The Guthrie Theater has chosen a fortuitous time to stage George Bernard Shaw’s needling satire of marriage and war, Arms and the Man . As war slogs on in Afghanistan and Libya, and protesters take to the streets in Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, and elsewhere, Shaw’s comedy—set during and after a brief, two-week skirmish between Serbia and Bulgaria in the late 1800s—doesn’t seem so remote, and the play’s central theme—the folly of romanticizing both marriage and war—is as relevant as ever.
To fully appreciate how Shaw’s play applies to the modern world, consider the ritual preamble to battle that accompanies any armed conflict these days. Governments sell wars to their people through grand moral pronouncements: the country’s honor must be avenged; evil must be vanquished; the principles of freedom and democracy must be upheld! These battle cries are dutifully romanticized in the media in various ways: through dazzling graphics accompanied by heart-thumping theme music; through breathless reporters recounting every detail of battle; through video footage of the same burning vehicle repeated over and over ad nauseum; and most especially by constantly, and without irony, reiterating the conflict’s given government name (Operation Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, etc.). Our current debacle in Libya is called “Odyssey Dawn” for crying out loud—a name that rightly reminds Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott of “a 1970s porn star," and prompted Conan O’Brien to call it "the first military action ever named after Crabtree & Evelyn."
It’s all so ridiculous. If Shaw were alive today, he would see all too clearly that America’s hypocrisy is cloaked in disingenuous cries to uphold the values Americans supposedly hold so dear. By all means, let’s fight for democracy, freedom, and unfettered capitalism—but first hand me the remote and let’s order a pizza.
Arms and the Man is all about the danger of this sort of pretense. A one-sentence Spark note of the play would be: Inside every soldier is a coward; inside every aristocrat is an idiot; and inside every servant is someone smarter than the people they serve. In Shaw’s world, as it remains today, the higher up the economic ladder one climbs, the more life depends on pretense and role-playing. But the lies aren’t just a convenient way to maintain the social order; they’re illusions that have the potential to kill, or at least subject you to the slow death of an unhappy marriage.
The Guthrie’s version, directed by Ethan McSweeny, leans far too heavily on cartoonishness and buffoonery to milk its laughs, but the core ideas still burble to the surface. In Act I of the play, a Swiss mercenary soldier fighting for the Serbs escapes from the fighting in the streets by climbing up a balcony and into the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (played by Mariko Nakasone), the daughter of Bulgarian aristocrats Paul and Catherine Petkoff. Raina has just heard from her mother that the man she is betrothed to, Sergius Saranoff (played by Michael Schantz), has successfully led a cavalry charge against the Serbian army, and she is giddy with love for her “hero.” However, during an hour-long conversation with the fleeing soldier, Captain Bluntschli (played brilliantly by Jim Lichtscheidl), she is introduced to both the reality of war and the apparent idiocy of her supposedly brave fiancé. All of this sets up a classic drawing-room comedy in which the “truth” is revealed, star-crossed lovers end up in each other’s arms, and everything ends on a happy note.
Unfortunately, there is a mechanical, by-the-numbers feel to the Guthrie’s production that stunts both its comedy and satirical bite. Under McSweeny’s direction, every character except Lichtscheidl’s Bluntschli is a two-dimensional caricature, and it often seems as if Mariko Nakasone (Raina) and Michael Schantz (Sergius) are competing to out-overact each other. From a comedic standpoint, the first two acts aren’t exactly a laugh riot; they’re more like a laugh scuffle, with ripples here and there to keep things light. The production bubbles along on a froth of good intentions, and is enjoyable in its way, but the first two acts are basically what you have to sit through for the payoff in the third act, when both the play and the Guthrie company executing it hit a comfortable stride. That said, the third act is a gem—and, as Shaw intended, everything is wrapped up with a tidy dramatic bow.
Never mind that Shaw’s love of theater and its conventions is itself a form of romanticism, and the idea that “everything works out in the end” is just as much of a romantic illusion as anything else. It’s a G.B. Shaw play; enjoy it, and let his deeper ideas seep in over time, as you watch our wars play out overseas and finish off that last slice of pepperoni.
Arms and the Man continues at the Guthrie through May 8, 2011, guthrietheatre.org