ARMS AND THE MAN
“You’re not a man, you’re a machine. –Arms and the Man, Act III
When George Bernard Shaw sets up a love triangle, you know love will bow to the intellectual agenda. What fuels Shavian plots are Shavian ideas, and these absorb the Shavian characters; any Shavian emotions just come along for the ride. That makes it easy to confuse a character with a machine. And after all, the play itself is a machine, a brilliant apparatus to clean the cobwebs from the characters’–and the audience’s–minds. But sometimes productions of Shaw’s thinking comedies mistakenly try to goose the ideas into life by playing up the farce. Lifeline’s revival is a sad case in point.
With the play’s cerebral slant and pacifist intention, it’s strange that Arms and the Man (1894) should have inspired Oscar Straus’s 1908 The Chocolate Soldier, a blithely simple-minded operetta that also exploits the plot’s farce. (Of course Shaw repudiated this spin-off, as he would have My Fair Lady if he’d lived to see it.) What G.B.S. aimed to satirize in Arms is exactly what’s lauded in “My Hero,” The Chocolate Soldier’s famous paean.
Shaw’s target was heroes, and the damage wrought by romantic self-deception, and he reserved his special ire for the rhapsodic lies that sugarcoat war–glittering generalities that, two decades later, would be used to prettify the carnage of World War I. Against his bogus heroes Shaw pits his self-seeking realists: Henry Higgins, Caesar, Mrs. Warren, John Tanner, and here, Bluntschli. They show, as he wrote in his late play The Apple Cart, that “one man that has a mind and knows it can always beat ten men who haven’t and don’t.”
Captain Bluntschli is one side of the romantic triangle, a Swiss mercenary who, though he’s fighting for the Serbians against the Bulgarians, hasn’t a shred of faith in heroism, courage, and all the other ardent abstractions that thrill Raina Petkoff. She’s the daughter of a Bulgarian major and fiancee of the pompous cavalry officer Sergius Saranoff. Raina hankers for a glorious credo and a man to embody it, and she’s always fantasized that Sergius’s battlefield bravery would be foundation enough for a lifetime’s love.
When Bluntschli and Raina meet–Bluntschli, ever the wily survivor, seeks refuge from the Bulgarians in her bedroom–everything changes. In return for rescuing him, this antihero, a soldier who prefers chocolates to bullets, regales Raina with eye-opening tales of how stupidly her beloved Sergius behaved in battle. Shaw wastes no time in letting his opposites attract–he relishes the chance to show Raina’s growing fascination with this coolheaded Swiss pragmatist. Of course Raina is the last to know her own heart. Sergius’s return from the war allows her to test her earlier hawkish proclivities against her new, commonsense appreciation of living for ideals rather than dying for an empty glory.
Sergius, no cardboard soldier, has himself shed some phony dreams before his return. The blustering gallantry that once entranced Raina is gone, replaced by a disillusionment born of his experience of modern combat: indiscriminate machine-gun slaughter. Because he’s lost his credo, Sergius is ripe for conquest by a real campaigner, Louka, a levelheaded servant, who intends to become her own mistress.
At times Shaw does resort to conventional comic complications. There’s a brouhaha, for example, over the whereabouts of an incriminating photograph Raina gave her “chocolate cream soldier.” But Shaw’s real fun comes in making his ill-matched characters expose each other’s double standards–and sort themselves out as they seek their own levels. The sexual strategists, Sergius and Louka, inevitably find each other–and that they’re right for each other. Sergius knows that Louka has brains enough for both, and he can step down from his martial pedestal. In turn, by the end Raina finds in Bluntschli a paradoxically romantic realist, someone who will do for peace as well as war.
Unfortunately, whatever the characters find in each other is hard to find in this Lifeline Theatre production. Emotions are swallowed up by some very ill-shaped farce. Meryl Friedman’s staging, which manages to be both tepid and overwrought, just plays over the surface: it goes for the broad laugh instead of the tricky truth, and often enough it misses both.
In a letter concerning Arms, Shaw smugly described his characters as “actor-proof.” Even Shaw can be wrong. It’s hard to find the real Raina amid the camp affectations and outsize reactions of Sandy Snyder’s artificial ninny; it’s even harder to detect, let alone savor, Raina’s post-Bluntschli changes. Perhaps that’s because Randy Colborn’s pedestrian Captain barely suggests the resilient charm that must win her. Failing to convey the man’s complexity, Colborn shows the same likable lug to everybody.
With equal wrongheadedness, Gregg Mierow gives a dignity to Sergius that just won’t fit the self-inflated warrior; Mierow’s inappropriate intensity makes Sergius’s unquestioning conventional morality seem as intellectual as Bluntschli’s situational ethics. Considering the farcical slant of this staging, it’s all the stranger that Sergius’s pomposity is underplayed. And since Mierow can’t suggest Sergius the sabre rattler, he also can’t show us Sergius’s relief at no longer having to pose. Playing Raina’s fussbudget mother, Cecilie D. Keenan overplays every moment, as if she were really acting in The Chocolate Soldier.
But some Shavian style leaks through. As Louka, Franette Liebow reveals a needy woman behind the peasant calculations. And though he plays the parasite a bit too blatantly, John Sterchi is amusing as Nicola, the Petkoffs’ servant, a natural underling who slobbers at the prospect of owning his own store and becoming a servant to all instead of just a few.
In her dour gray set, Rebecca Hamlin seems to want to depict a backward Bulgarian estate, but the cinder-block walls look more like cheap tract housing. (Against this bleak backdrop, Claudia Boddy’s colorful Victorian costumes erupt, a welcome infusion of good taste.) Last and least, no one used ballpoint pens in 1894.