Analysis of Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara

Recently I took my children to Major Barbara. Twenty years had passed since I had seen it. They were the most terrific years the world has known. Almost every human institution had undergone decisive change. The landmarks of centuries had been swept away. Science has transformed the conditions of our lives and the aspect of town and country. Silent social evolution, violent political change, a vast broadening of the social foundations, in immeasurable release from convention and restraint, a profound reshaping of national and individual opinion, have followed the trampling march of this tremendous epoch. But in Major Barbara there was not a character requiring to be re-drawn, not a sentence nor a suggestion that this play, the very acme of modernity, was written more than five years before they were born.

—Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries

In contending with the dramatic achievement of George Bernard Shaw, it is tempting to resort to the critical stance taken by English writer G. K. Chesterton in assessing another inimitable writer, Charles Dickens. Chesterton asserted that there was in fact no single Dickens novel, but all are “simply lengths cut from the flowing and mixed substance called Dickens.” Likewise, all of Shaw’s plays collectively form a singular opus, and distinctions among them can seem beyond the point. Only William Shakespeare has contributed more to the repertory of established English classic plays. Moreover, Shaw can claim the unique distinction of being the greatest Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian, and modern English playwright, indeed the greatest English dramatist since Shakespeare who transformed existing dramatic conventions into an unprecedented criticism of life. Included here in this ranking are three of Shaw’s works: Man And Superman and Saint Joan as his riskiest and most ambitious philosophical dramas and Major Barbara as his most representative play that turned the drawing room comedy of manners into an exhilarating, liberating, and unprecedented critique of human nature and the human condition. Shaw is principally responsible for giving the problem play that Henrik Ibsen pioneered an English home, while establishing a modern drama of ideas that adapted comedy for a radical reassessment of accepted under-standings. “All great truths,” Shaw asserted, “begin as blasphemies.” Bertolt Brecht observed: “It should be clear by now that Shaw is a terrorist. The Shavian terror is an unusual one, and he employs an unusual weapon—that of humor.” Major Barbara is both one of Shaw’s most witty plays and one of his most subversive. Both elements are best understood in the context of Shaw’s background, development, and artistic intentions.


The most remarkable aspect of Shaw’s life is surely its span. Born in 1856 into a gaslit Victorian world, Shaw survived the two world wars of the 20th century and the arrival of the atomic age, dying in 1950 after a seemingly inexhaustible creative life of nearly three-quarters of a century. Shaw came late to the theater by a circuitous and accidental route. Like the other great Irish-born comic dramatists and satirists—Jonathan Swift, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Oscar Wilde—Shaw would eventually establish his career as a contrarian, in opposition to the English status quo. He came from an impoverished Dublin Anglo-Protestant family. His father was a drunkard, and Shaw’s mother moved to London to pursue a career as an opera singer and voice teacher. Her son remained behind until the age of 20. After schooling in Dublin, in which Shaw asserted he learned nothing except that schools are prisons, he worked for a time in an office. He would later recall:

I made good in spite of myself, and found, to my dismay, that Business, instead of expelling me as the worthless impostor I was, was fastening upon me with no intention of letting me go. Behold me, therefore, in my twentieth year, with a business training, in an occupation which I detested as cordially as any sane person lets himself detest anything he cannot escape from. In March 1876 I broke loose.

Shaw left Dublin for London to write novels and music, art, and drama criticism. Setting himself the task of improving the popular tastes in the arts, Shaw became a champion of Wagner and Mozart in music and Ibsen in drama, while opposing the fashionable aesthetic movement’s doctrine of “art for art’s sake” on behalf of an artistic commitment to moral and social reform. Politically Shaw became active in the Fabian Society advocating its doctrine of gradual socialism. It is during this period that Shaw crafted his public persona, G.B.S., the jester, iconoclast, and shock therapist whose medium was the paradox. “I have never pretended that G.B.S. was real,” he wrote. “The whole point of the creature is that he is unique, fantastic, unrepresentative, inimitable, impossible, undesirable on any large scale, utterly unlike anybody that ever existed before, hopelessly unnatural, and void of real passion.” Shaw would transfer his role as eccentric provocateur eventually to the theater.

