarians come to search for him, he is left to lamely hide behind a curtain and even forgets his pistol in plain sight. By diminishing all the heroic aspects of Aeneas’ story, Shaw effectively satirizes it and its predilection for romanticizing war and worshipping heroes.