Arms and The Man

George Bernard Shaw

I cannot think of another play whose Act 1 surpasses the Act 1 of ‘Arms and The Man’. The opening of Shaw’s ‘St Joan’ comes pretty near. This play of religious conviction and corruption of both church and state, starts “No eggs! No eggs!! Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs!”. What a beginning to what a play! But for sustained enjoyment nothing can beat the first scene of ‘Arms and The Man’.

A Swiss officer, who is fighting for the Serb army, is in retreat from the Russian forces, who have just defeated the Serbs in battle. Running through the deserted streets of a nearby town with the Russians at his heels, he notices a drainpipe up which he climbs. Seeing an open window, he enters and meets the fiancée of the Bulgarian cavalry officer, who, fighting for the Russian army, has just routed the Serbs and our Swiss captain in a cavalry charge. The situation is pure Monty Python. It is just as surreal and impossible as so much of their humour.

We have seen already how the author’s name can be known in full or just with initials and how the initials can distance the writer from the reader. Well, Shaw, as so often, doesn’t fit in with this premise. He is known as George Bernard Shaw, Bernard Shaw or just plain G.B.S but he always makes his presence felt however we refer to him.

The title ‘Arms and The Man’ comes from ‘Arma virumque cano’, which, as everyone knew in Shaw`s day but no one knows now, means ‘I sing of arms and the man’. The ‘Man’ in Virgil was Aeneas. The ‘Man’ in Shaw’s play is Captain Bluntschli, a soldier from Switzerland. In fact, in the first act of the script he is referred to as ‘The Man’. His name is never mentioned.

What a gap has been left in our culture by the disappearance of Latin. The Latin language stole away quietly during the 50s, and now few remain to mourn her. Latin has been replaced by computer studies.

“O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!”

I read the other day that students with no knowledge of Latin are now accepted on classics degree courses at Oxford. As recently as the mid-sixties they were expected to be familiar with Cicero and Horace and, at the very least, Caesar and his Gallic War.

“O tempora, O mores!”

Let’s look at the opening scene of the play, which is romantic comedy at its best. What a pity Cary Grant never played Captain Bluntschli with Katherine Hepburn as Raina. They would have been ideal!

So, back to the drainpipe or rather, to a young lady’s bedroom. Captain Bluntschli climbed the first and entered the second. Raina, crouched on her bed, calls out in the darkness.

Raina.  Who’s there?

Bluntschli.  Sh – sh! Don’t call out, or you’ll be shot!

This is not a promising start to a meeting between two young people.

Bluntschli.  Excuse my disturbing you, but you recognize my uniform? Serb! If I’m caught, I shall be killed. Do you understand that?

Raina.  Yes

Bluntschli.  Well, I don’t intend to get killed if I can help it. Do you understand that?

Raina.  (disdainfully) I suppose not. Some soldiers, I know, are afraid to die.

Bluntschli.  All of them, dear lady, all of them, believe me. It is our duty to live as long as we can.

Raina, in her nightdress, goes to get her cloak. Bluntschli reaches it first.

Bluntschli.  I’ll keep the cloak, and you’ll take care that nobody comes in and sees you without it. This is a better weapon than the revolver, eh?

Raina (revolted) It is not the weapon of a gentleman!

Bluntschli It’s good enough for a man with only you to stand between him and death.  (As they look at one another for a moment, Raina is hardly able to believe that even a Serbian officer can be so cynically and selfishly unchivalrous…)

There is a noise of soldiers in the street and a Russian officer insists on searching the house.  Bluntschli realizes that the game is up.

Bluntschli.  No use, dear lady. I’m done for. (Flinging the cloak to her) Quick! Wrap yourself up! They’re coming.

Raina. What will you do?

Bluntschli. The first man in will find out! Keep out of the way and don’t look. It won’t last long but it will not be nice. (He draws his sabre and faces the door, waiting)

Raina. (impulsively) I’ll help you. I’ll save you.

Bluntschli. You can’t.

Raina.  I can.

She shows Bluntschli there is space to hide behind the curtain. She then makes for the sofa.

Bluntschli.  (putting out his head from the curtain) Remember –

Raina. (running back to him). Yes?

Bluntschli.  – nine soldiers out of ten are born fools.

Raina.  Oh! (She draws the curtain angrily before him)

Well, the Russian officer does come into the room, and so the scene continues. To see how it ends, get hold of the book or watch one of the versions of the play on YouTube. You can’t leave Captain Bluntschli in this predicament.