Analysis of George Bernard Shaw’s Plays

In 1885 Shaw and William Archer, a fellow drama critic and early advocate of Ibsen, collaborated on a play in which Archer contributed the plot and Shaw the dialogue. The result was Widowers’ Houses, a play about wealthy slum landlords, in which Shaw’s dramatic genius is first displayed. Shaw trans-formed the conventions of Eugène Scribe’s well-made play in which plot is paramount into a vehicle to express his political theories of modern capital-ism and to shock the cherished beliefs of his audience. “I avoid plots like the plague,” Shaw would observe about his dramatic technique. “My procedure is to imagine characters and let them rip.” He followed Widowers’ Houses with a succession of plays, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Arms and the Man, and Candida that presents in turn Shaw’s daring rationale of prostitution in an exploitative society, his debunking of romanticized views of war and love, and his witty inversion of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House from the husband’s viewpoint. None of his early plays was a theatrical success, but Shaw reached an audience by publishing his plays with detailed stage directions and witty, combative prefaces. In 1898, his first seven plays were published as Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. In 1901, Shaw published Plays for Puritans, a collection that included The Devil’s Disciple and Caesar and Cleopatra, plays that show him perfecting his trademark of employing an educator and a pupil, in which the prototypical Shavian realist offers instruction about the truth of the world to a student who starts by believing a set of traditional values and then undergoes a process of disillusionment and maturation. Strategically Shaw reverses the method of Molière, in which a deviant from the norm is exposed. Instead Shaw injects a provocateur into the center of conventional thought and behavior to expose their inconsistencies. For Shaw drama became the means to embody philosophy and a more enlightened and comprehensive view of life. “Though my trade is that of a playwright,” he wrote, “my vocation is that of a prophet.” All of Shaw’s plays show his considerable wit and delight in confounding expectations and provoking new understanding, none more brilliantly than Major Barbara in which a passionate Salvation Army activist, Barbara, sets out to reform her capitalist arms manufacturer father, Andrew Undershaft, and is in turn made to reexamine her wrongheaded assumptions about wealth, poverty, economics, religion, and morality.

First performed in London in 1905, Major Barbara was published in 1907 along with Shaw’s preface, or what he called “First Aid to Critics,” informing them of what to say about it. Subtitled A Discussion in Three Acts, Major Barbara, like virtually all of Shaw’s dramas, is constructed dialectically by opposing viewpoints. At its thematic core is a radical social analysis. “In the millionaire Undershaft,” Shaw declared in his preface, “I have represented a man who has become intellectually and spiritually as well as practically conscious of the irresistible natural truth which we all abhor and repudiate: to wit, that the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty, and that our first duty, to which every other consideration should be sacrificed, is not to be poor.” For Shaw this economic imperative trumps all other orthodox moral and spiritual considerations, which he argues are complicit in maintaining inequality and perpetuating the abuses they allegedly oppose. The play works out the logic of this thesis in the conversion experience of Barbara, an idealist, which Shaw defines as someone who creates self-deceiving myths to make life less objectionable. Barbara’s reeducation in the truth, as well as the audience’s, begins in the fashionable suburban London home of her mother, Lady Britomart Undershaft. She has summoned her children—Stephen, Sarah, and Barbara—to contend with the family’s financial constraints. Sarah is engaged to Charles Lomax, whose own inheritance is 10 years off; while Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, is being courted by Adolphus Cusins, a poor classics professor. Lady Britomart has long been estranged from her husband, a wealthy munitions manufacturer, but he, too, is called on to assist, despite the disdain his children feel for the tainted Undershaft wealth and his wife’s objections to Andrew’s unconventional views that have led to his disinheriting Stephen in favor of turning over his business to another foundling like himself. Revealing the hypocrisy of the respectable that the entire opening act exposes, Lady Britomart explains that Andrew “didn’t exactly do wrong things: he said them and thought them: that was what was so dreadful. He really had a sort of religion of wrongness just as one doesn’t mind men practicing immorality so long as they own that they are in the wrong by preaching morality; so I couldn’t forgive Andrew for preaching immorality while he practiced moral-ity.” For Barbara her father, an unapologetic “manufacturer of mutilation and murder,” is a sinner ripe for conversion. Undershaft, however, proves a formidable challenge in his unrepentant defense of his trade and his challenge to conventional beliefs. “Your Christmas card moralities of peace on earth and goodwill among men are of no use to me,” he asserts. “Your Christianity, which enjoins you to resist not evil, and to turn the other cheek, would make me a bankrupt. My morality—my religion—must have a place for cannons and torpedoes in it.” The act ends with a conversion challenge: Undershaft agrees to inspect Barbara’s good work done at the Salvation Army shelter in the London slums if she will visit his weapons factory in Middlesex.

Shifting from the Wildean drawing room to Dickens’s underclass and George Gissing’s Nether World, act 2 opens in the West Ham shelter as two of the destitute—Snobby Price and Rummy Mitchens—discuss how they routinely concoct their sinful ways to justify the interest of the Army to continue to receive free meals and shelter. They are joined by a truly desperate man, Peter Shirley, whose hunger overcomes his reluctance to accept charity. Another, the brutish Bill Walker, comes in to retrieve his girlfriend, whom the Army has rescued from his abuse. Walker shockingly strikes both Jenny Hill, a young Salvation Army worker, and Rummy before Barbara enters to take him on. In doing so Barbara shows both her courage and strength of character in the face of Walker’s taunts and threats. What is striking is Shaw’s refusal here to set up straw dogs for his philosophy to overwhelm with ease. The violence and abuse that Walker represents are graphically apparent, and the efforts of Barbara and the Salvation Army are shown as a needed lifeline to those like Shirley and Walker’s girl who are otherwise abandoned to their dismal fate. The arrival of Undershaft raises the issue of what is the most beneficial response to poverty and its attendant vices. Undershaft offers not acceptance of sins and spiritual salvation but material improvement. It is the economic imperatives of the rich, the poor, and the righteous that Barbara faces as she attempts to balance her ideals with the practical necessities of raising sufficient funds to continue doing good works. She initially refuses her father’s offer of a contribution considering its source. However, her superior officer, Mrs. Baines, jumps at the chance to have Undershaft match the contribution offered by the whiskey distiller Lord Saxmundham. As Walker taunts—“What price salvation, now?”—Barbara sadly takes off her Salvation Army badge and pins it on her father, who demonstrates that even the Army is for sale. “Drunkenness and Murder!” she cries in despair. “My God! why hast thou forsaken me?”

