A Minstrel Show of Eastern Europe

Congratulations to the Department of Theater, Film and Media Studies and the students involved in the recently concluded production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. The night I attended, the audience laughed with gusto at this anti-war comedy set in Bulgaria.  The actors performed wonderfully.

As someone who has devoted his life to the study of Eastern Europe, however, I would like to point out some of the shortcomings of Shaw’s play and hopefully raise awareness about its stereotypical treatment of the region.  In the process of undermining Romantic ideas of heroism, Shaw presents an all-too-familiar portrait of East Europeans (in this case Bulgarians) as bombastic, dirty, uneducated, and unconsciously funny Western wannabes.  One character decries his wife’s English habit of washing everyday; he declares that washing leads to sickness and therefore cleans himself only once a week.  His library, “the best in Bulgaria,” contains only a few books and sundries.  The hapless buffoon Major Saranoff shouts all of his lines.  The name of Sergius, upon Shaw’s specifications, is mispronounced.  (It should be with a hard g.)

Bulgaria is (and was when Shaw wrote the play) a real country with real people and a real language.  Since few in the west have bothered to learn about the reality of Bulgaria, it is understandable that Bulgarians in the past have reacted negatively to this play’s portrait of their country.  Imagine how we would feel if Shaw had written such an anti-heroic romance set in the Reconstruction-era south with white performers in blackface depicting bombastic and uncouth African-Americans claiming a veneer of civilization that their word and actions belie.

-Submitted By Tom Barrett Chair and Professor, Department of History

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