George Bernard Shaw

Start Free Trial

Sidney P. Albert (essay date December 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7636

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

[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, “cost more than your extravagant people.” (p. 246) Barbara, accordingly, will need two thousand pounds a year. Very likely an additional household will have to be maintained: this busy mother notifies Stephen that she is trying to arrange a marriage for him as well. In her own house she can provide for her children, but four separate households are beyond her means. Her father, the Earl of Stevenage, is poor and cannot help; nor should he be asked to support the children of a notoriously wealthy father.

This critical appraisal of familial financial assets and liabilities by Lady Britomart inevitably shifts attention to the family provider, her estranged millionaire husband, Andrew Undershaft, of the munitions firm of Undershaft and Lazarus, “Death and Destruction Dealers: address, Christendom and Judea.” (p. 247) The domestic economy of a family of the nobility directly involves us in the political economy of the western world. By the sale of cannons and by arranging war loans in the guise of credit, Undershaft and his partner “have Europe under their thumbs.” (p. 247) The illegitimately born Undershaft, his wife explains, continues to live beyond the reach of the law; his motto, “Unashamed.” Her breach with him, professedly on moral grounds, really stems from the loss of an inheritance; for Lady Britomart is unwilling to abide by the Undershaft tradition, which calls for the head of the firm to adopt a foundling, bestow upon him the name of Andrew Undershaft, and leave the firm to him as successor. The tradition automatically disinherits any legitimate son, in this case, Stephen. Determined to defend his title to the succession, his mother has a ready reply to Stephen's disclaimer of ability to manage a cannon foundry: “Nonsense! you could easily get a manager and pay him a salary.” (p. 249)

Her objection to Undershaft for being immoral in thought and speech, rather than in deed, prompts Stephen to the moral stance of spurning any financial assistance from his father. But his mother insists, “I must get the money somehow” (p. 251), foreshadowing similar utterances by Barbara in the second act about the Salvation Army's need for funds. (pp. 289-290) The foundation for Stephen's moral posture is undermined when he learns that their present income, although settled upon them, comes from Undershaft. His mother considers this a “very good bargain” (p. 251) for Undershaft, who merely contributes money to his family, while the Stevenages contribute social position. In her view, the question before them is not whether to take money from Undershaft, but “how much.” In view of the added “cost” of their fiancés, the girls need more money, and she is prepared to ask for it. Under the guise of seeking Stephen's “advice” she effectively silences his moralistic objections, informing him that Undershaft has been invited to the house to see for himself the inability of his prospective sons-in-law to support their wives.

The stage is set for the introduction of Undershaft to his family. He enters the drama not only as absent father, but as prospective agent for the solution of his family's financial problems. By allegorical extension, he also appears as industrial provider for a parasitic aristocracy lacking independent means of support. Viewed in this light, the defense of conventional morality and religion advanced by Lady Britomart, Stephen, and Charles Lomax in their exchanges with Undershaft has all the more hollow a ring. Not only are they all “utterly dependent on him and his cannons” (p. 251) as Stephen comes to realize, but when their benefactor unabashedly describes himself as “a profiteer in mutilation and murder,” he leaves no doubt about the nature of the deeds in which they are implicated. In dissociating himself from “those men who keep their morals and their business in water-tight compartments,” he also anticipates the play's subsequent concern with the inseparability of the moral and economic functions of society. Unlike his trade rivals he spends his spare money not on such “receptacles for conscience money” (p. 261) as hospitals and cathedrals, but on research to improve methods of destruction. Their “Christmas card moralities of peace on earth and goodwill among men” are of no use to him; their Christian injunctions not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek would make him “a bankrupt.” (p. 262) His morality, his religion, must provide for cannons and torpedoes. By implication so must theirs, when stripped of hypocrisy, since they must rely on him for their very livelihood. In this manner the deceptively charming comic banter of the first act is charged with ironic comment about the questionable economic and ethical basis of the established social order and its professed standards of morality and religion.

Lady Britomart's persisting demands for her son's inheritance are left for later disposition. More serious are the challenges to Undershaft that Barbara and Cusins pose—she representing the claims of genuine morality and religious dedication, he those of intellect and culture. The first act culminates in the “bargain” her father adroitly makes with Barbara to visit her Salvation Shelter the next day, on the condition that she come to his cannon works on the day following. This bargain initiates a contest for power between them and, at the same time, between the establishments represented on the one hand by “the sign of the cross,” and on the other by “the sign of the sword.” (p. 263)

From the domestic economy of the first act we turn to the more complicated moral economics of religious charity, sin, and redemption in the second act. The successive actions which relate the characters who meet in the Salvation Army shelter also turn out to be a series of moral and religious transactions expressed in economic terms. They bargain, deal, trade, and perform services to require debts. Most of their trade with one another is less a matter of gaining profit than of restoring some loss—whether incurred as hunger, charity, injury, sin or guilt—by means of reparation, restitution, theft, revenge, punishment, or atonement. They are doggedly bent on balancing their moral accounts.

Snobby Price and Rummy Mitchens connive to get Salvation Army handouts. They are willing to play the “game” expected of them—the invention and confession of misdeeds—in exchange for food. This game makes it possible for the Army to “rescue” them and to raise funds for that purpose. Snobby considers the meals given the poor to be partial recompense for those which the rich, whom he calls “thievin swine” (p. 269), have stolen from them. “Get a bit o your own back” is his advice to the hungry Peter Shirley, the unemployed fitter. At the opposite extreme, Peter, who has “paid my way all through” (p. 269), reconciles himself to the acceptance of charity by regarding it as “only a loan” that he can pay back later. (p. 270) Bill Walker appears on the scene looking for Mog Habbijam, the girl friend who has left him to join the Salvation Army, so that he can repay her with a beating. In her absence he strikes first Rummy and then Jenny Hill, the Salvation lass. Since it was Jenny who converted Mog, she, in effect, receives the blow as Mog's surrogate. When Bill learns that the major in charge of the shelter is the Earl of Stevenage's granddaughter, he is cowed; contending that he has done nothing to her, he is nonetheless fearful of what “them people can do” by the mere claim of injury. (p. 274)

