If we don't count the National Theatre version of Man and Superman that I watched in the cinema this would be the first Shavian play that I have seen performed (though I would add the word live considering the National Theatre version was videoed and then distributed around the world, which I have to say is really cool because it means that I get to see some awesome productions that I would not normally get to see – though I did end up missing out on the Benedict Cumberbach version of Hamlet simply because it was sold out when I decided to book some tickets). It is a bit of a shame that Shaw isn't performed all that much any more, especially since he was the second most popular playwrights of the early Twentieth Century (with only Shakespeare, not surprisingly, eclipsing him). Mind you, I don't go out of my way to see any modern productions, probably more because I'm a bit of a theatre snob.
Arms and the Man was Shaw's first commercial success, namely because his first play was a flop (he was being way too political, and theatre goers tend to prefer a lot more subtly – namely by having it go over their head) and the next two were censored because, well, this was Victorian England and things were censored at a drop of a hat. So it seems that after three failures, Shaw learnt his lesson, and while the play does espouse his socialist views, they did to sit in the background as opposed to being front and centre.
Basically Shaw turns the idea of the noble soldier on it's head. In fact the story was quiet forward looking considering it was written in the 1890s and the horrors of World War I (where people signed up in droves to become heroes) where yet to fully manifest themselves. However we still see glimpses of this dichotomy, with the main character being a soldier who believes that staying alive is much more advantageous than it is to kill as many people as possible. In fact he believes that the most important thing that a soldier should carry is food as opposed to a loaded gun, and he has no qualms in running away if it means that he gets to fight again.
Bluntschli is in fact the antithesis of what one would consider to be a great soldier, but unlike other soldiers, who had been cut down on the field, he is still alive. Sure, he takes the name 'the Chocolate Cream Soldier', which is actually a derision within the military (it means that they are soft and no good for the battlefield) but the heroine, Rania, still loves him. To her the Chocolate Cream Soldier is much more romantic than Sergius, her philandering fiance, who happened to lead a successful cavalry charge against a machine-gun bunker. Well, it was successful only because the machine-gunners were given the wrong ammunition, but then again they didn't need to know that, and nobody else really cares anyway – they won and that is all that counts.
It is interesting to see this dichotomy within the military. Everybody wants to lead the cavalry charge because that is the glorious and honourable position, however nobody actually wants to be first because that means that they are alone amongst the enemy without any backup. In fact it appears that the most effective part of the cavalry charge is the charge itself, which is not surprising considering we are talking about a bunch of horses all pounding towards the enemy. However, as Shaw points out, it's like flinging peas at a window – as the peas fly towards the window they have momentum, however when they strike that window they all splatter. The other thing he points out is that once the horses reach the enemy they have to stop, but the horse wants to continue running through – most of the injuries, Shaw suggests, comes from riders pulling their horses back so that they might engage the enemy.
Anyway, I think I'll leave it there because, as I have mentioned, I saw this play performed earlier this year and have already written about it extensively on my blog.