Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Wilton Crescent. Fashionable section of London’s upscale West End. Act 1 is set in the library of Lady Britomart Undershaft’s house, which she has tastefully decorated with money from her husband, who has become wealthy by manufacturing arms. Although the pictures, books, and music portfolios identified in stage directions suggest the Undershaft family will be gathering in an enlightened environment conducive to liberal thinking, Lady Britomart steps forward as a Victorian relic of upper-class materialism. Thus, the library’s rich decor calls attention to Lady Britomart’s insistence upon money as the panacea for whatever problems she and her adult children confront.
West Ham. Location of the newly whitewashed Salvation Army shelter in London’s impoverished East End in which the play’s second act is set. Seen through Barbara Undershaft’s eyes, the shelter represents charitable compassion. Conversely, for the destitute who seek refuge here from the January cold, it represents food as bribery. Barbara has devoted herself to saving souls within these bleak surroundings, but she is no match for her intruding millionaire father who proves that her means for rescuing the downtrodden are hollow. After Undershaft purchases her religious idealism by donating five thousand pounds to the shelter, Barbara walks away under a leaden sky, knowing that her illusions have been as thin as the...
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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 m 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...
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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 Penvale 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...
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Compare and Contrast
1905: Interest in socialism grows with the development of many socialist organizations and an attempt at revolution in Russia. Although this revolution initially fails, hopes among socialists for future revolutions are high.
Today: The collapse of the governments of the Soviet Union and East Germany serves to create strong doubts about the possible viability of any socialist regime (many argue that, like Russia's system, a socialist government cannot function without becoming a communist dictatorship). Although there are still socialist organizations, their beliefs are now well outside the mainstream of society.
1905: Women struggle for basic rights, including the right to vote, which is not granted in England until 1926.
Today: In the United States and England, women have earned legal rights equal to those of men, but many believe that much progress remains to be made, particularly in non-Western countries.
1905: Christianity is a major force, affecting all aspects of society, but interest in agnosticism continues to grow. In Western nations, members of non-Christian religions are subject to discrimination.
Today: Christianity remains viable, though its influence on society as a whole is lessened. Interest in non-Christian religions increases, and adherents of those religions face less prejudice. Agnosticism and atheism are acceptable—and increasingly...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the place of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How does Barbara rebel against traditional feminine roles?
In view of Shaw's socialism, what might have been his purpose in making Andrew Undershaft's armaments factory and the adjacent town a model of success? In what ways does Shaw manage to show the negative side of Undershaft's achievement?
Compare Barbara and Cusins to the character Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. Given that Undershaft is frequently referred to as a Satanic character, does Cusins sell his soul to the Devil? Does Barbara sell hers?
Compare Andrew Undershaft to Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht' s play Mother Courage and Her Children, which was first produced during World War H How might the intervening years of war account for differences between the two characters and between the two plays?
Read Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience. '' Discuss whether or not the characters in Major Barbara live according to their consciences. What does Shaw say about the relationship between individual action and society?
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What Do I Read Next?
Mrs. Warren's Profession, a play written by Shaw in 1898, is also concerned with the morality of avoiding poverty by doing what may be considered immoral work. Shaw's original title for Major Barbara was Andrew Undershaft's Profession.
Mother Courage and Her Children, a play written by Bertolt Brecht in 1939, seems to have been influenced by Major Barbara. Mother Courage, like Undershaft, is dependent on war to make her living but at a severe cost to her children and herself.
The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, probably first performed in 1594, is a retelling of the legend of Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil. In Major Barbara, Undershaft is sometimes called Mephistopheles, the name of the Devil in Marlowe's play.
"Civil Disobedience," published in 1849, is an essay by Henry David Thoreau, who spent time in prison for refusing to pay taxes to support what he believed to be an immoral war. In this essay, Thoreau argues for following one's conscience, even if it means disobeying the law.
A Doll's House, a play by Henrik Ibsen, published in 1879, is also about the question of whether a seemingly immoral act can, in fact be the right thing to do. The play's lead character, Nora, is an early example of the strong independent woman of the late Victorian stage. Shaw was greatly influenced by Ibsen's work.
The Jungle, socialist Upton...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bertolim, 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...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw. 1947. Reprint. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1957. One of the best writers about modern drama, Bentley sets forth ideas about Shaw that place later critics in his debt. His study is one of the first important books on Shaw.
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. 4 vols. New York: Random House, 1987-1992. Authoritative, superbly written, and richly detailed, these books are models of the biographer’s art. In the second volume, The Pursuit of Power 1898-1918, Holroyd discusses Major Barbara, giving particular attention to the troublesome third act and its ambiguities, about which he writes with discernment.
Shaw, George Bernard. Bernard Shaw’s Plays, edited by Warren S. Smith. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. This edition of Major Barbara and three other Shaw plays includes a useful selection of critical essays, including a reprint of G. K. Chesterton’s 1909 objections to the play, Barbara Bellow Watson’s 1968 essay that discusses both the play and Chesterton’s complaints, and an article that studies Shaw’s correspondence with his friend Gilbert Murray, the scholar on whom Adolphus Cusins is based.
Shaw, George Bernard. The Collected Screenplays of Bernard Shaw, edited by Bernard F. Dukore. London: George Prior Publishers, 1980. In his...
(The entire section is 297 words.)