Soon Barbara, “brisk and businesslike,” notebook in hand, enters to conduct interviews with Peter and Bill in turn. These interviews, ostensibly occupational, take on moral and religious overtones. “Names and addresses and trades,” Barbara begins. But she is shortly averring that the hardworking but superannuated fitter's prospects depend upon another kind of trade—“if you did your part God will do his.” (p. 274) So interpreted the conventional religious relationship itself becomes a balancing of accounts,5 a conception which the drama recasts in the last act. At the same time Barbara acts to resist at every turn attempts to reach moral accommodation within the shelter. Thus when Peter considers himself obliged to obey her request that he lend a hand to the weary Salvation lasses because he is indebted to them for a meal, she protests, “Oh, not because youre in their debt, but for love of them, Peter, for love of them.” (p. 279)

In dealing with Bill, Barbara takes advantage of his reluctance to respond to her inquiries by suggesting that striking women is his trade. A contest between them ensues. Bill tries to “square” matters with Jenny Hill (p. 282) and to purchase a free conscience by being “paid out” (p. 291), first by inviting a beating as compensatory punishment from Mog's new “bloke,” Todger Fairmile, and, when that fails, by offering to pay one pound as a self-imposed fine. Barbara undertakes to acquire his soul for the Army by steadfastly refusing such external recompense. Confident of success, she challenges him to resistance: “Dont lets get you cheap.” (p. 281) As long as he is unable to balance his accounts, the only means of salvation he has left is to cease being a ruffian, as Shaw explains in the Preface. (p. 225)

The moral attack is carried much further in this act, and again in business terms. Indeed, the Salvation Army, in its religious efforts to develop consciences in the Bill Walkers of the world, has to engage in moral bookkeeping of its own. The topics of religion and business are brought together in a revealing discussion between Undershaft and Cusins. Counseling the scholar-poet to “first acquire money enough for a decent life, and power enough to be your own master” (p. 285), the millionaire defends a religion in which money and gunpowder, equated with freedom and power, are the sole conditions of salvation. Soon after Cusins's subsequent remark that the “business” of the Salvation Army is to save (p. 286), Undershaft identifies religion as their “business” of the moment, if they are to win Barbara. Explaining that he never asks for what he can buy, and that “all religious organizations exist by selling themselves to the rich” (p. 288), he confidently declares his intention to win over his daughter by purchasing the Salvation Army. He goes on to spell out for Cusins the economic utility of buying this “Church of the poor” (pp. 288-289):

I dont think you quite know what the Army does for the poor.
Oh yes I do. It draws their teeth: that is enough for me as a man of business.
Nonsense! It makes them sober—
I prefer sober workmen. The profits are larger.
Honest workmen are the most economical.
—attached to their homes—
So much the better: they will put up with anything sooner than change their shop.
An invaluable safeguard against revolution.
Indifferent to their own interests, which suits me exactly.
—with their thoughts on heavenly things—
(rising) And not on Trade Unionism nor Socialism. Excellent.
(revolted) You really are an infernal old rascal.
(indicating Peter Shirley …) And this is an honest man!
Yes; and what av I got by it? …
(replying to Shirley) Oh, your employers must have got a good deal by it from first to last.

The example of Peter Shirley helps the Machiavellian capitalist drive home his lesson. The accepted goals of ordinary morality, like those of respectable religion, far from providing worthy ends for human conduct, are readily exploited as means to the narrow self-interest of the economically powerful. In contention with the latter they serve no better than did the earlier righteous protests of the hapless and vulnerable Shirley against the shrewd and resourceful millionaire:

… I wouldnt have your conscience, not for all your income.
I wouldn't have your income, not for all your conscience, Mr Shirley.

(p. 279)

The connection between money and morality undergoes further development in the following scene. Having just contrasted the bitter poverty of Peter Shirley with the financial might of Undershaft, Shaw goes on to juxtapose even more sharply the poverty of the Salvation Army itself—the agency seeking to rescue and regenerate the poor—and the affluent power of its antagonists, represented by Undershaft and Bodger. The impoverishment in each case is monetary, but it is moral and spiritual as well: it symbolizes the lack of the wherewithal to be a truly independent and effective force. The poor are wanting in means, and without means, ideals and ends, however noble, are impotent.

The Army's dependent position is dramatized in the counting of the collection money. Barbara's “How much, Jenny?” (p. 289) echoes Lady Britomart's “it is simply a question of how much” (p. 251) in Act I. Like her mother Barbara reiterates the need for money; but she wants it for the Army. Her monetary references mount in a significant crescendo from small change up to larger and larger sums: “I am getting at last to think more of the collection than of the people's souls. And what are those hatfuls of pence and halfpence? We want thousands! tens of thousands! hundreds of thousands! I want to convert people, not to be always begging for the Army in a way I'd die sooner than beg for myself.” (p. 290)

The scene is etched in irony. For while Barbara laments the Army's great need for money, she concurrently rejects two successive and increasing offers of funds by her father. “You cant buy your salvation here for twopence” is her reply to his first bid. “Two million millions would not be enough,” she adds, when he suggests that he can give more. The “bad blood” on his hands disqualifies his gift: “Money is no use. Take it away.” She is adamant in her refusal. Yet in the very same speech her desperation breaks through: “The General says we must close this shelter if we cant get more money.” In the end her resurging optimism inspires an inauspicious prophecy: “We shall get the money.” (p. 290)

