GEORGE BERNARD SHAW 1905
George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara has been called the most controversial of Shaw’s works. The play was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1905, and early reviews were decidedly mixed. Shaw’s seeming criticism of Christianity caused some to accuse him of blasphemy, while others defended what they saw as Shaw’s realistic presentation of religion. Critics complained about the violence of the play, particularly in the second act, saying it was so excessive as to be beyond realism. Others disagreed, saying that the depiction of that violence, if unrealistic, was so only because the violence was subdued. Whatever the opinion of the critics, however, the play was a success with the public. It remains popular and has enjoyed numerous revivals, including an adaptation to film in 1941. Today it is considered a very important work, not only among Shaw’s plays but also in the history of modern drama.
Many of Shaw’s plays are known for their involved arguments and Major Barbara is no exception. Shaw himself called the play “a discussion in three long acts,” and much of the play’s “action” consists, in fact, of words. When the play was published in 1907, Shaw added, as with many of his works, a lengthy preface, contributing further discussion about the play itself. In addition, the play is noted for its unconventional attitudes toward morality as well as its irony and humor. Given the serious nature of the issues examined in the play—wealth and poverty, business and religion, cynicism Page 245 | Top of Articleand idealism—it is sometimes easy to overlook the fact that Major Barbara is, in fact, a comedy. Shaw uses the play to entertain his audience, to make people laugh, while examining issues that are as important today as they were when the play was first written.
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856. His father was an alcoholic and unsuccessful businessman, and his mother a genteel woman interested in music and art. The family was poor and, when Shaw was six, moved in with another family to save expenses; his early experience of poverty is speculated to have affected the decidedly unromantic view of the poor shown in many of his plays, including Major Barbara. Shaw’s formal education was brief, and he began work in a land agent’s office before he was sixteen.
In 1876 Shaw moved to London, joining his mother and sisters, who had arrived from Dublin the previous year. Working as a writer focusing on music criticism, short fiction, and drama, Shaw initially was unable to earn his own living and relied on his mother’s earnings as well as an inheritance in order to make ends meet. His attempts at writing fiction were unsuccessful. It was not until the 1880s that Shaw achieved some success and was able to support himself. By this time he had made some significant changes in his life, including becoming a vegetarian and devoting his political energies to the cause of socialism. Shaw joined the Fabian Society, a group of socialists whose credo held that changes in government could not be successfully accomplished quickly by revolutionary means. Rather, the Fabians held that lasting change could only be wrought by sensible, gradual change.
As a member of the new Fabian Society (which was formed in England in 1884), Shaw was often called upon to speak, and he became a skilled orator as well as a noteworthy essayist. He also wrote book reviews and art criticism and became a well-regarded music and theater critic. During this period, Shaw became an admirer of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House), whose dramas, known for their realism and focus on important social issues, were to become a major influence on Shaw’s own writing. In 1895, Shaw became a theater critic for the Saturday Review and used his column to criticize the artificiality and hypocrisy of the English stage.
Shaw had been writing drama since the 1880s when his first play, Widowers’ Houses was produced in 1892, followed by the writing of The Philanderer (1893) and Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), neither of which was produced for over a decade. Shaw’s literary output was enormous, and he gradually gained fame as a dramatist. In the next few decades he completed numerous works, including Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1894), Major Barbara (1905), and Pygmalion (1914), his best-known work which became the inspiration for the 1956 musical My Fair Lady. When World War I broke out in 1914, Shaw temporarily ceased writing drama and turned instead to expounding on his pacifist views, which were extremely unpopular until public opinion shifted later in the war. After the war ended, he continued to write; his post-war plays include Heartbreak House (1916-1917) and St. Joan (1923).
In 1898, Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an heiress, also interested in socialism, who had admired Shaw’s writing. The marriage ended with Charlotte’s death in 1943. Shaw won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925, and he continued to write plays until his death at ninety-four on November 2, 1950. Known for his wit, social commentary, and brilliant dialogue, Shaw has often been called the greatest English dramatist since William Shakespeare.
Major Barbara opens with Lady Britomart in the library of her house in London, England, as her son Stephen, whom she has summoned, enters. She has asked to see him, she reveals, because of her concern about his future financial well-being, as well as that of his sisters, Sarah and Barbara. The audience learns that her daughter Sarah is engaged to Charles Lomax, who will not be able to support her until he receives his inheritance. It is also revealed that her other daughter, Barbara, who has joined the Salvation Army, is engaged to Adolphus Cusins, a Greek scholar who also has an insufficient income and who, Lady Britomart believes, only pretends to be a Salvationist because he is in love with Barbara. Stephen as well should soon seek a wife and will need to provide for his own family.
For this additional monetary support, Lady Britomart tells Stephen that she must turn to the children’s father, Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy munitions manufacturer from whom she has been separated for many years.
Lady Britomart also reveals that Stephen will not inherit his father’s business because each heir to the Undershaft enterprise must be a foundling and must, when he dies, leave the business to another foundling. Stephen, horrified by his father’s profession, does not wish to take his father’s money and is upset when he discovers that Undershaft is expected at Lady Britomart’s house almost immediately.
Barbara, Sarah, Cusins, and Lomax, who have also been summoned, enter the library. Barbara is enthusiastic about seeing her father because he has a soul to be saved. Undershaft is shown into the room and introduced to his children. He expresses an interest in the Salvation Army, saying that their motto, “Blood and Fire,” could be his as well. While the others are clearly uncomfortable with Undershaft’s profiting from war, he reveals that he is not at all ashamed.
When Barbara invites him to her Salvation Army shelter, he agrees to come the next day provided she will come the day after to his munitions factories. Barbara, hoping to convert her father, agrees to this arrangement, while he says that he may in fact convert her. When Lady Britomart decides to ring for prayers, Undershaft says that he will only stay for a service conducted by Barbara, and Barbara agrees to conduct one. All leave for the service in the drawing room, except for Stephen who, still disgusted by his father, remains in the library.
This act opens the following day at Barbara’s Salvation Army shelter where Snobby Price, an unemployed workman, and Rummy Mitchens, a poverty-stricken woman, are seated at a table, eating the Army’s standard meal of bread and milk. Both admit to confessing sins they never committed in order to please the Salvationists, on whom they depend for assistance. Jenny Hill, a young Salvationist, enters with Peter Shirley, also unemployed. Bill Walker, a rough young man, enters and accuses Hill of taking his girlfriend, whom Barbara later reveals has been “saved,” into the Army. In his anger, Walker pushes Hill, strikes Mitchens, then strikes Hill as well. Barbara enters and, by her frank manner, lack of anger, and persistent talk of God’s love, arouses feelings of shame, compounded also by Hill’s forgiveness, in Walker.
Undershaft enters and observes as Barbara continues to work on Walker, who becomes more and more uncomfortable, finally leaving to seek his girlfriend at another shelter. Barbara exits, leaving Cusins to converse with Undershaft, who reveals that he considers money and gunpowder necessary to salvation, for without them, one cannot afford such niceties as honor, truth, and love. Cusins reveals that he has indeed become a Salvationist for love of Barbara, and the two men discover that their love for Barbara is what they have in common. Undershaft says he will convert Barbara to preaching his gospel and, to reach that end, will buy the Army, an organization that he finds useful because it causes workers to be honest and happy, and thus less likely to form unions or become socialists.
