When the curtain fell on opening night, the original cast of Arms and the Man received a unanimous standing ovation, all save one critic booing in the back row. The playwright, George Bernard Shaw, stepped onstage and solemnly addressed the man in the back. “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” Shaw was, in fact, the least enthusiastic person in the theater that night in 1894, but history has not supported his opinion of Arms and the Man, a play with such an honest and subtle nature that it stands as Shaw’s least didactic piece—a true gem in his canon.
Juilliards’s Drama Division has not tackled a play by George Bernard Shaw in more than a decade, and working on Shavian text is sometimes surrounded by the same air of terror as working on a complex algorithm. The long arguments can seem impenetrable and Shaw himself recognized that Arms and the Man “really would not stand … unless the company was very fascinating.” Well, a fourth-year company more fascinating than he could have hoped for has been assembled and this month, the Drama Division will launch its mainstage season with Shaw’s masterpiece, Arms and the Man, directed by Vivienne Benesch.
Set in Bulgaria during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, Arms and the Man begins when news of a victory for the Bulgarian army reaches the Petkoff household. The victory was achieved through an attack led by Major Sergius Saranoff, betrothed to the young woman Raina Petkoff, and it seems that their marriage will take place as soon as the victor returns home. However, that very night, an enemy solider, fleeing the battle, climbs Raina’s balcony and hides in her bed chamber. This highly romantic and stylized set-up is where Shaw begins, but from here he turns the format of romantic farce on its head. No character behaves as they should: the male servant is content with being a servant, the dashing hero is a lecher and won his victory through sheer dumb luck, and the only character in the play revealed to be a true romantic finds his romanticism in his straightforward, realistic view of the world.
Shaw’s original manuscript for the play shows that he began with the most basic of stories, with the characters listed only as The Daughter, The Stranger, The Heroic Lover, etc. The play wasn’t even complete when a flop at the Avenue Theatre in London demanded that Arms open immediately and, with only 10 days to rehearse, Shaw hastily completed the play. However, the opening night audience could not have been more enthusiastic. Shaw, on the other hand, wrote, “I had the curious experience of witnessing an apparently insane success, with the actors and actresses almost losing their heads with the intoxication of laugh after laugh, and of going before the curtain to tremendous applause, [and I was] the only person in the theatre who knew that the whole affair was a ghastly failure.” His opinion did not change with time—when a 1904 revival was planned, he wrote that he “was startled to find what flimsy, fantastic, unsafe stuff it is.”
The fact that Arms and the Man could ever be described as flimsy, even by Shaw himself, seems utterly absurd. The dense, complex arguments that fill the work can be greatly intimidating for most actors. However, Benesch intends to tackle Shavian language head on. “What’s amazing about Shaw is that he writes with probably a greater understanding of rhythms and speech patterns than nearly every other playwright,” she said in an interview. “Use the punctuation to find the character’s internal rhythm and you’ve found the character.”
However, the text alone is only the skeleton, and a Shavian play must be filled out in order to allow a compelling story to be told. In fact, the play’s full title, Arms and the Man: An Anti-Romantic Comedy, gives us a clue about the story the author intended to present to the audience. Benesch feels that both title and subtitle are equally important. “What’s interesting about the play is that he’s putting them akin to each other. Love is as serious as war and war is as ridiculous as love,” she said. A further challenge will be balancing the play’s humor, and Benesch intends to find it through truth. “These characters are genuinely searching for identity. Their questions have to be genuine. Genuine to the 110th degree, and that’s what makes it funny for us.”
The Drama Division could not have chosen a more challenging or a more joyous piece with which to open its season. And with the incomparable Benesch at the helm, this production promises to be as laugh-out-loud funny as it is heartbreakingly honest. I’d say in advance that it would most likely satisfy even the play’s toughest critic: the author himself.