The dramatic concern with money gradually moves from the question, How much? to the amount required for salvation. The economics of salvation, in turn, raises the issue of its moral price. When Bill Walker offers a pound as compensation for injuring Jenny Hill, Barbara insists “the Army is not to be bought”; she will settle for nothing less than his soul. This prompts Undershaft to offer an additional ninety-nine pounds if she will accept Bill's one pound. For the third time Barbara spurns his bid: “Oh, youre too extravagant, papa. Bill offers twenty pieces of silver. All you need offer is the other ten. That will make the standard price to buy anybody who's for sale. I'm not; and the Army's not.” (p. 293)

But the time has come for Barbara to learn that the Army does have its price, as does salvation itself. Commissioner Baines arrives to report that the distiller, Horace Bodger, has promised five thousand pounds to the Army if it can get others to match that amount. It takes little coaxing by Mrs. Baines to persuade Undershaft to subscribe the other five thousand pounds, despite Barbara's vain protests. In making the gift Undershaft pointedly directs attention to the devastation of war which produces his wealth, underscoring the “bad blood” on his hands to which Barbara had so strenuously objected. Tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that, like Bodger, he is giving money to an institution whose success would effect his own commercial ruin. The lesson of the first act is reinforced—not only the ruling class, but even the sincerest religious institutions are inescapably dependent upon morally questionable sources of income.

Barbara has witnessed her father's purchase of the Army's integrity and independence. This climactic commercial transaction brings in its wake the settling of the remaining accounts. Barbara performs the ritual of pinning her silver S brooch on her father's collar, with the chiding appraisal, “It's not much for £5000, is it?” (p. 300) She has actually completed the act of purchase, turning over to him the goods he has bought. The “converted” Snobby Price has, in the meantime, pilfered Walker's rejected pound. In not informing on him at the time, Rummy Mitchens considers herself to have cost Bill his pound; she is now “even” with him for having hit her. Bill, for his part, has been getting “a bit o me own back” by taunting Barbara with the question “Wot prawce selvytion nah?” It is his turn to insist that he cannot be bought, as he refuses Barbara's proposal to reimburse him for his stolen pound. She almost got his soul, she reminds him: “But weve sold it back to you for ten thousand pounds.” Though Shirley considers this “dear at the money,” to Barbara “it was worth more than money.” (p. 301) In any event, Bill's account is settled. There remains his doubly punning caption to the exchange: “Wot prawce selvytion nah? Snobby Price!” (p. 302) A little while before it was Bill Walker who had returned to the shelter “like a cleaned-out gambler.” (p. 291) Now it is Barbara who tells Shirley, “I'm like you now. Cleaned out, and lost my job.” (p. 302) Her moral defeat is visibly enacted in the form of a final pecuniary inventory. Just as the earlier counting of the collection money had symbolized the Army's lack of means of accomplishment, so Barbara's counting of her own meager funds now graphically expresses the exhaustion of her resources. It also fully and dramatically exposes the futility of her voluntary assumption of poverty upon joining the Army.

This detailed network of monetary and moral commerce has yielded a successive squaring and balancing of accounts among the minor figures of the drama, bringing gain to Undershaft and loss to Barbara. In the process morality has succumbed to trade. Bill Walker was on his way to moral regeneration until he discovered that absolution is available to snobbish people at the right price. Clearly the Army of salvation could no more afford Barbara's resolute moral stand than Lady Britomart in the first act could afford Stephen's imperceptive moral posturing.

In this second act Shaw has dramatized the moral insolvency of a society which seeks to supply means for escaping what he calls in the Preface “the inexorability of the deed.” “You will never get a high morality from people who conceive that their misdeeds are revocable and pardonable, or in a society where absolution and expiation are officially provided for us all.” (p. 225) The charge of vainly claiming to balance our moral accounts he lays equally at the doorstep of our legal and religious institutions. Punishment breeds forgiveness and both undermine morality. “We frantically scatter conscience money and invent systems of conscience banking, with expiatory penalties, atonements, redemptions, salvations, hospital subscription lists and what not, to enable us to contract-out of the moral code.” (p. 240)

Shaw made more explicit use of the language of this moral economy in the Preface he wrote in 1922 to Sidney and Beatrice Webb's book, English Prisons under Local Government. In a section titled “Expiation and Moral Accountancy” he called punishment “a balancing of accounts with the soul.”

People who feel guilty are apt to inflict it on themselves if nobody will take the job off their hands. … Human self-respect wants so desperately to have its sins washed away, however purgatorially, that we are willing to go through the most fantastic ceremonies, conjurations, and ordeals to have our scarlet souls made whiter than snow. We naturally prefer to lay our sins on scapegoats or on the Cross, if our neighbors will let us off so easily; but when they will not, then we will cleanse ourselves by suffering a penalty sooner than be worried by our consciences. … I am arguing that the bargain should never have been made. … I would destroy the evildoer's delusion that there can be any forgiveness of sin. What is done cannot be undone; and the man who steals must remain a thief until he becomes another man, no matter what reparation he may make or suffer.6

The connection of the play with this passage is even closer. For Shaw goes on to say, “Once admit that if I do something wicked to you we are quits when you do something equally wicked to me, and you are bound to admit also that the two blacks make a white.”7 This simply generalizes Barbara's admonition when Bill Walker proposes to get himself beaten by Todger Fairmile in order to even matters with Jenny Hill: “Two black eyes wont make one white one, Bill.” (p. 282)

It is against this uncompromising morality that the social and religious conduct of Act II of Major Barbara is measured and found wanting. At the same time it is noteworthy that of the central trio of characters, Barbara alone engages in this kind of moral accountancy, and her involvement up to this point (excepting the suggestion of reciprocation by God) is essentially negative: an effort, ultimately futile, to oppose it. For his part, Undershaft takes cynical advantage of its employment by others; and Cusins makes ironic comment upon the actions of the others. His turn to engage in moral economics is reserved for the second scene of the third act, with Undershaft as adversary.

