Note: Beginning of play to Bluntschli’s entry
The play begins in a small town “near the Dragoman Pass” in Bulgaria, in the bedroom of a young woman named Raina Petkoff. It’s November 1885, and a war is on between the Bulgarian troops with their Russian allies, and the combined Serbian forces. The Serbian forces include many soldiers hired from other nations. The scene description, in italics, sets a pattern for the rest of the play. Although there is no official narrator and the scene descriptions are in essence only for the eyes of the company putting on the play, they contain a significant amount of detail not perceptible to a viewing audience. Only a reader knows these details. This includes, for example, notes on the mental states of some of the characters. The notes describe Rainia’s room’s décor as lavish, if somewhat kitschy.. There are chocolate cream candies visible on a dresser.
Raina gazes out her open window, and her mother, Catherine Petkoff, enters, telling Raina to close the windows because it’s cold outside. Catherine is excited and delivers news that the Bulgarian-Russian army has won a great battle at Slivnitza, against the Serbians and their allies. Catherine also states that a man named Sergius is responsible for leading the cavalry in the victory. Raina is overjoyed and relieved on hearing this. Raina admits to Catherine that, in Raina’s lonelier moments, she has doubted whether the Bulgarians can compare in cultivation and elegance to the Russians. Raina has also wondered whether men in battle really are as heroic as she has read about in the works of Pushkin and Byron. Catherine tells Raina she should be ashamed to have doubted the Bulgarians, and Sergius in particular.
Louka, their maid, enters, and says that all windows and doors in the house should be closed and locked because there are fleeing Serbians in the area, and they might try to hide in Bulgarian houses. Catherine leaves the room to make sure the house is safe and in order. When Catherine is gone, Louka privately tells Raina that she can push open one of the shutters against Catherine’s wishes to continue listening to the battle, as one shutter does not bolt properly. Raina scolds Louka aloud for contradicting Catherine’s advice. Louka leaves, and Raina lies awake listening to the gunfire approach the house. At first Raina finds this exciting, but soon realizes that the scattered Serbian army is very close by. She hears the shutters rattle, and in a moment a man strikes a match in the room, telling Raina to be quiet or he’ll shoot her.
Shaw introduces, in this first section of the first act, some of the motivating ideas and problems of the play. One of them is the nature of “genteel,” or wealthy, society, and the harsher reality of war, which is, in this sequence, just outside Raina’s windows. Raina idolizes Sergius, who is conveniently represented only as a perfect photograph in these scenes. In her own home and bedroom, Raina thinks of Sergius as an engaging hero in battle. She is pleased, therefore, to have her mother Catherine corroborate this fantasy.
Shaw’s stage directions demonstrate how descriptions of scenes might undercut the action that is being performed on the stage, visible to the audience in the theater. The decorations in Raina’s room appear fancy, but they are a bit tacky on closer inspection, according to the meticulous stage directions. The decorations are signals, therefore, not of wealth but of a desire for more wealth, more “cultivation,” than perhaps the family really has. This, too, is an undercurrent in the play, that Bulgaria and the Bulgarian nobility exist in the the shadow of more culturally-developed countries like Russia and the Austrian Empire. The Petkoffs go out of their way to demonstrate that they just as learned and up to date, but these efforts only point up their fear that they in fact are not so advanced after all.
Also evident in this sequence is the family’s reliance on Sergius as a kind of savior figure. If he is the hero of the battle, then he is all the more suited to be Raina’s husband in the eyes of the Petkoffs. Raina’s marriageability is of prime importance to the members of her family, and even to the servants in the house, as it will bring honor to their family. The ideas of reputation, honesty, and honor are complicated throughout the play. Sergius will prove to be far more three-dimensional than his picture in Raina’s room would suggest. Raina’s virtue will also be tested. The transformation of different characters’ moral states and reputations is one of the great dramas of the work.
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Arms and the Man is a comedy by George Bernard Shaw, whose title comes from the opening words of Virgil's Aeneid, in Latin: Arma virumque cano.