Major Barbara is one of George Bernard Shaw’s most stimulating plays. In the early and middle years of his career, he used wit and realism as weapons in his attempt to bestir a complacent society. His iconoclastic nature delighted in overturning accepted morality; one of his famous aphorisms is “all great truths begin as blasphemies.” In his second play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), he blames prostitution on the men who have no convictions rather than on the poor women without chastity; in Arms and the Man (1894), he mocks romantic views of love and war; and in Candida: A Mystery (1897), he boldly reversed the emphasis of Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) by showing that behind the stereotype of the strong male provider lay crippling insecurities and the inability to love. Although Major Barbara was written and performed in 1905, Shaw coyly set it in January, 1906—slightly ahead of his time—as if to dramatize an imminent time when his thesis about poverty being the root of all evil could be heard.
Shaw’s technique in this play is to use the first act to dramatize the comforts of capitalism and the second to expose its cruelties. In affluent Wilton Crescent, Lady Britomart comically reduces all questions of morality to matters of good and bad taste. To her, polite hypocrisy is a necessary social lubricant. She explains that what infuriated her about Andrew was not that he did wrong things (which he did not) but that he delighted in saying and thinking wrong things and had a type of “religion of wrongness.” She scolds Barbara for speaking about religion as if it were something pleasant and not the social drudgery that she knows it to be. Barbara’s strong will asserts itself in her language of inversion and paradox. She proves to be a match for her father in their early encounters, showing that she resembles him in being a larger-than-life presence. In the second act, the drawing-room comedy gives way to the realism of the slums....
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