Monday, October 24, 2011

Shaw's Balkans: Constellation's Arms and the Man

Arms and the Man might not be George Bernard Shaw's greatest play (that's Major Barbara), but it is his most entertaining and consistently playable from a theatrical point of view -- something proven once again by a new production by Washington DC's Constellation Theatre Company.

Constellation's version, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, is acted with bravado by a cast that loves Shaw's language, savors his ridiculous plot, and reveals the core of human feeling at its heart. Mark Krawcyzk's explosively comic take on the pompous accidental hero Sergius is spot on, as is M.J. Casey's wry and self-possessed take on the mercenary Bluntschli. And the topsy-turvy competition between mistress and servant at the heart of Arms and the Man is wonderfully enacyed by Amy Quiggins (Raina) and Brynn Tucker (Louka).

Indeed, the excellence of the production got me wondering all over again about the play's roots in the nasty, brutish and short war in 1885-86 between Bulgaria and Serbia that inspired the play's meditation on the follies of war and romantic love -- and just how Shaw employs the Balkans in the play.

The war was indeed a short one. Spurred on by its own feelings of political pique and lost influence in the region due to the unification of a former Ottoman province in (present day) Western Bulgaria with Bulgaria proper in September 1885, Serbia declared war on November 14 and immediately invaded the disputed province. (The Austrian-Hungarian Empire also opposed the Bulgarian move and dangled its support for Serbian annexation of some of the land in question as an inducement for the declaration of war.)

Only two days later, the Serbian army arrived on a battlefield near the Bulgarian town of Slivnitsa. A three-day battle in the vicinity ensued, with Serbians making initial advances and then being repulsed. On the third day (November 19), the Serbs retreated and were pursued all the way back into Serbia. Another battle was fought near the town of Pirot on November 27 and the Serbs again lost, retreating deeper into South Serbia. A ceasefire quickly followed and a treaty was signed in February ending the war and leaving the border unchanged.

The brevity and seeming frivolity of the war no doubt attracted Shaw to its potential as a platform for a comedy -- though Bluntschli's view of war as a terrible business best survived with a full belly and no glory wins our definitively in the end. But how does Shaw employ the Balkans in the play.

Even in 1894, a full 20 years before another violent act of nationalism in the Balkans set off a much more horrible world conflict, the region is depicted as a wild landscape in which nature dominates and broods ("a peak of the Balkans," he writes to set the scene, "wonderfully white and beautiful in the starlit snow, seems quite close at hand, though it is really miles away.") The otherness of Shaw's Bulgaria also extends to the culture -- largely unspoilt by civilization and in a state of emerging enlightenment that sees Bulgaria in the throes of a romanticism in vogue in England a full eight decades before. (One wonders if Rebecca West got her initial impressions of the place from Arms and the Man.)

As an example, take Shaw's introduction to Bulgarian officer Sergius Saranoff:

Major Sergius Saranoff, the original of the portrait in Raina's room, is a tall, romantically handsome man, with the physical hardihood, the high spirit, and the susceptible imagination of an untamed mountaineer chieftain. But his remarkable personal distinction is of a characteristically civilized type. The ridges of his eyebrows, curving with a ram's-horn twist round the marked projections at the outer corners; his jealously observant eye; his nose, thin, keen, and apprehensive in spite of the pugnacious high bridge and large nostril; his assertive chin, would not be out of place in a Parisian salon, shewing that the clever, imaginative barbarian has an acute critical faculty which has been thrown into intense activity by the arrival of western civilisation in the Balkans. The result is precisely what the advent of nineteenth century thought first produced in England: to wit, Byronism. By his brooding on the perpetual failure, not only of others, but of himself, to live up to his ideals; by his consequent cynical scorn for humanity; by his jejune credulity as to the absolute validity of his concepts and the unworthiness of the world in disregarding them; by his wincings and mockeries under the sting of the petty disillusions which every hour spent among men brings to his sensitive observation, he has acquired the half tragic, half ironic air, the mysterious moodiness, the suggestion of a strange and terrible history that has left nothing but undying remorse, by which Childe Harold fascinated the grandmothers of his English contemporaries.

There are other familiar notions of the Balkans here as well: the running joke about the Petkoff family library -- which Shaw notes in his stage directions, "is not much of a library" -- but does have an electric bell to summon the servants. And there is, too, the hint of senseless violence associated with honor that had also gone by the wayside in late Victorian England:

SERGIUS. You have deceived me. You are my rival. I brook no rivals. At six o'clock I shall be in the drilling-ground on the Klissoura road, alone, on horseback, with my sabre. Do you understand ?

BLUNTSCHLI [staring, but sitting quite at his ease] Oh, thank you : that's a cavalry man's proposal. I'm in the artillery ; and I have the choice of weapons. If I go, I shall take a machine gun. And there shall be no mistake about the cartridges this time.

SERGIUS [flushing, but with deadly coldness] Take care, sir. It is not our custom in Bulgaria to allow invitations of that kind to be trifled with.

BLUNTSCHLI [warmly] Pooh ! dont talk to me about Bulgaria. You don't know what fighting is. But have it your own way. Bring your sabre along. I'll meet you.

Shaw's Balkans aren't the Coast of Bohemia. Indeed, the continuing power of the image of the wild and black and backward Balkans that comes down even to this day lends it a certain power. Yet Shaw's Balkans in Arms and the Man come most powerfully alive when portrayed as region under the sway of large powers -- pawns, perhaps knights on a larger chessboard. That, too is an image closely associated with the Balkans -- yet one nearer to the mark from the First World War to the Second World War to the Cold War and into the battle of Kosovo's independence:

CATHERINE. A Swiss ? What was he doing in the Serbian army ?

PETKOFF. A volunteer, of course keen on picking up his profession. [Chuckling] We shouldnt have been able to begin fighting if these foreigners hadnt shewn us how to do it : we knew nothing about it ; and neither did the Serbians. Egad, there'd have been no war without them !

RAINA. Are there many Swiss officers in the Serbian Army ?

PETKOFF. No all Austrians, just as our officers were all Russians. This was the only Swiss I came across. I'll never trust a Swiss again. He cheated us humbugged us into giving him fifty able bodied men for two hundred confounded worn out chargers. They werent even eatable !

SERGIUS. We were two children in the hands of that consummate soldier, Major : simply two innocent little children.

More information about Constellation Theatre Company's production of Arms and the Man here.

(Brynn Tucker as Louka and Mark Krawcyzk as Sergius in Constellation Theatre Company's production of Arms and the Man. Photo by Scott Suchman.)

1 comment:

Rosalind Lacy MacLennan said...

At last, a profoundly intellectual review with historical perspective. This Shavian play carries a strong anti-war message. Serbian-Bulgarian history definitely enriches my understanding of that theme. The other reviews of this wonderfully played farce totally missed this point and fail by comparison. Thank you so much for coming out with such a strong voice.