In the first scene of Act III Lady Britomart makes the financial demands upon her husband that she had planned in the first act. To her requests for additional sums for Sarah and Barbara, in order to repair the monetary deficiencies of Lomax and Cusins respectively, Undershaft accedes at once. But her efforts to secure the succession for Stephen prove unavailing. There follows an occupational interview of Stephen by Undershaft, comparable to those of Peter Shirley and Bill Walker by Barbara in the second act. As in the earlier interviews, questions about vocational qualifications take on ethical significance. The interrogation exposes Stephen as ill-equipped not merely for business but for any art or profession as well. His deluded pretensions to moral knowledge, his father concludes, suit him only for a political or journalistic career. His disinheritance is confirmed.

Scene after scene makes it increasingly evident that socially decisive economic power resides in the armament factory and its owner. In his brutal “I am the government of your country” speech, Undershaft explains how his industrial interests control governmental actions. The government “will do what pays us,” he says. “You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesnt. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military. And in return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers.” As the proprietor of the counting-house he can “pay the piper and call the tune.” (p. 312)

In another long and parallel speech Undershaft explains how he controls his workmen effortlessly by availing himself of the interest every man and wife have in maintaining a position of superiority over those economically below them. “The result,” he concludes, “is a colossal profit, which comes to me.” (p. 315) By now it is clear that the economic forces at Undershaft's command make it possible for him to appropriate to his own advantage every class and every pursuit in the whole social order. He holds the keys to the kingdom. Who will succeed to those keys thus becomes of paramount importance.

With Stephen irretrievably disqualified, the way is now open for the final occupational interview, that of Cusins as candidate to succeed Undershaft as head of the firm. This time the participants are more evenly matched, for whatever Undershaft's initial advantage and superior position, Cusins has by now had the opportunity to study the millionaire in the effective exercise of his power. It is Cusins who seizes the initiative; it is he also who must eventually decide whether or not to accept the inheritance. For, as he says to his prospective employer (prospective partner, parent, and namesake as well), “You cannot do without me; and I can do without you.” (p. 324)

Once Cusins has “cornered the foundling market” by establishing the technical illegitimacy of his birth and his consequent eligibility for the position, the two men undertake to “settle the practical details” (p. 324), leaving Adolphus's final decision open. They start by bargaining about salary. Following the pattern of the other interviews, the discussion moves from practical, economic considerations to their moral implications. Here it progresses from the price of Cusins's talents to the cost of his soul. The stakes in the salary negotiations thus turn out to be much higher than they appear at first sight. Not only does Cusins bluff Undershaft into raising his initial offer from one thousand pounds a year to three thousand; he does so in part by claiming that he is bringing as invaluable “capital” to the concern—“my mastery of Greek … my access to the subtlest thought, the loftiest poetry yet attained by humanity. … My character! my intellect! my life! my career! what Barbara calls my soul!” (p. 325) Surprised at his easy success in this bargaining, Adolphus concedes that he would have taken a mere two hundred and fifty; whereupon Undershaft declares him “a shark of the first order.” (p. 326)

Barbara figures in these negotiations, too, for Cusins makes his bids as “son-in-law,” and Undershaft makes his final offer “for Barbara's sake.” (p. 325) Her responses to Adolphus bring out the deeper significance of their transaction. To his son-in-law's claims she rejoins: “You are selling your own soul, Dolly, not mine. Leave me out of the bargain, please.” (p. 325) At the settling of the wage question she asks, “Is the bargain closed, Dolly? Does your soul belong to him now?” “No: the price is settled: that is all,” he answers. “The real tug of war is still to come. What about the moral question?” (p. 326)

Barbara's double reference to the “bargain” recalls the earlier “bargain” made with her father at the end of the first act, which resulted in the moral privation she sustained in the second. Her father had succeeded in finding the price of every soul he had encountered, including Bill's, the one she had been wooing for salvation. But a moral issue still keeps the scholar beyond the reach of the munitions maker. Now it is Adolphus's turn to bargain. He had earlier confessed that Barbara had “bought” his soul “like a flower at a street corner.” (p. 322) At present that same soul is on the market at a higher price.

Undershaft's approach to the moral question continues to be economic. The armorer is morally neutral. His “true faith” requires him to “give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles … to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes, and all crimes.” (p. 326) “I will take an order from a good man as cheerfully as from a bad one” is his reply to the charge that he is a slave to “the most rascally part of society.” (p. 327) In other words, the economic power he wields does not by itself determine whether morally beneficial or harmful causes will prevail. Rather, this power poses a challenge to social control. Selfish and unprincipled people use power, economic and military; it is for those who would reform society to do likewise if they are to gain the upper hand. The alternative, “preaching and shirking” rather than “buying my weapons and fighting the rascals,” Undershaft repudiates as tiresome “morality mongering.” (p. 327) Action is called for, not unproductive righteousness.

As counsel to his discomfited daughter, Undershaft offers an unsentimental moral analogy drawn from industrial production:

What do we do here when we spend years of work and thought and thousands of pounds of solid cash on a new gun or an aerial battleship that turns out just a hairsbreadth wrong after all? Scrap it. Scrap it without wasting another hour or another pound on it. Well, you have made for yourself something that you call a morality or a religion or what not. It doesnt fit the facts. Well, scrap it. Scrap it and get one that does fit. That is what is wrong with the world at present. It scraps its obsolete steam engines and dynamos; but it wont scrap its old prejudices and its old moralities and its old religions and its old political constitutions. Whats the result? In machinery it does very well; but in morals and religion and politics it is working at a loss that brings it nearer bankruptcy every year. Dont persist in that folly. If your old religion broke down yesterday, get a newer and a better one for tomorrow.