When Barbara returns, Undershaft offers her money, but she refuses, believing his money to be tainted because of his profession. At this point, Walker returns and offers Hill a pound because of his ill treatment of her. She refuses, suggesting the money be given to Mitchens, whom he also hurt, but he will only give it to Hill, as Mitchens met his violence with threats of her own. Hill suggests some of the money be given to the Army, but Barbara refuses; what she wants is Walker’s soul, which she hopes to save.
Mrs. Baines, the Army Commissioner, enters, saying she has wonderful news. A Lord Saxmundham will give the Army five thousand pounds if five other men will each meet his donation. Undershaft reveals that this benefactor owns Bodger’s Whiskey, a fact that does not dissuade Mrs. Baines, who asks Undershaft for five thousand as well. When Undershaft agrees, Barbara is incredulous that the Army will take his money or the money from Bodger’s Whiskey; she believes that businesses such as her father’s and the whiskey company are harmful to a humane, Christian society. Cusins suggests that Mrs. Baines, Undershaft, and himself march immediately to the coming meeting, but Barbara refuses to attend. After the others leave, Walker, who has returned, taunts the defeated Barbara for saying the Army will not be bought. When Walker leaves, Barbara states that she will no longer work for the army and offers to take Shirley to tea. The act ends with the two of them leaving together.
This act opens in Lady Britomart’s library, where Lady Britomart and Sarah are seated along with Barbara, who is now out of uniform. Lomax enters, followed by Cusins, who has spent the night drinking with Undershaft. Undershaft arrives to take the family to see his factories and Perivale St. Andrews, the model town he has built in which his workers live. Lady Britomart sends the children out of the room. Alone with her husband, she immediately tells Undershaft what income Barbara and Sarah will need, and he agrees to provide it. She once again appeals to Undershaft to leave his business to Stephen, but he refuses and, when Stephen enters, Stephen says he does not want his father’s business. Barbara, Sarah, Cusins, and Lomax then enter the room and leave for their tour of Undershaft’s empire.
The scene shifts to Undershaft’s factories and town, where Barbara stands as Cusins, Stephen, Sarah, and Lomax enter, each in turn exclaiming over the beauty of Perivale St. Andrews. Undershaft then enters, followed by Lady Britomart who, also praising the town, suggests the business be left, not to Stephen, but to Cusins and thus Barbara. When Undershaft responds that he must leave his factories to a foundling, Cusins reveals that his parents are related and that their marriage, while accepted in Australia, is not legal in Britain. Undershaft replies that Cusins can indeed succeed him. Cusins proceeds to bargain for a high salary, while Barbara comments that he is selling his soul. When she speaks of how her own beliefs have been shattered, Undershaft tells her she must seek a new religion, that he saw only poverty and misery at her shelter, in contrast to the material comfort of his own workers, whom he has saved from the horror of poverty. Asking Cusins to decide about succeeding him, Undershaft leaves with the others to see the gun cotton shed, and Barbara and Cusins are left alone.
Cusins tells Barbara he will accept Undershaft’s offer, to which she replies that, if he had not, she would marry the man who would choose to succeed her father. Barbara has decided that she must have the town, that she must save the souls of those who cannot be bribed with bread or Heaven, that now she has found her work. When the others come out of the shed, Barbara asks her mother to help her choose one of her father’s houses for herself and Cusins.
Mrs. Baines, a Salvation Army Commissioner, accepts the Undershaft money that Barbara has
turned down, then reveals that the Army has also accepted money from Lord Saxmundham of Bodger’s Whiskey. Her willingness to accept money from those who cause so much harm disillusions Barbara and results in Barbara’s leaving the Army.
See Barbara Undershaft
See Charles Lomax
Cusins is engaged to Barbara. Shaw describes him as “capable possibly of murder, but not of cruelty or coarseness.” A professor of Greek, he pretends to be a Salvationist because of his love for Barbara, though he tells Andrew Undershaft that he has a genuine interest in religion. He shares some of Barbara’s idealism and is revolted by Undershaft’s cynical religion of money and gunpowder; in fact, he frequently cails Undershaft the devil or Mephistopheles. Yet he is also persuaded to some extent by Undershaft’s arguments and agrees to succeed Undershaft in his armaments business. Nonetheless, he brings some of his own idealism to that business, initially telling Undershaft that he will sell arms only to whom he wishes, while Undershaft insists he sell to everyone. Finally, citing his own socially acceptable but morally questionable acts, he agrees to accept Undershaft’s offer, but leaves the audience with the impression that he and Barbara will try to do good through a business based on evil.
See Adolphus Cusins
Jenny is a sincere Salvationist who takes Mitchens and Price’s insincere religious posturings at face value. When Walker strikes her, her unending forgiveness and compassion cause him to feel tremendous guilt.
Charles is engaged to Sarah. He is a flighty young man whose lack of intelligence and inappropriate comments make him a source of humor in the play.
Mitchens is seen at the Salvation Army shelter. Worn down by poverty, she appears to be elderly but is probably middle-aged. She appreciates the kindness of the Salvation Army workers but knows that to make them happy, she must confess a multitude of sins. When Walker strikes her, she repays him with anger and threats, in contrast to Jenny Hill, who treats the brute with kindness and forgiveness.
Price is an unemployed workman who admits to confessing sins he never committed in order to please the Salvationists. He shows two faces to the audience: the cynicism he displays with Mitchens and the exaggerated religious demeanor he puts on in front of Barbara and Jenny.
Shirley is a forty-six-year-old worker who is ashamed of accepting help from the Salvation Army. He has recently lost his job because his streak of gray hair makes him look like an old man. He tells Undershaft that he and those like him are poor because they work to make Undershaft and his kind rich.
Undershaft, Barbara’s father, has become a wealthy man through the manufacture of armaments. Money and gunpowder form the basis of his religion, and he says that the Salvation Army’s Page 249 | Top of Articleslogan, “Blood and Fire,” could be his own. Though others are horrified by his profession, he is unapologetic, and his motto is “unashamed.” Life as an arms manufacturer has kept him from what is believes is the greatest sin—poverty. There are numerous references to him as the devil throughout the play, and Barbara’s description of how she has imagined his workplace fits in with stereotypical images of hell. Yet his workplace is not a hell; his workers are well fed and live in clean, comfortable houses. There is, however, a certain cynicism in all this; if his workers are satisfied, they will be better employees, less likely to form unions, more likely to be reliable. Undershaft’s love for Barbara is genuine, and he wishes to convert her to his point of view. The play’s ending appears to leave him triumphant, but Barbara remains a reformer. She has seen the reality of what her father says and does, but she has not adopted his cynicism.
Barbara is the title character of the play. Born into a well-to-do family, she becomes a major in the Salvation Army, dismissing her servant and sharply curtailing her spending. Her primary focus is on doing what she believes to be the work of God. Shaw describes her as jolly and energetic and these attributes show in her work at the Salvation Army shelter, where her religious devotion and quiet persistence gradually begin to break the defenses of even the rough Bill Walker. Barbara is engaged to Adolphus Cusins. The play is set in motion when Barbara, meeting her father for the first time, asks him to come to her shelter, and he agrees, providing she comes to see his foundry and model town. Barbara’s idealism is dashed when her father comes to the shelter and the Army eagerly accepts his money, which Barbara considers tainted. She abandons the Army, not knowing what she will now do with the rest of her life.
