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Arms and the Man – Footnotes

Jan 12, 2023 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on George Bernard Shaw’s romantic comedy Arms and the Man include further observations on Shaw’s satire of social pretensions, as well as references to a few of the great names who have taken on the role of Major Sergius Saranoff.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Social climbing
Shaw’s socialist values are very much on display in Arms and the Man, though they are lightly expressed through his gentle lampooning of the class assumptions and pretensions of his characters. It is the Petkoffs who are the most obvious source of his social satire, with their nouveau riche snobbery. Their inflated pride in their washing their hands every day, and in their modest library, is ridiculous but also naively touching. According to Shaw’s stage directions the library consists of “a single fixed shelf stocked with old paper covered novels, broken backed, coffee stained, torn and thumbed; and a couple of little hanging shelves with a few gift books on them: the rest of the wall space being occupied by trophies of war and the chase”. It somewhat belies Catherine’s claims to cultural standing on the basis of their visits to the opera in Bucharest or the shops in Vienna.

The Petkoffs look down on anyone employed in what they would call ‘trade’. Major Petkoff disparagingly describes the Swiss officer they negotiate a prisoner exchange with as “like a commercial traveller in uniform. Bourgeois to his boots.”  When it transpires that this same officer, Bluntschli, becomes a suitor for their daughter’s hand in marriage, Catherine Petkoff assumes that he is not worthy of the match, as “the Petkoffs are known as one of the richest and most important families in the country”, despite the fact their superior position only dates back twenty years. Of course, as the extent of Bluntschli’s inherited wealth becomes clear, Catherine is all too quick to welcome him into the family, presuming also to speak for her husband, even before Raina has accepted Bluntschli’s proposal: “since you are my daughter’s choice…I shall not stand in the way of her happiness. That is Major Petkoff’s feeling also.”

Shaw’s view that people’s value should not be defined primarily by wealth is underlined by his fleshing out Bluntchli’s other qualities: he has “four medals for distinguished services”, the “rank of an officer and the standing of a gentleman”, as well as “three native languages”. And most importantly he possesses the highest rank known in Switzerland – that of a free citizen. A symbol of a society where everyone has an equal status.

Shaw’s point that a notional idea of social standing should not define or constrain people is further expressed in Louka’s success in realising her ambition to escape her position as a servant. Although she does that in one of the few ways possible for her at the time, by marrying upwards. By contrast the house servant Nicola navigates his way through the social hierarchy by leveraging his discretion and his loyalty to earn enough to achieve his modest aim of setting up a shop in town.

Jonathan Tafler as Major Petkoff and Miranda Foster as Catherine Petkoff 
at the Orange Tree Theatre
London 2022.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz


Laurence Olivier as Sergius

Marlon Brando as Sergius

Great roles
I mentioned in the introduction in the podcast that the play’s rich comic characters had attracted a number of great actors over the years. In some cases the role seemed an unlikely fit. For example in 1944 Laurence Olivier took on the part of the swaggering buffoon that is Major Sergius Saranoff. According to critic Robert Tanitch:
“Olivier thought Sergius a humbug, a buffoon, a blackguard, a coward, ‘a bloody awful part’ until Tyrone Guthrie said he would never succeed in the role until he learned to love Sergius. Olivier, spurred and moustachioed, was high camp”. The advice was wise, as it understands Shaw’s satire is never cruel.

Another fascinating footnote on this production is that the show travelled to Paris in June 1945 where it was performed free for Allied troops. It is intriguing to imagine how Shaw’s satire of war and soldiering would have been received by the war-time audience, and particularly by the active soldiers themselves.

The role of Sergius was performed by an even more unlikely star in 1953, when Marlon Brando played the part in his last-ever stage appearance. The show was part of a Summer Stock season at the Country Playhouse in Boston, Massachusetts, and ran for only one week. According to one Google source, Brando “hated” the experience. It is certainly difficult to imagine the same actor who had defined the visceral power of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire only two years earlier, and who would go on to underline his macho presence in On the Waterfront the following year, successfully embracing Shaw’s camp, cardboard hero.

Many have been seduced into playing Sergius because the role invites an actor to exercise every excess to convey the pretensions and confusions of the character. In the current production at the Orange Tree, Alex Bhat does not hold back in embracing the opportunity, striking the most ludicrous physical poses along with grandiose flourishes of speech. One of my favourite memories of the production that I saw at the Shaw Festival in Canada many years ago was the focus with which Paxton Whitehead as Sergius applied himself to signing the troop orders that Bluntschli has put before him, his tongue stuck out to signal his unaccustomed concentration.

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