Although Arms and the Man derives its title from a translation of Virgil’s phrase ‘arma virumque’ in the Aeneid, it does not reflect the subject or mood of the classical epic poem about mythic heroes waging war. Rather, the play is a light-hearted mixture of domestic and romantic comedy. Additionally, although the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885 provides a backdrop for the play, and military action is often discussed amongst the characters, it is never enacted.
The play predominantly deals with class conflict and twisted love affairs, detailing the illicit romance between Raina Petkoff and fugitive Swiss officer Captain Bluntschli, and the equally salacious relationship between Raina’s fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff, and housemaid Louka. Despite the secrecy of these flirtations, there exist two very obvious tokens of the couples’ respective affection onstage – Saranoff’s coat that Raina gives to Bluntschli, and the bruise that Saranoff leaves on Louka’s arm. As such, George Bernard Shaw renders his somewhat commonplace plot line more interesting with a satirical self-awareness, imbuing the text with obvious theatricality, whimsy, and even burlesque. Rather than imparting a sense of realism, Shaw’s comedy is illusory, fictional, and overtly performative.
Arms and the Man debuted on the London stage in 1894.