When she sees the beauty of Perivale St. Andrews, Barbara becomes convinced that it is better to save those souls which cannot be bribed with bread or heaven. As Cusins accepts the proposition that he succeed Undershaft, Barbara gains a new sense of purpose. She has grown wise, but retains a sense of idealism in her plan to transform her father’s model town.
Lady Britomart Undershaft
Lady Britomart is Barbara’s mother and Andrew Undershaft’s estranged wife. At the beginning of the play she has summoned Undershaft to discuss with him how he will provide for his adult children. She is particularly concerned about their son Stephen. She initially separated from Undershaft because of his intention of leaving his business to a foundling instead of to Stephen. By the end of the play, she is satisfied with Undershaft leaving the business to Barbara through Cusins.
Sarah is Barbara’s sister. She is more superficial than Barbara. Shaw describes her as “slender, bored, and mundane.” She is engaged to Charles Lomax.
Stephen is the twenty-five-year-old son of Andrew Undershaft and Lady Britomart. He is a serious young man, initially horrified by his father’s line of work and, unlike his siblings, rejects Undershaft from the beginning. But seeing his father’s foundry and the city Perivale St. Andrews, he comes to admire and respect his father’s work.
Walker is a rough young man who comes to the shelter looking for a fight and eventually strikes both Mitchens and Hill. Because Mitchens responds with anger, he is not ashamed of striking her, but Hill’s forgiveness provokes strong feelings of guilt within him. When he tries to pay money for his misdeed, Barbara tells him that the Army cannot be bought. But when Mrs. Baines accepts Undershaft’s money, Walker taunts Barbara, saying his money was only turned down because it wasn’t enough.
Parent and Child
In the opening act of Major Barbara, Barbara meets her father, whom she cannot remember ever knowing. Although she has been raised solely by her mother, the two do not seem close, and Lady Britomart is clearly unhappy with—even uncomprehending of—Barbara’s interest in the Salvation Army. Barbara is not close to either her mother or her father, but in the Army she has found a sort of
surrogate parent, a fact that is emphasized when Barbara later says that there are no orphans in the Army.
When Undershaft enters, however, the importance of the relationship between Barbara and her father becomes immediately apparent. Barbara sees him as a soul in need of salvation; he wishes to convert her to his view of life. While showing the importance of Barbara’s relationship with her father, Shaw also establishes some tension between Lady Britomart and Undershaft as parents when, as Undershaft leaves the room with the children at the end of Act I, Lady Britomart expresses dismay over the possibility of the children changing their loyalty from the mother who raised them to the father who initially cannot remember their names or even exactly how many children he has.
As the play progresses, Barbara becomes disillusioned with her surrogate parent, the Salvation Army, because of its acceptance of her father’s tainted money. At first she believes she has lost everything important to her, but after touring the Undershaft factories and town, she begins to see her father’s point of view and to become closer to him. Because Cusins has been chosen as Undershaft’s successor, Barbara has, in essence, become her father’s heir. Her drawing closer to her father is concurrent with a newfound dependence on her mother. As the play closes, Barbara is seen calling out for her mother and clinging to her skirts like a child. Asking her mother to help her choose a home in her father’s city, Barbara has finally become closer to both of her parents, though she also retains her own sense of self.
God and Religion
Through Barbara’s involvement with the Salvation Army, Shaw offers an examination of Christianity in general and the Salvation Army in particular. Barbara’s initial focus is on doing the work of God. Act II gives the audience a chance to look at the practical implications of this work, as seen through the eyes of its targeted beneficiaries. Through the conversation of Rummy Mitchens and Snobby Price, Shaw reveals that, while grateful for the material assistance the Army gives them, Mitchens and Price essentially earn this assistance by lying. Both talk about the Salvation Army meetings in which they are expected to “testify” about their conversions. Price prides himself on convincing the Army of his former evil. “Iknow wot they like,” he Page 251 | Top of Articlesays. “I’ll tell ‘em how I blasphemed and gambled and wopped my old mother.” Mitchens bemoans the unfairness to women; their confessions cannot be loudly proclaimed but “‘az to be whispered to one lady at a time.”
The audience discovers the Army’s manipulation as well in Barbara’s treatment of Bill Walker. In order to try to save his soul, Barbara works incessantly on Walker’s feelings of guilt about striking Mitchens and Jenny Hill. In addition, Barbara believes the Army to be hypocritical when it takes money from Bodger Whiskey and her father’s munitions business, both of whom seem to embody the very evil the Salvation Army wants to eliminate. In the end, it is Undershaft’s religion that feeds, houses, and clothes people.
Yet Shaw is not simply maligning the Army or Christianity. There is sincerity in Jenny Hill “turning the other cheek.” And Barbara’s intentions, though possibly misguided, are pure. In the end, though Barbara has abandoned the Army, she still speaks of saving souls but now without the Army’s bribes of bread and heaven. She sees her new mission as “the raising of hell to heaven and of man to God, through the unveiling of an eternal light in the Valley of the Shadow.” Though Shaw reveals problems in the Army’s techniques, the play does not dismiss the search for God.
Good vs. Evil
Shaw throws the traditional concept of good and evil into question throughout Major Barbara. In the beginning of the play, it seems fairly obvious that Barbara, who lives on little money so she can work feeding and sheltering the poor as well as trying to save their souls, is doing good. At the same time, Undershaft, who has become a rich man selling armaments to combatants regardless of the morality of their causes, and who believes poverty to be the only sin, is evil. Barbara’s Salvation Army seems to be doing only good while Undershaft’s factories, which initially horrify most of the play’s major characters, are inherently evil. Yet in the second act, good and evil become interconnected as it is revealed that the Salvation Army is glad to accept funding from Undershaft’s armaments as well as Bodger’s Whiskey. Barbara, who sees good and evil as entirely separate entities, is horrified to discover that the Army takes this tainted money, so horrified, in fact, that she abandons the Army altogether.
The sense of interconnection between good and evil is continued in the third act, where the audience discovers the results of Undershaft’s evil—clean, well-kept homes for Undershaft’s employees. Through his armaments, Undershaft has saved his workers from the evil of poverty; he has succeeded where the Army has failed. Through the success of her father’s morally questionable business, Barbara is finally able to see the moral complexity of the concepts of good and evil.
Growth and Development
Barbara begins the play as an innocent who believes she has discovered the one right path in the Salvation Army. Moral issues are simple for her. The Army’s mission of materially assisting the poor as well as working to save their souls is the work of God. Undershaft’s munitions and Bodger’s Whiskey are the work of the Devil. As the play progresses, however, Barbara discovers that the Salvation Army, dependent on the funding of Undershaft, Lord Saxmundham, and others like them, is not as morally pure as she believed. Unable to accept the fact that the work of God is being done with the Devil’s money, she abandons her idealism as well Page 252 | Top of Articleas the Army itself. Barbara says, “I stood on the rock I thought eternal; and without a word of warning it reeled and crumbled under me.” Undershaft identifies her confusion as growth, saying to her, “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something.”