Act 3 opens with a return to Lady Britomart’s library and Barbara, no longer in her uniform, preparing for her visit to her father’s cannon foundry. Expecting an infernal place of exploited workers, Barbara is surprised to find a smoothly-running business set amid well-maintained churches, schools, libraries, and other services that make the town resemble “a heavenly city instead of a hellish one.” The contrast between treating poverty with spiritual consolation and materially is unmistakable. All fall under the spell of this unexpected workers’ paradise. Cusins reveals that because his parents’ marriage was in violation of the Deceased Wife’s Sister Act and unlawful, he is technically illegitimate and therefore eligible to succeed Undershaft in the business. While bargaining with Cusins over the position he offers him, Undershaft delivers his Armourer’s creed:

To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles: to aristocrat and republican, to Nihilist and Tsar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man, white man and yellow man, to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes and all crimes. The first Undershaft wrote up in his shop IF GOD GAVE THE HAND, LET NOT MAN WITHHOLD THE SWORD. The second wrote up ALL HAVE THE RIGHT TO FIGHT: NONE HAVE THE RIGHT TO JUDGE. The third wrote up TO MAN THE WEAPON: TO HEAVEN THE VICTORY. The fourth had no literary turn; so he did not write up anything; but he sold cannons to Napoleon under the nose of George the Third. The fifth wrote up PEACE SHALL NOT PREVAIL SAVE WITH A SWORD IN HER HAND. The sixth, my master, was the best of all. He wrote up NOTHING IS EVER DONE IN THIS WORLD UNTIL MEN ARE PREPARED TO KILL ONE ANOTHER IF IT IS NOT DONE. After that, there was nothing left for the seventh to say. So he wrote up, simply, UNASHAMED.

Challenged by Barbara to justify his considerable power and responsibility, Undershaft retorts: “Cleanliness and respectability do not need justification, Barbara: they justify themselves. I see no darkness here, no dreadfulness. In your Salvation shelter I saw poverty, misery, cold and hunger. You gave them bread and treacle and dreams of heaven. I give from thirty shillings a week to twelve thousand a year. They find their own dreams; but I look after the drainage.”

The play closes with Cusins’s decision to accept Undershaft’s offer and Barbara’s agreement with it, completing her conversion from Salvation Army officer to a different kind of martial crusader:

Barbara: I should have given you up and married the man who accepted it. After all, my dear old mother has more sense than any of you. I felt like her when I saw this place—felt that I must have it—that never, never, never could I let it go; only she thought it was the houses and the kitchen ranges and the linen and china, when it was really all the human souls to be saved: not weak souls in starved bodies, crying with gratitude or a scrap of bread and treacle, but fullfed, quarrelsome, snobbish, uppish creatures, all standing on their little rights and dignities, and thinking that my father ought to be greatly obliged to them for making so much money for him—and so he ought. That is where salvation is really wanted. My father shall never throw it in my teeth again that my converts were bribed with bread. [She is transfigured]. I have got rid of the bribe of bread. I have got rid of the bribe of heaven. Let God’s work be done for its own sake: the work he had to create us to do because it cannot be done by living men and women. When I die, let him be in my debt, not I in his; and let me forgive him as becomes a woman of my rank.

Cusins: Then the way of life lies through the factory of death?

Barbara: Yes, through the raising of hell to heaven and of man to God, through the unveiling of an eternal light in the Valley of The Shadow. [Seizing him with both hands] Oh, did you think my courage would never come back? Did you believe that I was a deserter? that I, who have stood in the streets, and taken my people to my heart, and talked of the holiest and greatest things with them, could ever turn back and chatter foolishly to fashionable people about nothing in a drawingroom? Never, never, never, never: Major Barbara will die with the colors. Oh! and I have my dear little Dolly boy still; and he has found me my place and my work. Glory Hallelujah!

Barbara’s final capitulation has been criticized as unearned, more in keeping with the Utopianism that resolves all in wish fulfillment and reduces a lively and believable protagonist to a mouthpiece for Shaw’s philosophy. Shaw himself was troubled by his conclusion, complaining early on, “I don’t know how to end the thing.” He was still rethinking the ending 35 years later when Major Barbara was filmed, suggesting in his revision not Barbara’s capitulation but a completion in which Undershaft’s power is joined to Cusins’s classical intelligence and Barbara’s spirituality. Ultimately the strengths of the play overpower any intellectual reformulation. In Major Barbara Shaw has submitted our most cherished notions to a witty and profound reassessment meant to provoke and challenge understanding long after the final curtain.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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