In 1856 George Bernard Shaw was born in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Dublin, Ireland, and was the youngest of three siblings. His mother, who was a professional singer, encouraged his interests in the arts, and eventually left Shaw’s alcoholic father. In his twenties, Shaw began a course of private reading at the British Museum, allowing him to engage not only with English poets like William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, but with political thought then brewing in the 1870s. For several years, in his twenties and early thirties, Shaw attempted to supplement a clerical career—and, eventually, to make up for the loss of steady employment—through the composition of novels and short stories, which offered him small success. By the 1880s, Shaw was committed to the ideals of the “Fabians,” a branch of socialists operating in England who preferred to transform Britain not through revolution, but through intellectual pursuits. Shaw wrote newspaper articles and gave speeches on the subject, and on related issues of social and political concern in England and continental Europe. He soon met drama critic William Archer, who asked Shaw to review plays as well. Shaw took Archer’s encouragement to start writing his own plays, and created the works for which he is now famous: Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905), Saint Joan (1924), along with a great many others, and with “theoretical prefaces” explaining the construction and political impact of his works. After a career dotted with commercial and critical notoriety, and with continued speechmaking on a variety of issues on the political left, Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, for, as the Nobel Committee put it, “his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.”
Written in 1893-4 and first performed in 1894, Arms and the Man is one of Shaw’s earlier plays, and one that grows out of several contexts. The first is historical. There was a Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885, and there was, too, an historic Battle of Slivnitza, won by the Bulgarians. Although Shaw takes advantage of actual historical information in the construction of the work, he is more concerned not with what allowed the Bulgarians to gain power in the region, but in broader forces of political and social agitation, and in the manner by which love can create, and redraw, relations between groups. Raina, Bluntschli, Sergius, and the rest of the characters are simply figures through which these political and social forces play out, as much as they are characters with which the viewer is to identify.
Some scholars have called Arms and the Man a satire, or a work that criticizes political or social issues of the day through humor or exaggeration. It is also a comedy, as evidenced from its ending in a flurry of weddings to its continued poking fun at Bulgarian “refinement.” But there is a great deal of dark comedy evident. The stakes of the work are high; the characters in it fear death and flee it, and characters off-stage, like Bluntschli’s friend, suffer terrible ends. This kind of comedy allows Shaw to broach serious issues like equality among the sexes, the nature and necessity of war, and the impact of technological development on European warmaking—but do so satirically with Louka’s subtle laughter and Petkoff’s buffoonish behavior.
Arms and the Man is a fitting entry-point into Shaw’s career, which goes on to encompass many more plays investigating the nature of relationships between men and women. In his prefaces to the works, collected later in his life, Shaw explains how certain settings, scenes, characters, and dialogue might help the reader or viewer to find political truths in these works of fiction. It is impossible to read through Shaw’s career, too, without accounting for the “Great War” at its middle. The First World War challenged many artists’ assumptions about best methods for social organization, and about the role of art in a world that seemed more than willing to blow itself up in order to further small gains along a trench-line. As many scholars have noted, Shaw’s works can be read against the plays and poems of his fellow Irishman William Butler Yeats, and the plays, poems, and collected prose pieces of Oscar Wilde. Both these men were, like Shaw, more than willing to upend social orders they found stifling, including the behavioral demands on the middle classes. And though Wilde, Yeats, and Shaw were very different artists working with very different tones and styles, they nevertheless bridged the 1800s and 1900s, both in lifespan and in sensibility, as they saw the world change drastically in the first third of the latter century.