G.B.Shaw is an icon-breaker. He puts his ideas straight in his dramas. Arms and the Man belongs to his ‘plays pleasant’ group. Regarding its title shaw himself says that he has taken it from Dryden’s translation of the opening line of Roman poet Virgil’s celebrated epic Aeneid. The opening lines of this work as Dryden translated is— “Arms and the man I sing”. It is the translation form of the root Latin phrase ‘Arma Virumque’.
In Virgil, we find the celebration of the heroic deeds of the Greek hero Aeneid who after the destruction of Troy left the city with his old father, wife and children and after numerous odds and difficulties established the Kingdom in Italy. Virgil in his epic celebrated the glory of war and sang its valour. It at once puts into our mind the stair and thrill of war, the heroic exploits of the great warriors. War is here glorified to a large extent and man is shown as a creature who is in search of heroic deeds and tries his best to represent himself as a hero. He faces the odds of life with ease and finally, he emerges towering head and shoulders above his enemies. There is a rising movement in which the hero gains his position by his successive dead of valour. He performs his duties with care and in this process, he achieves the stature of a hero. Thus in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ man, as well as the arms, are highly extolled.
In Arms and the Man, Virgil’s phrase receives an ironic treatment at the hands of Shaw. In this play, Shaw bitterly attacks the romantic attitude of war. He does not glorify the profession of the soldiers rathers says it as the ‘coward’s art’. The play though opens with a note of valour and romanticism the heroic cavalry charge of Sergius, the affectionate love of Raina for Sergius, the dramatist highlights those only for the sake of ironical treatment. Then we have the reference of the fugitives who are chased by the Bulgarian soldiers. On this context, Bluntschli enters into Raina’s bed-chamber, frightens her with his empty pistol, a search goes on in Raina’s room by the Russian soldiers. Therefore, the atmosphere resounds with war cries and the clang of arms.
The action of the drama deals with men in arms but as it runs the hollowness and sham of war is exposed and the romantic idealization gets a shattering blow. In course of the drama, Sergius appears like an idiot, a fool and ‘only an amateur’. Bluntschli exposes that ‘nine soldiers out of ten are born fools,’ and he always carries chocolate instead of cartridges’ in the battlefield. To him, a soldier should try his best to live as long as the could instead of having killed on a battlefield. The action of Slivnitza by Sergius is described thus-” he did it like an operatic tenor. A regular handsome fellow ….. shouting his war cry and charging like Don Quixote’. At the end when Sergius realizes that soldiering means nothing the high romantic ideal, a bitter hollowness.
In Arms and the Man Shaw shows that the glory of war and the heroism of soldiers are nothing but a vacant illusion. War is the worst method in which the soldiers are doomed. Sergius emerges at the last as a mere fool, a man of clay and finally entrapped by a maid Louka. The supremacy of the essential humanity of man is arrested instead of the arms. A soldier’s main concern is not the glory of war but the preservation of his life. In a battlefield, he feels the urgency of food rather than arms. It is, for this reason, Bluntschli runs away from the battlefield and instead of cartridges, he carries chocolates to the front. Man is not a superman but a mere creature of flesh and blood.
The title of the drama thus is indicative one. It expresses the dramatist’s satiric intention of exposing the hollowness of war and the heroism of soldiers. The false romantic motion is shattered. Man is superior to arms is proved.
Also read: Character of Bluntschli in Arms and the Man