Losing her faith in the Army, Barbara finally comes to see that eliminating poverty is in itself a good deed and that, because of the material success of Undershaft’s workers, she can no longer bribe them with bread or heaven; she is free to work, unencumbered, on saving their souls. Despite this sense of Barbara reaching a sort of maturity at the end of the play, Shaw presents Barbara’s growth as a paradox. The audience’s final view of Barbara is of her calling for her mother, seeking her guidance. Thus Shaw complicates the concept of growth and development, leaving the audience with the sense that Barbara has matured and yet is still, in some ways, a child.
Plot and Subplot
Critics have noted at least four possible plots in Major Barbara: the conversion struggle between Barbara and her father, the question of how Lady Britomart will secure incomes for her children, the question of whether Barbara and Cusins will marry, and Barbara’s battle for Bill Walker’s soul. Although each are distinct plots, all are intertwined throughout the course of the play. The “good vs. evil” contest between Barbara and her father is most often seen as the main plot, as the action of the play revolves around its development. The others can be considered subplots. Although they are important, their main function is to support the main plot thread and their resolution is subordinate to that of the primary storyline.
Since Shaw did not specify a time period for the action in Major Barbara, the action can be assumed to take place around 1905, the year of the first production. The action takes place in three locations: Lady Britomart’s library, Barbara’s Salvation Army shelter, and Undershaft’s factory and model town of Perivale St. Andrews. The depiction of these three locations highlights the conflict between Barbara and Undershaft. They meet first on neutral ground, then in her territory, then in his, which also becomes Barbara’s by the end of the play. The stage is used to illustrate the opulence of Lady Britomart’s way of life in Act I, the poverty and degradation of the shelter in Act II, and the clean, modest comfort of Undershaft’s place of business in Act III. Also in Act III, however, the mutilated dummy soldiers serve as mute testimony to the horrors of Undershaft’s business, undermining some of Perivale St. Andrew’s beauty.
An allusion is an indirect reference, usually to another literary work. Being familiar with an author’s allusions leads to a deeper understanding of his or her work. In Major Barbara, references to Undershaft as the Devil and Mephistopheles as well as the selling-and saving-of souls are allusions to the Faust legends, in which Faust sells his soul to the Devil. The best known English-language retelling of this tale is Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1594). Another well-known version is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (Part I, 1808, Part II, 1832). There are also numerous references in Major Barbara to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and to Euripides, whose play The Bacchae (406 B.C.) is about the worship of Dionysus.
A symbol is a person, object, or action that suggests something else. Barbara’s Salvation Army uniform and brooch are symbols of her faith in the Salvation Army. When she loses her faith, she no longer wears either. The mutilated dummy soldiers that appear in Act III are symbols of the violence of both war and capitalism.
The word comedy can refer to a play that is light and entertaining and has a happy ending. It can also be used to mean a play that deals with serious topics in a light or satirical manner. Major Barbara is both. There are many humorous moments throughout the play: Undershaft’s inability to remember the Page 253 | Top of Articlenames of his children; Lomax’s stupidity, illustrated by his numerous inane comments and by his smoking in the explosives shed, nearly blowing up the Undershaft business; Lady Britomart’s control of her controlling husband. Shaw satirizes the Salvation Army by showing the recipients of its largesse gain this Christian organization’s assistance by deceit. He also satirizes the violence of capitalism by juxtaposing the beauty of Perivale St. Andrews with the horror of the work done there. The play also has a happy ending. The heroine Barbara has found her work and, as occurs in numerous comedies, the play ends with a decision to marry.
Dialogue is an important aspect of Major Barbara, which has been criticized for what is sometimes seen as an excessive emphasis on verbal argument. Much of the “action” of the play, in fact, is actually in the dialogue, as characters’ discussions move the drama forward. For instance, Cusins’ decision to succeed Undershaft is preceded by lengthy arguments about moral issues. Shaw himself referred to the plays as “a discussion in three long acts.”
The early 1900s saw an increasing interest in socialism (which advocates government ownership and/or control of the production and distribution of goods and services) worldwide, with Russian workers revolting against the Czar in 1905. In the United States, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle depicted the horrifying working conditions of immigrant laborers in the meat packing plants of Chicago and called for a socialist solution. Sinclair inadvertently attracted more attention to the impurity of the meat products Americans were consuming than the plight of the workers, but the resulting passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was nevertheless a victory of sorts over unbridled capitalism.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, England had changed from a primarily agricultural society to an industrial nation, and many people had moved from the country to the towns. The rise in industry brought an increasing amount of worker unrest and unemployment, which rose between 1900 and 1904. At the time, the government began to take more responsibility for the unemployed. With the passage of the Unemployed Workmen Act of 1905, committees to assist the unemployed were established by the government, yet unemployment remained a major problem, working conditions were far from ideal, and laborers remained dissatisfied. There were a large number of strikes, and membership in trade unions doubled between 1900 and 1914.
In this climate, the socialist Fabian Society, of which Shaw was a member, gained influence. The Fabians believed in changing society through participation in government—as opposed to overthrowing governments through revolutions—and members were elected to a variety of positions. The Fabian Society was only one of many organizations aimed at bringing about social reform. A number of individuals became known for their own efforts as well. Late Victorian and Edwardian England had begun to see poverty as the result of unemployment rather than the immorality of the poor, and so people were open to efforts at reform. This new attitude toward the poor is reflect in Major Barbara, which depicts poverty as an unnatural (even immoral) state for humankind.
Religion was an important force in England at this time, and churches were a major influence on efforts at social reform. In 1890, Salvation Army founder William Booth published In Darkest England and the Way Out, in which he argued that England, with the horrors of its own poverty, could not consider itself superior to Africa. Booth called for major changes in society in order to eliminate poverty. Shaw was greatly impressed by Booth’s work, and its influence, particularly Booth’s perception of poverty, can be seen in Major Barbara.
Although the importance of churches at this time cannot be ignored, there was also a rise in agnosticism, the belief that it is impossible to know whether or not there is a God. The term “agnostic,” in fact, was coined by British naturalist Thomas Huxley in 1869. In 1859, Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species, in which he presented his theories of evolution and natural selection. Darwin’s theories shocked Victorians, as it cast doubt on traditional religious beliefs (most notably the belief that man was divinely created rather than evolved from lower primates as Darwin’s work suggested), and religious people still
felt threatened by Darwin’s theories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
For many, this period was a time of doubt as scientific progress seemed to call the truth of religion into question. In general, the good of increasing developments in science and technology was itself doubted. Early in the nineteenth century, the Luddites, who considered advancing technology to be an evil, had literally smashed the machines of the Industrial Revolution. This mistrust of scientific and technological progress, which continued into the next century, is reflected in Major Barbara when Undershaft delights in the development of more advanced weapons technology, which is “better” because it can kill people more efficiently.