(p. 328)

He goes on to specify the moral contribution which money can make: it saves souls. Money saves the souls of the workmen in his factory just as it saved Barbara's, making it possible for her to live handsomely and generously. It saves them all from the “seven deadly sins” of “food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children” and from the “crime of poverty.” (p. 329) He can save men like Bill Walker not by words and dreams, but by a permanent job, better wages, and decent living conditions. Converting the starving with a Bible and a slice of bread, he calls “cheap work.” Let his daughter try her hand on his people: “their souls are hungry because their bodies are full.” (p. 330)

Once more the play proposes money as the answer to its question about “the price of salvation.” Economic needs must be satisfied before moral improvement is possible. In the Preface Shaw links money inseparably with life itself: it is “the counter that enables life to be distributed socially: it is life as truly as sovereigns and bank notes are money.” (p. 215) Money is Shaw's basic economic metaphor, and it links economics to morality as essential means, without which morality degenerates into useless exhortation or bribery.

At the same time, Undershaft's apologia for the life of the millionaire, be it noted, is based on the maxim, “Thou shalt starve ere I starve” (p. 330), as well as on the moral preferability of being a thief rather than a pauper, and of being a murderer rather than a slave. (p. 331) “The faults of the burglar are the qualities of the financier,” Shaw asserts in the Preface. (p. 228) This pairing of the capitalist and thief in both play and preface should remind us that Shaw's espousal of the millionaire's cause is a qualified one, extending no further here than to the repudiation of the alternative of slavish poverty that an immoral society offers.

Furthermore, important as it is, the millionaire's eulogizing of money does not fully answer Bill Walker's question about the price of salvation. Nor does it exhaust the economic lessons for morality in the play. Still to be considered are the final judgments by Cusins and Barbara; and it is with these judgments that the drama ultimately and inextricably connects the question of salvation, both in and of society. It should be remembered that it was a genuine moral reform by Barbara that foundered on economic need; also that it is on moral grounds that Cusins will make his ultimate decision.

We come to know that decision for certain only when Cusins reports to Barbara that he is going to accept her father's offer. At this point their talk returns to the “sale” of his soul. She did not want him to sell it for her, nor for the inheritance. He replies: “It is not the sale of my soul that troubles me: I have sold it too often to care about that. I have sold it for a professorship. I have sold it for an income. I have sold it to escape being imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes for hangmen's ropes and unjust wars and things that I abhor. What is all human conduct but the daily and hourly sale of our souls for trifles? What I am now selling it for is neither money nor position nor comfort, but for reality and for power.” (p. 336)

It is of crucial significance that it is not money or income that he seeks, but power—power for the common people, as he goes on to explain. Undershaft's money and gunpowder are to be converted to the use of the people if Cusins gets his way. That is what the economy Undershaft controls can supply for morality—the power that must be captured if the general good is to prevail. Morality must be practical; it must be able to do, to destroy and create, if it is to be worth anything.

Barbara, too, has learned where control of money and of the tools of salvation lies: “Undershaft and Bodger: their hands stretch everywhere: when we feed a starving fellow creature, it is with their bread, because there is no other bread; when we tend the sick, it is in the hospitals they endow; if we turn from the churches they build, we must kneel on the stones of the streets they pave. As long as that lasts, there is no getting away from them. Turning our backs on Bodger and Undershaft is turning our backs on life.” (p. 338) Again, the stress is on the economic means which must be reckoned with and utilized. With this lesson Barbara returns to the task of saving human souls. She is rid of the “cheap work” with bribes of bread and heaven, and takes up the task of saving the men with full bodies and hungry souls whom her father makes accessible to her.

In dedicating herself to this task she revises her conception of religious obligation. Cusins earlier, in spurning a morality of forgiveness as “a beggar's refuge,” had insisted instead that “we must pay our debts.” (p. 334) Now Barbara, intending that God's work be done for its own sake, undertakes more than repayment. She will go beyond bringing her accounts into balance: she proposes to exchange with God the divine role of creditor. “When I die,” she affirms, “let him be in my debt, not I in his; and let me forgive him as becomes a woman of my rank.” (p. 339) No longer is “forgive us our debts” to be the religious way. She is committed to a new theology in which human obligations are not only to be met: they are to be transcended.

The idea of a bonus overpayment in discharging the indebtedness incurred as a beneficiary of civilized life recurs in Shaw. To cite but one instance, in the course of a discussion of political obligation in a 1909 speech he characterizes as “debts of honor” what we owe for our education and nurture, adding that one ought to “feel obliged not only to pay these debts, but to put in something over, so that he dies with his country in his debt, instead of dying in his country's debt. …”8

Barbara's formulation of this idea is broader, conceiving the obligation as religious, a recognition of life's overall genetic and cultural debt. In meeting and transcending this obligation by free and unstinting acts of supererogation one would morally exceed the price of salvation. In such voluntary commitment to rise above the economic quid pro quo, Barbara discerns the way to elevate man to divinity. Theological priority would then belong to mankind: the divine in the universe would owe a debt to human moral achievement. This a far cry from the naive trade conception of the religious relationship Barbara had so blithely invited Peter Shirley to accept in Act II. Indeed, she has taken quick and remarkable heed of her father's advice: since her religion broke down yesterday, she has acquired a new and better one for tomorrow. In the process she has confirmed Cusins's second act judgment: “Barbara is quite original in her religion.” (p. 286).

In the various ways indicated Shaw has brought economics into play in Major Barbara. As we have seen, economic transactions work throughout the drama to display and discredit conventional moral and religious practice. In the second act particularly they detail the failings of an ethical code that condones external budget balancing in lieu of reformation of character. In the remainder of the play they point up the power of means that religion and morality ignore at their peril. Money represents power. At the opposite extreme poverty represents not only the absence of money, but of power as well. To be poor is to be deprived of effective action—moral, political, and economic. Economic means are not intrinsically evil; they become so only when they fail to serve the common good. Any morality or religion to be effective must use these means, not be used by them. They form part of the price of the salvation of society and of men. Also included in that price is the correct assessment and control of the conditions to be encountered and eradicated or redirected. Beyond paying salvation's price lies the challenge to contribute to life something more than we receive.

