Sidney P. Albert (essay date December 1971)

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SOURCE: Albert, Sidney P. “The Price of Salvation: Moral Economics in Major Barbara.Modern Drama 14, no. 3 (December 1971): 307-23.

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[In the following essay, Albert investigates the role of economics in Major Barbara.]

“In all my plays,” Bernard Shaw wrote to Archibald Henderson in 1904, “my economic studies have played as important a part as a knowledge of anatomy does in the works of Michael Angelo.”1 But the inclusion of economics in his plays, he always maintained, did not make them mere tracts. “My plays are no more economic treatises than Shakespeare's,” he declared in his Sixteen Self Sketches. “It is true that neither Widowers' Houses nor Major Barbara could have been written by an economic ignoramus, and that Mrs Warren's Profession is an economic exposure of the White Slave Traffic as well as a melodrama. There is an economic link between Cashel Byron, Sartorius, Mrs Warren, and Undershaft: all of them prospering in questionable activities. But would anyone but a buffleheaded idiot of a university professor, half crazy with correcting examination papers, infer that all my plays were written as economic essays, and not as plays of life, character, and human destiny like those of Shakespear or Euripides?”2

Shaw's comments invite inquiry into how economics functions aesthetically in his dramas: how it affects not only thematic content, but characterization and dramatic structure as well. From this standpoint it may be useful to consider the influence economics exerts on “life, character, and human destiny” in one of the plays he mentions, Major Barbara.

Analysis of this play does indeed disclose that key moral relationships among the characters are dramatized in economic terms. The action unfolds in a succession of transactions in which individuals engage in moral “business” with one another. These business exchanges help illuminate moral character and practice, as well as the ethical and religious doctrines that sustain them. In this way prevailing social and political forces at work in the world become operative in the play. They raise issues about the direction of human life and civilization that funnel into the focal question Bill Walker poses near the end of the second act: “Wot prawce selvytion nah?”3 The last act considers the rearrangements of men and society needed to answer this question satisfactorily.

The first act initiates and encompasses two levels of action and meaning, as the economic concerns of a particular family become the vehicle for viewing the moral, political, and religious structure of the whole social order. We are thrust into this situation from the very beginning as Lady Britomart—that “very typical managing matron of the upper class … conceiving the universe exactly as if it were a large house in Wilton Crescent” (p. 243)—confronts her son, Stephen, with an accounting of her pressing problems of family management, focused on questions of household budgetary finance.4

We learn that daughter Sarah is engaged to Charles Lomax, who will become a millionaire at thirty-five, but who, during the ten year interval before that can take place, will receive only eight hundred pounds a year. During that period Sarah therefore requires another eight hundred pounds annually; even then the couple will be “as poor as church mice.” (p. 245) The other daughter, Barbara, instead of making the brilliant career her mother expected, has joined the Salvation Army, discharged her maid, undertaken to live on one pound a week, and become engaged to Adolphus Cusins, an impecunious professor of Greek. Just as Stephen, in harboring such reservations as he has about Cusins, “was thinking only of his income,” so Lady Britomart takes the professor's economic measure as one of the “quiet, simple, refined, poetic people,” who, content only with the best,...

(The entire section contains 19803 words.)

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