Another area of much disagreement was the subject of women’s rights. The struggle for women’s suffrage (or the right to vote) in England began in the 1870s and continued, without success, until 1926, when women were finally allowed to vote. At Page 255 | Top of Articlethe time Major Barbara was produced, it had only recently been decided that women had the legal right to own property. And in Major Barbara, when Lady Britomart wants the Undershaft business to go to Barbara, this is accomplished by naming Cusins, Barbara’s future husband, as Undershaft’s successor. The place of women in society, however, was changing. The term “new woman,” probably coined in 1894, came into prominence. The new woman was a member of a new, more liberated, generation. She believed in women’s suffrage as well as education for women and the end of the sexual double standard. The character of Barbara, who gains the masculine title of Major and who looks for fulfillment and duty outside of the home but who by the end of the play clearly embraces domestic life and the world of her mother as well, reflects the changing roles of women in Shaw’s time.
In the second volume of his biography, Bernard Shaw, Michael Holroyd writes of early reactions to Major Barbara’s first production, focusing on the fact that, as Holroyd puts it, “The critics were impressively divided.” Holroyd quotes one reviewer who spoke of the play’s “religious passion,” as well as another who called Shaw “destitute of the religious emotion,” and a third who suggested that Major Barbara’s “offences against good taste and good feeling” should have resulted in the play’s censorship. Shaw, Holroyd writes, was accused of “deliberate perversity” and praised for his “sense of spiritual beauty.” He was called “ahigh genius” as well as “a writer whose absence of feeling makes him a very unsafe guide.” While the play no longer faces charges of blasphemy or immorality, it continues to be controversial. Much of that controversy revolves around the seeming ambiguity of Shaw’s purpose. As Harold Bloom writes in his introduction to George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, “the drama moves finally in a direction equally available for interpretation by the extreme Left or the extreme Right.”
Writing in 1905, reviewer William Archer, quoted in Margery Morgan’s compilation File on Shaw, said that “The play is one long discussion between Barbara. . . and Undershaft; and to Undershaft Mr. Shaw resolutely gives the upper hand.” Some critics have continued to follow Archer’s lead, seeing Undershaft as the clear winner in the play’s central conflict, as he supports realism over Barbara’s idealism. Pat M. Carr in Bernard Shaw refers to Undershaft as Barbara’s “mentor,” saying that he contributes to her growth with “his greater realistic knowledge of the ways of the world.” Undershaft, says Carr, is “the devil’s advocate who has all the sensible lines.”
Other critics, however, have focused on the complexity of Shaw’s ending. In Bernard Shaw, Playwright: Aspects of Shavian Drama, Bernard F. Dukore notes that Undershaft has a “more viable morality than [Cusins and Barbara], since it fits the facts of life.” But Dukore goes on to point out that Cusins and Barbara will ultimately change Perivale St. Andrews “from paternalistic capitalism to presumably socialist democracy.” Although Undershaft’s model city can be seen as heaven, according to Dukore, “it is a potential heaven, or . . . a hell that may be raised to heaven.” Barbara Bellow Watson, in her essay “Sainthood for Millionaires,” in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara acknowledges that the apparent victory is Undershaft’s. He achieves “the reversal of all the stubbornly held opinions of his opponents,” but Watson adds that Undershaft’s seeming victory is “paradoxical only if we expect a socialist author to render simplistic fantasies in which virtue (poverty) triumphs over vice (money and power), or suffers in the right way.” In other words, Shaw does not abandon his own socialism in this play; Undershaft only seems to be victorious. Shaw’s criticism of capitalism is subtle; Watson refers, for example to “the products of Capitalism being miserably on display in Act II,” which takes place at the shelter. In the end, Watson says, “Christianity may be vanquished, but materialism has not triumphed.” Alfred Turco, Jr., in his essay “Shaw’s Moral Vision” (also in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara) also writes that Undershaft is not the clear winner, but, in Turco’s opinion, the important point is not that Undershaft has failed to wholly convert Barbara, but, in fact, that each has succeeded, in part, in converting the other. Turco writes, “Barbara and Cusins ‘give up’ the Salvation Army by accepting the cannon factory, and Undershaft gives up his cannons by placing the power they represent at the service of the religious impulse.” Neither side has lost and “The respective ‘professions’ of Barbara and Undershaft will now develop in meaningful relation to each other instead of in isolation.” The resolution of the play is in the syntheses of Barbara and Undershaft’s convictions.
Margery M. Morgan, in her essay “Skeptical Faith,” argues, however, that no such synthesis exists, but the play must be seen in a larger context. Morgan says the ending “implies a recognition . . . that the true resolution of socialist drama belongs not in the work of art but outside it in society.” She acknowledges that, within the play, there is a resolution of plot in Cusin’s acceptance of Undershaft’s offer, but “as a total structure of ideas the play remains a paradox in which antitheses retain their full value and cannot be resolved away.” Within the play, for Morgan, there is no resolution. In his essay “Shaw’s Own Problem Play,” J. Percy Smith argues that at least part of the problem in Major Barbara’s interpretation lies in “the ambivalence of Shaw’s attitude to the central moral question that [the play] raises. In other words, the ending remains unclear because Shaw himself never decided who really triumphs.
In spite of continued argument over the play’s ending, most critics writing today agree that Major Barbara is one of Shaw’s greatest works, and the play’s importance in modern drama is virtually unchallenged. For many, the complications and seeming paradox of the play’s final act only add to Major Barbara’s complexity and richness as well as Shaw’s reputation as one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights.
Cross is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in modern drama. In this essay she discusses the development of Barbara’s identity as it relates to her involvement with family and work.
In his play Major Barbara, Shaw focuses on the development of identity in his lead character, Barbara Undershaft. Although Barbara has a strong sense of self at the beginning of the play, Shaw shows that her identity is not fixed and simple but fluid and complex. Her identity is composed of many factors that, initially, seem at odds. She is the daughter of wealthy parents whose lifestyles she rejects. Instead she chooses to work for the Salvation Army, accepting the tiny sum of a pound a week as salary. While her allegiance at the play’s outset lies almost wholly with the Army, Barbara will come to realize that her family may enable her to better perform the work of God. This realization will bring her closer to God, closer to her parents and family, and, ultimately, bring her to a true concept of her identity within the world in which the play is set.
From the beginning of the play, Barbara has, in essence, three parents: Lady Britomart, Andrew Undershaft, and her heavenly Father, God, whom she serves through her work in the Salvation Army. Act One establishes the positions of these three parents in Barbara’s life. As the play begins, the audience discovers that Barbara has been entirely brought up by her mother and does not even know her biological father. Although her mother has raised her, it soon becomes clear that Barbara has rejected Lady Britomart’s way of life. Before Barbara even walks on stage, her mother expresses disappointment in the path Barbara has taken: “I thought Barbara was going to make the most brilliant career of all. . . . And what does she do? Joins the Salvation Army; discharges her maid; lives on a pound a week; and walks in one evening with a professor of Greek whom she has picked up in the street.”