But moral economics contributes to the form as well as to the meaning of the work. The economic means so crucial to moral ends likewise serve dramatic purposes. Economic exchanges infuse, condition, and canalize the play's situations, dialogue, and action. The economic dimension enlarges the dramatic and moral agency of the characters. An economic motif with ethical overtones is thus woven into the very fabric and pattern of the play. Although moral economics unravels but one of the strands in the complex design of Major Barbara, it nonetheless clearly attests to the artistic mastery with which its author could make dramatic capital out of the raw material of economics.


  1. Quoted in Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works (Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd, 1911), p. 291.

  2. Sixteen Self Sketches (London: Constable, 1949), Standard Edition, p. 89. This passage from “Biographers' Blunders Corrected” is a revision of what he had actually written to a prospective biographer, T. D. O'Bolger. In the original letter Shaw had described Widowers' Houses and Major Barbara as “dramas of the cash nexus (in plot).” Quoted by permission of The Society of Authors, for the Bernard Shaw Estate, and the Harvard College Library. Subsequent references to Shaw's works, unless otherwise indicated, are to the Standard Edition (1930-1950).

  3. Major Barbara, in John Bull's Other Island, How He Lied to Her Husband, Major Barbara, p. 300; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  4. Lady Britomart undoubtedly embodies an idea Shaw later expounded in The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (London: Constable, 1928), p. 49: “Men find political economy a dry an difficult subject: they shirk it as they shirk housekeeping; yet it means nothing more abstruse than the art of managing a country as a housekeeper manages a house. If the men shirk it the women must tackle it.”

  5. Cf. Plato, Euthyphro, 14E, where religion is ironically defined as an art of doing business between gods and men. In the Major Barbara Preface, p. 223, Shaw cites as one of the weaknesses of the Salvation Army the “bad habit” its officers and their followers have “of talking as if the Salvationists were heroically enduring a very bad time on earth as an investment which will bring them in dividends later on in the form, not of a better life to come for the whole world, but of an eternity spent by themselves personally in a sort of bliss which would bore any active person to a second death.” He had previously criticized such a conception in the Preface to his Three Plays for Puritans (p. xvii) in condemning “the Pseudo-religious story, in which the hero or heroine does good on strictly commercial grounds, reluctantly exercising a little virtue on earth in consideration of receiving an exorbitant payment in heaven. …” Cf. Preface, Androcles and the Lion, in Androcles and the Lion, Overruled, Pygmalion, pp. 11-12.

  6. English Local Government, Vol. VI (London: Longmans, Green, 1922), lii-liv. Reprinted in Crude Criminology in Shaw, Doctors' Delusions, Crude Criminology, Sham Education, pp. 214-215.

    In the Sanity of Art (originally composed in 1895), he had already written: “Our murderers, with the assistance of the jail chaplain, square accounts with the devil and with God, never with themselves. The convict gives every reason for his having stolen something except the reason that he is a thief.” Major Critical Essays, p. 311.

    Cf. William James on “Habit”:

    We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. The drunken Rip Van Winkle, in Jefferson's play, excuses himself for every fresh dereliction by saying, “I won't count this time!” Well! he may not count it, and a kind Heaven may not count it; but it is being counted none the less. … Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out. As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Psychology (New York: Holt, 1892), p. 150.

  7. Preface, English Prisons, liv (Crude Criminology, p. 216). In his numerous discussions of justice and punishment Shaw reiterated this proverbial denial that “two blacks make a white.” See, e.g., The Revolutionist's Handbook, in Man and Superman, p. 198; Preface, Androcles and the Lion, p. 12; Preface, On the Rocks, in Too True to Be Good, Village Wooing & On the Rocks, pp. 155, 186; Postscript, Back to Methuselah, p. 259; “Symposium on Capital Punishment,” The Medico-Legal Journal, XV, 1947, Part II, 56.

  8. “The Ideal of Citizenship,” October 11, 1909, in Bernard Shaw, Platform and Pulpit, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962), p. 81. In the Preface to Major Barbara Shaw refuses to consider any Salvationist truly saved “until he is ready to lie down cheerfully on the scrap heap, having paid scot and lot and something over.” (p. 224) See also “Civilized Man Is Not Born Free,” in Preface, English Prisons, lvii (Crude Criminology, p. 219); Cf. Preface, Misalliance, in Misalliance, The Dark Lady of the Sonnets & Fanny's First Play, pp. 27, 35; and Preface, Androcles and the Lion, p. 61.

Kurt Tetzeli v. Rosador (essay date June 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5932

SOURCE: Rosador, Kurt Tetzeli v. “The Natural History of Major Barbara.Modern Drama 17, no. 2 (June 1974): 141-53.

[In the following essay, Rosador considers Major Barbara to be a depiction of Shaw's theory of history.]

When in 1949 Francis Fergusson described the content of Shavian drama as “unresolved paradox,”1 using Major Barbara and Heartbreak House as an illustration, he not only echoed countless early critics,2 but also furthered the label-sticking method of interpretation which has vitiated so much of Shaw criticism. “The play,” says Fergusson, “is a parlor-game based upon the freedom of the mind to name and then to rationalize anything, without ever deviating from the concept to the thing.” It is, therefore, not grounded in reality, but merely “a string of jokes which touch nothing.”3 This thesis certainly does run counter to Shaw's professed dramatic aims, and its influence seems due both to Fergusson's persuasive style and to concepts of realism which shortcircuit the subtle relation of the dramatic signs with their extradramatic referents. This difficulty in relating the play's ideas to some consistent Weltanschauung, some formative reality, has apparently led a recent study, in spite of criticizing Fergusson and brilliantly enlarging our understanding of Major Barbara by describing the play's mythical pattern and analogies, to conclude that “as a total structure of ideas the play remains a paradox in which antitheses retain their full value and cannot be resolved away.”4

