- The Bulgarians of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man
In a self-drafted interview published in the Pall Mall Budget to advertise the upcoming production of Arms and the Man at Florence Farr’s Avenue Theater, Shaw explained that “[ Arms and the Man ] was nearly finished before I had settled on its locality. I wanted a war as a background. Now I am absolutely ignorant of history and geography; so I went about among my friends and asked if they knew of any wars. . . . At last Sidney Webb told me of the Servo-Bulgarian war, which was the thing. . . . So I looked up Bulgaria and Servia in an atlas, made all of the characters end in ‘off’, and the play was complete.” 1 Shaw’s words invite a reading of Arms and the Man ’s Bulgarian setting as nothing more than an ‘off’ to the ends of the characters’ names. Most critics seem to agree with Shaw, for the play’s setting is rarely the focus of their attention. 2 Whether the play succeeds or fails as an attack on romanticism is the question they typically favor. As a result, three major readings have dominated the scholarship about the play: that its characters “vindicate romanticism,” 3 that the play “expresses the interlocking relationship and mutual dependence of romanticism and realism,” 4 and that it sets up romantic ideals as “clay pigeons for the express purpose of shooting them down.” 5
To strip Arms and the Man of its geography at Shaw’s word, however, is to work within the confines of “an economy [that] obviously implies a theme of authority: the author, it is believed, has certain rights over the reader, he constrains him to a certain meaning of the work, and this meaning is of course the right one, the real meaning.” 6 Such an approach to the play, moreover, cuts it down in size by deleting the significance and implications of its setting. As this article attempts to show, a more vigorous analysis of the pervasive Bulgarian presence in Arms and the Man, especially in the context of contemporaneous Bulgarian history and literature, not only illuminates [End Page 71] the play’s cultural, social, and historical underpinnings but also enhances current critical perceptions of its thematic and dramatic elements. My insistence on reading Arms and the Man at its word, reading Bulgaria where Bulgaria is written, certainly situates me as a proponent of the literal. It is not my intention to rob the play of its figurative components, or to make an argument about which reading, the literal or the figurative, is more valid. My aim, rather, is to demonstrate how the supposedly innocent Bulgarian setting of Arms and the Man exposes the play’s participation in particular discursive trends and norms of its time, namely, fin-de-siècle Balkanism: the construction of Balkan identity as the “other within Europe”—not the “savage” Indian or African “other,” but an improperly civilized “other.” 7
From the very beginning of the play, where he introduces Raina’s bedroom, Shaw establishes Bulgaria as a locale whose European status is questionable. He writes:
The interior of the room is not like anything to be seen in the west of Europe. It is half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese. Above the head of the bed, which stands against a little wall cutting off the left hand corner of the room, is a painted wooden shrine, blue and gold, with an ivory image of Christ, and a light hanging before it in a pierced metal ball suspended by three chains. The principal seat, placed towards the other side of the room and opposite the window, is a Turkish ottoman. The counterpane and hangings of the bed, the window curtains, the little carpet, and all the ornamental textile fabrics in the room are oriental and gorgeous; the paper on the walls is occidental and paltry. 8
The first sentence of this quotation leaves hardly any room for speculation: Raina’s bedchamber is unmistakably different from Western European bedchambers. The eclectic nature of the pieces of furniture—“occidental” and “oriental,” “cheap and rich,” “gorgeous” and “paltry”—gives the room an aura...