Barbara has clearly forsaken the opulence of her mother’s life as well as Britomart’s idea of an appropriate career for a respectable society woman. Yet, there is another way to see Barbara’s relationship with her mother. As feminist critic J. Ellen Gainor remarked in her book Shaw’s Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender, “The first half of the play . . . stresses Barbara’s maternal resemblance, which Shaw notes in several stage directions as well as in a wonderfully comic speech by her mother.” The speech Gainor referred to is that in which Lady Britomart complains about Barbara’s “propensity to have her own way and order people about” and adds, “I’m sure I don’t know where she picks it up,” when it is, in fact, obvious that Barbara’s behavior resembles that of no one so much as Lady Britomart herself. In addition, while Barbara has rejected the luxury of her mother’s lifestyle, she continues to live in her mother’s house; her autonomy and austere lifestyle are supported by a safety net in the form of her mother’s wealth. In spite of her verbal declarations of independence, Barbara is reliant on her mother’s way of life and still very much Lady Britomart’s daughter.
Undershaft’s initial relationship with Barbara is also established in the first act. Barbara’s name is Undershaft, and she has been raised on her father’s fortune (though her determination to live on “a
pound a week” symbolically rejects that wealth). But in his introduction to the critical collection George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, Harold Bloom points out that in the course of their initial discussion, Barbara and Undershaft are “[bonded] against the mother, as each stands for. . . religion as the Life force.” The two also agree on the motto “blood and fire”—although there is considerable difference in the meaning each takes from the phrase.
At the end of Act One, when Barbara and Undershaft each agree to visit the other’s place of work, the bond between father and daughter is again emphasized. After years of absence from their lives, Undershaft arrives and, while not completely winning them over, immediately wins the attentions of his daughters. When Lady Britomart complains about a father who “steals [the children’s] affection away from [the mother],” Shaw establishes a tension between the paternal and maternal, the masculine and feminine forces in Barbara’s life. Gainor saw Barbara as the product of both parents, embracing the masculine as well as the feminine in her work in the Salvation Army. As Gainor pointed out, “the Army’s essential function is more ‘feminine’: nurturing and concerned with the personal, while its structure is ‘masculine’: an army with hierarchies of power and financial concerns.”
In spite of the tension between masculine and feminine, the first act presents Barbara as primarily a child of God. It is for her “heavenly Father” that Barbara has abandoned her father’s money and her mother’s concept of a “brilliant career” and chosen to do the work of God. When Lady Britomart tells Undershaft that Barbara “has no father to advise her,” Barbara replies, “Oh yes she has. There are no orphans in the Salvation Army.” God the Father has become Barbara’s parent as well as the center of her work. Even Barbara’s name and clothes reflect her total absorption into the world of this father. She is no longer Barbara Undershaft but Major Barbara.
She wears the uniform of the Salvation Army. Despite the resemblance she bears to her father and mother, Barbara sees her identity as fixed. She is the child of God. God’s work (as represented by the Army’s mission) is her work. Barbara sees no compromise in this; her work with the Army is the ultimate expression of her devotion to God.
In the second act, Shaw shows Barbara Undershaft as Major Barbara, Salvationist, child of God. Although this scene at the shelter shows Barbara in her element, doing the work of her heavenly father, it is also at this point in the play that Undershaft begins to stake his claim on her. In his discussion with Cusins, he reveals that he loves Barbara, revealing his paternal emotions for her. Undershaft identifies Barbara with himself. When Cusins says that “Barbara is quite original in her own religion,” Undershaft answers, “Barbara Undershaft would be. . . it is the Undershaft inheritance.” He then goes on to say “I shall hand on my torch to my daughter.” As Gainor appraised, “The father sees in the daughter an image of himself and intends to develop her capacity to carry on his public functions, as well as convert her to a form of Page 259 | Top of ArticleUndershaft philosopher.” Undershaft sees himself as Barbara’s true father. Bernard F. Dukore wrote in his book Bernard Shaw: Playwright, “Symbolically as well as literally, Undershaft sires Barbara.” As Barbara’s father, Undershaft sees her identity in him and wants her to do his work. Later Barbara will see that being the daughter of Undershaft is indeed a part of her identity. She will also realize that being his daughter enables her to better perform her religious work.
But in Act Two, Barbara still sees Undershaft as the man in opposition to her true father, a man whose business negatively affects her real work. In support of this, Shaw does suggest that that Undershaft is the opposite of God. Throughout Major Barbara, Undershaft is referred to as the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, and Mephistopheles. And it is in the second act that Barbara’s earthly father reveals the hypocrisy of the Salvation Army. In essence, Undershaft buys the Salvation Army, and Barbara sees her identity as a child of God destroyed. She expresses that loss of identity in the symbolic action of pinning her Salvation Army brooch on Undershaft’s collar. In the third act, she will exchange her uniform for ordinary clothes.
Barbara later cries out, “My God: why hast thou forsaken me?” In addition to losing God and the Salvation Army, she has also lost her work. “I’m like you now,” she says to Peter Shirley. “Cleaned out, and lost my job.” She later expresses the importance of this loss: “I stood on the rock eternal; and without a word of warning it reeled and crumbled under me. I was safe with an infinite wisdom watching me . . . and in a moment . . . I stood alone.” The identity she saw as permanent seems to be gone altogether.
It is in the third act that Barbara begins to synthesize a new identity out of the fractured parts of her character. At first, when Barbara prepares to leave for Undershaft’s factories and model town, the gulf she sees between God and Undershaft is emphasized when she describes her sense of Undershaft’s work: “I have always thought of it as a sort of pit where lost creatures with blackened faces stirred up smoky fires and were driven and tormented by my father.” Clearly she is describing the traditional Christian imagery of hell with her father as the Devil. But Undershaft is not the devil, and it is in this act that she begins to accept him as a parent. When he tells her, “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you lost something.” This statement shows Undershaft in an understanding,
fatherly role. For her part, Barbara begins to see that her father’s work may do some good and that she may be able to learn from him.
It is here that Undershaft tells her he saved her soul from the seven deadly sins: “Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability, and children.” It is only because of Undershaft, who has provided for Barbara’s physical needs her entire life, that Barbara had the means to be able to seek and serve God. Her acceptance of Undershaft as her father is emphasized when, after Cusins decides to succeed her father, Barbara reveals that, had he not, she would have married the man who did. As Dukore pointed out, “Barbara, marrying Cusins, becomes—since Adolphus takes his new father’s name—Mrs. Andrew Undershaft.” Since Undershaft’s successor must take his name, Barbara would have become Mrs. Andrew Undershaft regardless of who became her father’s heir. Bloom, taking a Freudian point of view, saw Barbara’s acceptance of her father as symbolically incestuous and refers to the pair’s “dance of repressed psychosexual courtship.” It seems more accurate, however, to see her as becoming fully her father’s daughter, retaining, even in marriage, her father’s name. In addition, this name is also her mother’s, which places her even more strongly with both of her earthly parents.
Despite her disillusionment with the Salvation Army (and her “deal with the devil” in becoming Undershaft’s heir), Barbara remains her heavenly Father’s daughter as well; she has merely exchanged her idealistic view of God’s work for one more realistic. She recognizes that poverty is in itself an evil, but her concern is still for saving souls, though no longer “weak souls in starved bodies. . . . My father shall never throw it in my teeth again that my converts were bribed with bread.” She will continue to do the work of God but on different terms: “Let God’s work be done for its own sake.”
