Last week, Wittenberg’s Department of Theatre and Dance presented its fall mainstage production of Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw. The classic play, which first premiered in 1894, tells the story of a young Bulgarian woman, Raina Petkoff, who has her romantic illusions of war and soldiership dashed, when one night a fugitive enemy soldier, Captain Bluntschli, flees from a battle and takes refuge in her room. Raina saves Bluntschli from a group of soldiers who come looking for him, and the two spend the evening discussing soldiers, war, and honor on the battlefield.
At the core of Shaw’s play, which he referred to as an anti-romantic comedy, is a refutation of the idea of being a noble, romantic, endeavor. Raina sits on her bed in the beginning of the play dreaming of Sergius, the man she is betrothed to marry, who is out on the battlefield fighting gloriously for his country. This idea is shattered by Bluntschli, a soldier in a tattered uniform, covered in dirt, without a single round of ammo or scrap of food on him. Bluntschli, after just being on the very same battlefield as Raina’s betrothed, is much more concerned with getting his next bit of food and surviving the night, than he is about nobility.
During this production, in which I played the role of Captain Bluntschli, I found much of what allowed me to understand the play and the role came from my background in studying English. I couldn’t help but think back to many of my English courses to help inform the way I viewed the world in which the play exists. Being an Anti-Romantic comedy, the play was full of references and parodies of romanticism, such as Raina’s references to the ideas that formed her opinions of war: the poetry of Byron, which instantly brought me back to my British Literature class with Dr. Incorvati in which we studied some of Byron’s work and the Romantic Movement in Literature. The satirical view of war, and Shaw’s refutation of the nobility of it all, took me back to my ENGL-380 A Century at War with Dr. Polak, in which we studied war literature of all kinds–many of which took the same view as Shaw.
This parody of Romanticism and war is where most of the fun of this play comes from. In the end, Raina marries Bluntschli, a man who, despite being a very skilled and competent soldier, does not revel in its glory, but instead joings the enemy army merely because they came first on the road past his home. Sergius, the decorated, pompous war hero, who is by all means the stereotypical “romantic” hero, ends up marrying a servant out of love, instead of for glory. The way in which the show plays with the classical structure and tropes, which were so present in the Romantic Movement, is what makes Arms–a play with a seemingly straightforward plot–a classic which is still performed 120+ years after it was written. AS an actor, who has never been to way and who has never been challenged to a duel or had to take shelter from enemy cavalry, much of my ability to relate to this play and to understand the world that it inhabits came from my background studying the history, values, and ideals of this culture, during my time studying English.
– Carl Burgason ’16