In opposition to these views, I shall argue in the following that the play is a portrayal of Shaw's theory of history, and that it derives its, admittedly problematical and highly precarious, consistency from it; that Shaw's view of history as natural history leads to an analysis of the nature of man and society in socio-economic and metabiological or religious terms; that, while the socio-economic dimension of man and society is fully drawn and discussed, the metabiological side is, owing to its future perspective, treated less extensively, thus connecting social actuality and possible biological advance, present diagnosis and future hope only briefly and rather implicitly. Still, the spectator—to whom all Shavian drama, as has frequently been pointed out, is addressed5—is enabled to grasp intuitively a future solution to the tragic waste of the present and its paradoxical social state and to draw hope from this possibility. It is the whole dramatic pattern, not single, seemingly choric utterances of any of his dramatic figures, which Shaw employs to instil this hope. Much criticism has been blinded to this fact by the sheer verbal profusion and eloquence of Shaw's plays. One of the more important elements in this dramatic pattern is the heartbreak, the disillusion and final conversion of Barbara Undershaft, demonstrating the potential for improvement, or even ultimate perfection, of mankind. Heartbreak and conversion, therefore, are not merely individual and spiritual experiences, but tokens of a different existence, the existence of the superman. But if the nexus between the play and reality (history and religion), between the present and the future is severed, Major Barbara is necessarily reduced to a brilliantly clever jeu d'esprit, and mimesis shrinks into unresolved paradox.

In a sense all Shavian drama is historical. In an interview on Widowers' Houses, published in The Star (29 November 1892) and drafted by himself, Shaw answers his own question about the number of acts:

“Seventeen. Widowers' Houses is a mere episode in a historic drama.” (Here Mr. Shaw held me spellbound for nearly an hour with a brilliant aperçu of the social and industrial development of England from the Reformation up to the twenty-second century of which he has the clearest prevision.)6

Shaw makes a similar point about Arms and the Man.7 Although couched in facetious terms, both remarks throw light on the relation of Shaw's plays to reality. They illustrate his socialist view, that the present is merely an episode in the time-continuum of history, which is shaped by socio-economic conditions. It may be accidental, yet Shaw still commences his historical lecture with the beginnings of capitalism (the Reformation), of which the present is still part and parcel, thus explaining its immediate causes. But the extension of his explanation into the future is probably the most significant element in Shaw's theory of history. It is his vision and foreknowledge of the future (the twenty-second century) which enables Shaw to judge the present. Zoo in the Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman succinctly expresses this view. when she rebukes the eponymous hero: “How often must I tell you that we are made wise not by the recollections of our past, but by the responsibilities of our future.”8 A better future, however, can only be achieved—and to this the lengthy metabiological pentateuch bears ample witness—by biological progress, the development of man into superman, which must be brought about, otherwise man will be superseded by the supersnake or some other more vital instrument of the Life Force. This culmination of the metabiological dimension of Shaw's theory of history was already anticipated in his earlier plays, in Caesar and Cleopatra, in Man and Superman, to name but two. They demonstrate that almost right from the beginning of Shaw's playwriting career socialist and metabiological concepts coexisted in his theory of history. It was their relation to each other and their contribution to Shaw's view of progress which changed and which accounts for a number of contradictions in, and the rich variety of, Shaw's dramatic oeuvre.

Both elements are conceptually held together by Shaw's definition of history as natural history. It would be tempting to trace the antecedents of the term back to its eighteenth-century origins and to prove that Shaw's historical thought is as much indebted to this favourite concept of the enlightenment as to nineteenth-century theorists and historians—Marx and Buckle among them. Shaw's natural history intends to show, very much like that of the eighteenth-century philosophe,

how the present had come to be as it was, to demonstrate the provisions in nature—the nature of man and the nature of society—by which civilization had developed from primitive origins to its existing stage, and what might be done to aid this process of development in the interest of a more perfect society.9

All the main elements of this description of eighteenth-century history are applicable to Shaw: the demand for a fully-fledged anthropology and sociology is met by Shaw's metabiological and socialist theories, the developmental view of history is evidenced as early as the interview on Widowers' Houses, the direction towards the future is documented by Zoo's remark. Yet for our present purposes it is more important to describe the component parts of this Shavian key-concept of natural history than to trace its historical origins and sources.

In the “Preface” to Plays Pleasant Shaw deplores the “romantic convention” on which society functions and concludes:

To me the tragedy and comedy of life lie in the consequences, sometimes terrible, sometimes ludicrous, of our persistent attempts to found our institutions on the ideals suggested to our imaginations by our half-satisfied passions, instead of on a genuinely scientific natural history.10

Natural history is, therefore, the science of reality; only through the insights it provides, and through them alone, will it be possible to found society on a realistic instead of an idealistic basis. Furthermore, natural history is a science of society. It analyzes the nature of society, and nature—for Shaw as for the Greeks—means “the way things grow” (physis).11 But society is not a hypostatized edifice, it is man's work: the science of society must be based on a science of man. This is clearly expressed in a letter to Augustin Hamon (9 January 1907), and Candida is used as an example:

My plays are studies in the natural history of mankind: I am simply a dramatic Buffon or St Hilaire. When you read Buffon's description of the Horse you do not begin to ask whether Buffon regarded the Horse as a triumph of speed, or a triumph of traction power, or a triumph of fidelity; you understand that he is simply trying to shew you what sort of animal a horse is. Well, in Candida I am simply trying to shew you the sort of animal the people in Candida are.12

The demand thus produced for an anthropology and sociology of the present and the future was met by Shaw through his theory of creative evolution and his Fabian socialism. There is no need to reproduce either here at length, although neither is without its inherent problems and contradictions. Instead I shall briefly remark on a few of the varying combinations in which these two components of natural history are found in Shaw's essays and plays. The critical meeting-point of both is the problem of progress, of the future. It can be summarized under the still frequently and hotly debated question as to whether man must change first to produce a better society or whether society must be changed to enable man to perfect himself. The future proves thus again to be the touchstone of Shaw's natural history.