In addition to accepting both Undershaft and God as fathers, in the final scene Barbara turns again to her mother. “After all,” she says, “my dear old mother has more sense than any of you.” Although Barbara contrasts her mother’s desire for “the houses and the kitchen ranges and the linen and the china,” of Perivale St. Andrews with her own focus on “all the human souls to be saved,” she still accepts her place as her mother’s daughter. At the end of the play, Shaw describes her cry, “Mamma! Mamma! I want Mamma,” as childlike, and describes Barbara as “[clutching] like a baby at her mother’s skirt.” Gainor viewed the reversion of Barbara to a childlike state as her acceptance of her role as a woman in her society. According to Gainor, women at this time “must. . . be reinscribed within the feminine realm to rationalize or confirm their status.” She went on to say, “As Victorian culture associated the child with the feminine, a display of childish behavior affirms the gender of the daughter.” So Gainor saw Barbara’s identity reverting to an earlier association with her mother thus establishing her femininity and subservient place in society.
There is, however, another way to view Barbara’s childlike behavior in the final scene. As John A. Bertolini wrote in his book The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw, “Barbara herself is mad with delight for the idea of conversion, especially conversion as a cleansing away of the old self.” What Barbara experiences in the last scene can also be seen as “self-renewal through childlike behavior.” Although the final scene certainly does identify Barbara as her mother’s daughter, it also can be seen as indicative of a rebirth. Barbara has become a new person with a new identity which is a combination of all facets of her character.
Barbara’s new identity, however, is not solely with mother, father, or God. She has synthesized all three of these influences; she encompasses the masculine, the feminine, the spiritual. Similarly, her work is now also a synthesis, the domestic aspect of her marriage reflecting her mother’s influence, her new understanding of the Undershaft business reflecting her father’s, her desire to save souls reflecting God’s. All are integrated to create a new sense of work, a new sense of family, and a new way of life. Barbara’s character loses its fragmentary nature, and she becomes her true self.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Calling Major Barbara Shaw’s “most successful” drama, Kennedy provides an overview and background of Shaw’s play in this essay.
Shaw wrote a number of plays concerned with wealth and its distribution, but Major Barbara may be the most complex in theme and the most successful as drama. Barbara Undershaft has defied upper-class conventions by becoming a major in the Salvation Army, dedicating herself to the poor of London, who, naturally enough, resist her ministrations whenever they go beyond food and shelter. Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek given to quoting Euripides, pretends an equal dedication in order to be near her. Her mother, Lady Britomart—the owner of one of Shaw’s most resounding character names—now needs more money for her children’s marriages and turns to her long-estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, a munitions maker of low birth but noble proportions. He is “fabulously wealthy, because there is always a war going on somewhere”; but the “Undershaft inheritance,” which insists that the business must be passed on to another foundling boy, has been the cause of the rupture in their marriage. Andrew Undershaft is at the opposite moral pole from Barbara, yet father and daughter are immediately fascinated with one another and strike a bargain: he will visit her shelter if she will visit his armament works. The shelter is also in financial need and is saved from ruin only by the generosity of Undershaft and a whisky distiller; Barbara, shocked that the Army will accept money from two such manufacturers of evil, loses her faith and resigns her position. But Undershaft’s creed, that the worst of all possible crimes is poverty, begins to convert Cusins and Barbara, especially when they see its effects in his utopian company town. When Cusins turns out to be a foundling he is installed as the heir to the Undershaft money, gunpowder, and destruction, with Barbara by his side.
If Shaw had wished to write a simple play he would have made Undershaft an industrialist like Andrew Carnegie, someone whose labor practices may have been questionable but who made contributions to social and economic advancement. Instead Undershaft is made to be a sower of death, like Alfred Nobel, disdaining common morality and the common excuses for his trade, selling munitions to anyone who applies, revelling in the devastation his guns bring. Nobel wished to buy respectability by endowing a prize for peace; Undershaft demands Page 261 | Top of Articlethat his contribution to the Salvation Army be treated anonymously. As Cusins notes continually, Undershaft is a Prince of Darkness, a Dionysus in touch with the underside of human existence. Thus the dilemma he presents to Barbara and to readers and audience is enormously complicated. If poverty is the worst of crimes, then anything that eradicates it is good, even if that thing is, itself, normally considered evil. In this extreme of cases, Shaw’s play implies, the end not only justifies Undershaft’s means, but his means are the only realistic ones that can achieve the end.
A powerful second act in Barbara’s West Ham shelter shows that the Salvation Army is an unwitting tool of the status quo: it relieves the effects of poverty just enough to blunt the edge of social revolution, without actually altering the conditions of the classes or attempting to redistribute wealth. The violence and desperation of a bully like Bill Walker cannot be corrected by hot soup and a prayer meeting because they are caused not by moral defects but by social inequities. When Barbara loses her faith in the Army she awakens to the sentimental nature of the Christian promise of salvation; she also slowly awakens to the fact that the Army, dependent upon the largess of capitalists, is therefore part of the capitalist establishment, as much as the Parliament that Undershaft brags is in his pocket. As one of the spiritual and economic unfortunates, Walker knows this truth in his bones. After the Army has accepted Undershaft’s money, Walker speaks the cruellest and most incisive line of the play, rubbing salt into Barbara’s wounds: “Wot prawce selvytion nah?”
The cannon is the metaphoric heart of Major Barbara. From its mock-military title to its numerous references to actual battles, the play offers glimpses of the destructive impulse; the final scene is literally dominated by a huge cannon center stage. In shifting its attention from Barbara’s spiritual dilemma to Undershaft’s vision of an orderly universe based on gunpowder, the play seems to promote the strongman as savior, and firepower as the ultimate arbiter. Shaw’s Preface, a brilliant essay on the nature of wealth, provides a less disturbing philosophic context by suggesting that public choice need not lie between poverty on the one hand and bombs on the other, since it is capitalism that sanctions both; in a more humane economy both would be eradicated. But the play itself is profoundly ambiguous in its social morality; the diabolic Undershaft is its most gripping character, and even
when he is taken ironically Major Barbara resists neat categorizing.
Despite its disturbing theme, its theatrical vitality has been unquestioned since the first performance in 1905. Shaw wrote it for Granville Barker’s Court Theatre seasons, his first play designed with a specific company of actors in mind (Barker played Cusins, a role modelled on their mutual friend Gilbert Murray, whose translations of Euripides, which Cusins quotes, were also being performed at the Court). Since its twin subjects of war and money have been the central subjects of the 20th century, it has shown little sign of losing its hold on us.
Source: Dennis Kennedy, “Major Barbara” in The International Dictionary of Theater, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, p. 462.
Michael C. O’Neill
Reviewing a 1987 production of Major Barbara at that year’s Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada, O’Neill affirms the theatrical power of Shaw’s play, calling the production the highlight of the festival.
Genuine theatrical salvation for Major Barbara, perhaps Bernard Shaw’s most relentless discussion for the stage, is the chief pleasure of the 1987 Shaw Festival where huge and handsome, if unadventuresome, productions are often the rule. As conceived by Christopher Newton, who also serves as the festival’s artistic director, Major Barbara finds in the spectacle of its staging a visual accompaniment for the dazzling brilliance of Shaw’s ideas.
