BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Another play ...

So, here's another of those always-useful Dover Thrift Editions … ideal to pad book orders up to free shipping levels, or to plug holes in one's education. I suspect I ordered this (before getting Amazon Prime and not having to worry about shipping), for both reasons. I'm actually on the fence here regarding if I've seen this play or not, as it seemed awfully familiar when I read it, and may have been one of the things I saw ages ago when in London.

Anyway, George Bernard Shaw's Arms & The Man has been a popular play for a long time. Having been both an English and Religion major in school, I kept bumping into Shaw from both sides, on the latter especially for the arch “Shavian Satan” (oddly, that term might have been idiosyncratic to my university, as almost all searches for “Shavian” just turn up the phonetic alphabet Shaw had had developed, which appeared posthumously, but attributed to him), who, in Man and Superman is quoted (in reference to Milton's writing) as saying: “The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible.” … as a perfect example of how most people have a vaguely formatted, culturally filtered, view of their own religions!

Shaw is a fascinating figure in his own right (I must find a good bio of him to read at some point), being almost larger than life in the extremities (political, religious, cultural, etc.) he embraced over his long life (he died at 94 in 1950). He was born in Ireland, but moved to London at age 20, seeking to establish himself as a writer – which he did, initially as a theater critic, and “pamphleteer” for a Socialist society. During this time he was also writing plays, and these eventually found an audience.

One of the odd, yet attractive, features of this Dover edition is the inclusion of the rather extensive (it's 8 pages here of fairly small type) Preface to a collection of plays he published in 1898. This is snarky, gossipy, cynical, yet self-disparaging, as in this bit: “I half suspect that those managers who have had most to do with me, if asked to name the main obstacle to the performance of my plays, would unhesitatingly and unanimously reply 'The Author'.”. Frankly, this section is well worth the very small cost of admission (the cover price on the book is all of $2.50), but I'm avoiding the temptation to quote several pieces of it here, as it is, after all, not the point of the book.

I do feel like I need to apologize that I managed to get through this without putting in any of my little bookmarks indicating where I found good things for the review … as this means that I'll be “winging it” here more than I'd like. The play premiered in 1894, and deals with a scenario towards end of the (don't feel bad, I'd never heard of it either) Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885 – so it was a relatively current topic for audiences of the day – which appears (after some Googling) to have been as complicated as anything Balkan tends to be. The location of the action is sufficiently near the front lines so that a Swiss mercenary, fighting for the Serbians, is able to seek refuge from his pursuers in the home of a moderately well-to-do Bulgarian family.

The action in the play certainly owes a good deal to the typical Shakespearean comedy, with people and items being shuffled around, just out of the view of those whose attention would be disastrous, and shifts happening in romantic affiliations as the story unwinds.

OK … now here's my warning as a non-fiction reader (who is particularly tone-deaf as to what might or might not be seen as a “spoiler”) … anything from here on in deals with the specifics of the plot, so if you want to be surprised at either reading the book or seeing a production of the play, you should probably stop here.

One thing to note, this is a very brief read … the whole play is slightly more than 50 pages (I have no idea how long it takes to stage) … and it is divided into three Acts, which are (of course) fairly compact. The main character here is Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss professional soldier who is fighting in the Serbian army. Upon his side losing one of the latter battles of the conflict, he takes flight, and attempts to hide in an upper room of a house. The room, however, is occupied, by Raina, daughter of Major Petkoff and his wife, Catherine. She is quite impressed with her family and its (somewhat questionable) achievements – such as having a library (in the description of the stage set for Act III, Shaw describes it as: “It is not much of a library. Its literary equipment consists of a single fixed shelf stocked with old paper covered novels, broken back, coffee stained, torn and thumbed; and a couple of little hanging shelves with a few gift books on them ...”), or the favorite of her father, an “electric bell” – and really thinks that they are the cultural elite (after all, they do “go to Bucharest every year for the opera season”), at least for their small border town. Bluntschli is threatening enough to convince her to not raise an alarm, even with him hidden behind a drape, first when her mother and the insolent servant girl Louka enter, and then when the Russian/Bulgarian troops arrive. Aside from protecting him, she also lets him have the remnants of a box of chocolates, which earns him the nickname “chocolate-cream soldier”. The ruse is discovered by Catherine, who assists by providing one of the Major's coats for him to escape in … although the first Act ends with him falling asleep in Raina's bed.

It turns out that Raina is engaged to Sergius Saranoff, a Bulgarian officer who led a successful, albeit poorly-thought-out charge that ended up scattering Bluntschli's force – a charge which would have been massacred had the Serbian guns not malfunctioned. It appears that between the first and second Acts, a peace treaty has been signed, allowing Bluntschli to show up at Petkoff's house, unannounced, to return the coat given to him for his escape. It also appears that Sergius has encountered Bluntschli in the time since the cease-fire, and has even heard the broad strokes (although not the details) of his escape. Catherine is horrified to see Bluntschli, as she's claimed the coat had gone missing. The head servant, Nicola, unaware of all this, not only brings out Bluntschli's luggage, but later brings the coat to Major Petkoff. Petkoff, introduced to Bluntschli by Sergius, insists he stay for lunch and (recognizing his expertise in the military) asks his help with a problem of troop movements in decommissioning the forces. Later, when Raina appears, she is shocked to see Bluntschli, and lets slip “the chocolate-cream soldier” … and then has to come up with a whole back story about a decoration she'd made for a dessert, that had gotten ruined by Nicola (who gets a lot of things blamed on him).

The third Act begins in the Library after lunch, where Bluntschli is working up orders for troop movements, and Sergius is reduced to just signing them, while Petkoff keeps trying to be “useful”, he eventually asks about his old coat … which is now hanging back in a closet where he'd looked for it previously, and is brought to him by Nicola. Later, Raina and Bluntschli are having a discussion and she asks what he thought of her giving him her portrait – with a note to the “chocolate-cream soldier”, which she had put in the pocket of the coat – and Bluntschli hadn't discovered. In the meanwhile, Louka has rejected Nicola (to whom she had supposedly been engaged), and has been sought after by Sergius (who is less dedicated to Raina than she declares to be to him), who claims to want to marry her. Much confusion ensues, and eventually the truth of the situation of Raina's room being where Bluntschli had hidden comes out. More confusion ensues and Raina finds that Sergius has been pursuing Louka … and the couples come together (Raina with Bluntschli – who has been revealed as being the heir to a substantial hotel chain – and Sergius with Louka). The play rather oddly ends with Bluntschli heading off to take care of other matters, and promising to come back in two weeks.

I'm sure this is quite charming on the stage, and I hope to see it performed at some point. While hardly a “deep” work, it's well written, and reasonably well developed for its fairly brief length. It is an enjoyable read, and something that pretty much anybody could appreciate. As noted above, the Dover Thrift Edition of Arms & The Man is quite inexpensive, with a $2.50 cover price, however, at this writing Amazon has it at only a buck, which is pretty remarkable.

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Tags: book review

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