Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

Contact Us

BBC Radio 7, 1 February 2009
John Tydeman's delightful revival from the early 1980s unfolded at a great lick, proving beyond all doubt that George Bernard Shaw, like his contemporary Oscar Wilde, was a past master of the telling epigraph puncturing the pretensions of the aristocracy. Although set in Bulgaria and involving the Swiss soldier Bluntschli (Andrew Sachs), it is clear that Shaw satirizes the British aristocracy, who value the concept of honour and assume - quite mistakenly - that good breeding is the sign of a good character.
The comic impetus of this revival stemmed from the vocal contrast between Sachs's Bluntschli and the aristocratic family - Raina (Jackie Smith-Wood), Katharine Petkov (Mary Wimbush) and Sergius (Gary Bond). Sachs was down-to-earth, almost urbane in his vocal delivery, expressing a preference for chocolate creams in much the same tone as he described the soldier's profession. Here was someone from a humble background who had learned to treat the world on its own terms and approach every experience in a similar manner. This was his credo for functioning as an effective soldier. By contrast Bond's Sergius indulged in rhetorical flourishes as a way of proving his good breeding: everything had to be spoken in capital letters wherever possible. While challenging Bluntschli to a duel, he emphasized all the syllables in the word "sat-is-fac-tion" in the (mistaken) belief that Bluntschli would be intimidated. As the action progressed, it became clear that Sergius's language was nothing more than empty words with nothing substantial underneath. The same also applied to Wimbush's Petkov; but at least her lack of knowledge was mitigated by a certain generosity of spirit as she offered Bluntschli hospitality in her house at an opportune moment.
Tydeman suggested that the aristocracy were an anachronism in a world dedicated to pragmatism and common sense. For a lifelong socialist like Bernard Shaw, this could only be a positive development, enabling servants like Nicol (Michael N.Harbour) and Louka (Kathryn Hurlbutt) to express themselves freely. Arms and the Man might be considered minor Shaw - the product of his early period when he was still serving his dramatic apprenticeship. However Tydeman showed how the author's social conscience was still at work, even while creating a farcical comedy.