Major Barbara has been directed with the scope and vision of opera, thereby revealing yet another key to a play in which Shaw, the music critic and great arbiter of the western artistic heritage, provides a symphony of thought articulated
and debated in the intellectual duets of Undershaft and Cusins and in the passionate verbal arias of Barbara and the poor she intends to save. The stylized tones and rhythmic variety of the play’s language are enriched, as the Salvation Army’s activities are, with music: Barbara sings, Lomax is ordered to accompany prayers on the organ, Undershaft plays the trombone, and Cusins beats a huge drum to be near the woman he worships with the fervor of felt religion. These apparent clues to the musical nature of Major Barbara march through the production like a Salvation Army hymn, and the motif is completed at the play’s end, when, after Barbara and Cusins have agreed to make war on war, “We’re In The Money” plays softly and cynically as the house lights come up.
Each scene seems to have been orchestrated with comparable insight and choreographed as well with precision of movement and gesture. The curious and outraged Wilton Crescent quartet of Lady Britomart and her children, unable to resist Undershaft’s charm, gives way in the second act to a chorus of humiliation in the Salvation Army shelter that crescendos into a lament of hypocrisy and despair. For the grand finale at Perivale St. Andrews, the characters flow effortlessly about Undershaft’s stark white Utopia, anxious to grasp a new illusion in which the benefits of wealth are an endless song.
These operatic dimensions of the play are boldly stated in the designs of Cameron Porteous, who uses the full height of the Festival Theater stage to dwarf Shaw’s principals in settings as elaborate and as meaningful as the ideas they discuss. Lady Britomart’s library is a huge, rich room of books, marble, pottery, and dark wood, a small corner of the British Empire exhibiting its wealth. The walls are covered with paper and stained glass depicting the wild growth of the jungle that lies just beneath the polished exterior of those who live there, for these are powerful and rich people who are summoned together to discuss self-preservation through a continuation of their position and wealth. They descend, in Act II, into the hell of the East Ham shelter, a dimly lit, towering grey brick affair with smoke rolling across the littered floor. The nightmarish quality of the setting reinforces the moral quandary of this inferno where an army of angels unwittingly perpetuates the suffering it seeks to assuage, and the devilish Undershaft offers the only hope of an earthly redemption from poverty.
The scenic tour de force, however, occurs in the third act as the library revolves in full view into the foundry of Undershaft and Lazarus, visually suggesting the creative evolution from the former world into the latter that will be effected through the inheritance of Barbara and Cusins. The works themselves are wittily conveyed: a huge, phallic cannon dominates a setting of white marble steps, Greek columns, and dummy soldiers displayed like so many Attic statues. The classicism of Cusins, already incorporated into the enterprise he intends to transform, appears frozen in another time, and thus the setting metaphorically asserts that his real connection to ancient Greece lies in the spirit of Dionysus within himself. That spirit draws him to Barbara and will propel them past her father into a future they envision but do not as yet understand.
Jim Mezon’s Cusins, full of a calculated subtlety that grows into confidence by the play’s end, emerges as a formidable revival to the properly demonic Undershaft, played by Douglas Rain with great verbal dexterity and just a hint of relief that the life force is indeed doing its work through him as he passes on the foundry to his chosen heirs. Both men bring a sexual edge to their roles, giving further credence to Shaw’s contention that the superman is compelling and irresistible. Martha Burns as Barbara is full of confused energy, waiting to be awakened by her father’s challenge and Cusins’s love. The three form a Shavian love triangle in which the object of their affection is the force they instinctively recognize in one another.
The entire cast seems to have discovered a rich sexual energy in the play that imbues its comic moments with human folly and heightens its philosophical intrigue with unstated tension. Frances Hyland avoids the temptation to play Lady Britomart as a cousin to Lady Bracknell, opting instead to create an aging ingenue who pinches her cheeks to look attractive for Undershaft and sees in Barbara and Cusins a reflection of the feelings for her husband that she still relishes. As performed by Jon Bryden, Bill Walker’s attacks on Jenny Hill and Page 263 | Top of ArticleRummy Mitchens seethe with the potential for rape, whereas Steven Sutcliffe’s Stephen seems to wander through the play trying to figure out why anyone would expect him to marry. Lomax and Sarah, played by Michael Howell and Barbara Worthy, serve as effective foils for Cusins and Barbara. In the utter banality of their relationship, they demonstrate Shaw’s belief in the power of the intellect to transform and sustain. The most passionate moment of Major Barbara occurs, appropriately, when Cusins and Barbara agree to accept Undershaft’s challenge. As they embrace in a long, provocative kiss on the steps of the foundry, there is no mistaking that for Shaw the passion of the intellect and passion itself are inseparable.
This is an inspired production, a Shavian masterpiece accorded as little reverence as Undershaft himself gives tradition, yet thoughtful enough to make Shaw’s ideas live and breathe through his characters, who, with us since 1903, are now beginning to touch the realm of myth. The result is fresh and very funny, tantalizing the audience with possibilities of the human spirit we already expect will never come to pass.
Source: Michael C. O’Neill, review of Major Barbara in Theatre Journal, Volume 40, no. 1, March, 1988, pp. 105-06.
Bertolini, John A. The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale), 1991, pp. 64-65.
Bloom, Harold. Introduction to his George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, Chelsea House (New York), 1988, pp. 1-11.
Carr, Pat M. Bernard Shaw, Frederick Ungar (New York), 1976, pp. 58.
Dukore, Bernard F. Bernard Shaw, Playwright: Aspects of Shavian Drama, University of Missouri Press (Columbia), 1973, pp. 86-90.
Gainor, J. Ellen. Shaw’s Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor), 1991, pp. 218-24.
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. Volume II: 1898-1918: The Pursuit of Power, Penguin (London), 1989, pp. 147-48.
Archer, William. File on Shaw, edited by Margery M. Morgan, Methuen Drama (London), 1989, p. 54.
Morgan, Margery M. “Skeptical Faith” in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House (New York), 1988, pp. 49-73.
Smith, J. Percy. “Shaw’s Own Problem Play” in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 133-51.
Turco, Alfred, Jr. “Shaw’s Moral Vision” in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 103-31.
Watson, Barbara Bellow. “Sainthood for Millionaires” in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 13-31.
Bloom, Harold, Editor. George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, Chelsea House, 1988.
This is a collection of papers by numerous critics on different aspects of Shaw’s play.
Briggs, Asa. A Social History of England, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London), 1994.
A study of English society from antiquity to the present, this books contains a lengthy chapter on the Victorian and early Edwardian eras.
Gainor, J. Ellen. Shaw’s Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender, University of Michigan Press, 1991.
This is a study of women in Shaw’s plays, focusing on the conception of womanhood in Victorian culture and the image of the daughter in Shaw’s plays.
Peters, Sally. Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman, Yale University Press (New Haven), 1996.
This is an extended literary biography of Shaw, discussing his life as well as his works.
Weintraub, Stanley. Shaw’s People: Victoria to Churchill, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park), 1996.
This book focuses on Shaw and his relationships with and attitudes toward various people of his time, including Salvation Army founder William Booth. It places Shaw more completely in the context of his society.