How, then, can progress be achieved, and in what does it consist? The Quintessence of Ibsenism provides an early, direct, and unambiguous answer:

The point to seize is that social progress takes effect through the replacement of old institutions by new ones; and since every institution involves the recognition of the duty of conforming to it, progress must involve the repudiation of an established duty at every step.13

The possibility of social progress is not disputed. It can take effect through the replacement of old institutions—and by institutions Shaw means not only what is now called the Establishment, but also any laws and ideals, including property, marriage and the seven deadly virtues. Thus, the early plays—and Widowers' Houses and Mrs. Warren's Profession are the most striking examples—describe and demonstrate the contradictions and paradoxes of capitalist society and the all-pervasive existence of capitalist practices, and they indict people, like Trench, who think in terms of clear moral right and wrong, of wilful social blindness. These persons—and the audience with them—experience what in view of Shaw's later plays might be called a negative conversion; they are brought to a realistic insight into the workings of society. Out of this technique of clearing the ground, seen in the early plays, the possibility of liberating man and of reconstructing society realistically arises.14 This, to be sure, is either not presented at all or only vaguely implied in most of these early plays. But potential social progress is never in doubt.

This doubt, however, can be found in The Quintessence of Ibsenism in the account of Little Eyolf, which Shaw added for the 1913 edition:

When a man is at last brought face to face with himself by a brave Individualism, he finds himself face to face, not with an individual, but with a species, and knows that to save himself, he must save the race.15

Although the earlier supraindividual view of man would seem to be retained, Shaw's use of terms is striking: biological (“species,” “race”) and religious (“save”) vocabulary predominates. (I shall show later that religion and (meta)biology cannot be dissociated in Shaw's thought.) This switch from the reform of society to the improvement of man dates back at least to The Perfect Wagnerite, where Shaw had proclaimed, that “no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human material for society.”16 Only if man can be improved will progress take place. And Shaw's historical plays (in the usual sense) contain this message: they are based on the assumption that, as no improvement in the “human material” can be discovered in historical time, past and present are identical.

It is, of course, Man and Superman and especially The Revolutionist's Handbook which promulgate these views in extenso. “The mere transfiguration of institutions,” says the latter, listing forms of government, beliefs, and ideals, “are all but changes from Tweedledum to Tweedledee.”17 Social and socialist reforms are almost completely discarded; unless man's nature is changed, they have no chance whatsoever of being realized. Tanner calls both the Fabian method of gradualism and the revolutionary total overthrow of society “fundamentally futile,”18 and sums up in one of his maxims: “Political Economy and Social Economy are amusing intellectual games; but Vital Economy is the Philosopher's Stone.”19Man and Superman, consequently, limits its social diagnosis to a few references and sidelights, as illustrated by the figure of Enry Straker or by the brigands' hilarious discussion. It finds in its dramatic pattern, the inverted love-chase, the means to the end of shaping metabiological reform, the birth of the superman. The sociology of the present and the future hence is secondary to the anthropology of the present and the future. The early emphasis on social conditions as a determinant of man's nature in Shaw's concept of natural history is replaced by a consecutive theoretical approach—namely, that the necessary preliminary step is a consideration of the nature of man and then, possibly, of the nature of society.

This anthropology is comprehended in Shaw's science of metabiology, which in its turn is presented in religious terms. In fact, metabiology is the Shavian religion for the twentieth century. This accounts for the religious vocabulary in the interpretation of Little Eyolf. Creative evolution is

a faith which complied with the first condition of all the religions that have ever taken hold of humanity: namely, that it must be, first and fundamentally, a science of metabiology.20

The religion of creative evolution has so frequently been studied,21 that I am absolved from doing so again. Let me, therefore, only emphasize, first, the developmental aspect of creative evolution, secondly, that the telos of this development is “the struggle of Life to become divinely conscious of itself”22 and, thirdly, that it is rather comprehensive and mystical a religion.23

It ought to have become clear by now, why Shaw could state as early as the “Preface” to Plays Pleasant, that “no frontier can be marked between drama and history or religion.”24 The dramatic presentation of natural history is determined by the depiction of man (creative evolution, anthropology, religion) and society (Fabian socialism, sociology, history proper). All the plays are, at least to some degree, shaped by it, and it is in this sense that they can be called historical. But whereas the early plays can be said to have neglected the problems of the nature of man, Man and Superman neglected the nature of society. Although they are the two main pillars of Shaw's philosophy, no play before Major Barbara—with the possible exception of John Bull's Other Island—had as yet attempted to relate them fully and settle dramatically the question of their relationship, their importance and the order of precedence. It remains to be shown that Major Barbara indeed tries to mould both these themes and to put forward a view of their connection.

There are at the least indications in the “Preface” to Major Barbara that Shaw regards this play, too, as a study in natural history. Although the “old phrase” is only applied to Charles Lever's novel,25 which Shaw presents as one of the native sources of some of his basic ideas, the reference to a play about Barbara's possible return to the Salvation Army as “a subject for the dramatic historian of the future”26 expresses Shaw's estimation of his own job as a historian. The historical analysis of the present, the period Major Barbara deals with, must concern itself, as indeed all Shaw's historical analysis does, with the nature of man and society. One could all too readily conclude that in Major Barbara capitalist society is drawn in the analytic way of Widowers' Houses, bringing home to Barbara, as to Trench, the basic truth that nobody can escape its workings, that all property is theft, that moral revulsion is a mere emotional luxury: When Lady Britomart points out to her priggish son Stephen in the first act that they all live on money from gunpowder, when in the second act Barbara's heartbreak—the Shavian metaphor for the insight gained into reality—is initiated by her realization, that the Salvation Army is dependent on money from whiskey and gunpowder, the effect on the audience is completely analogous to the lesson it has drawn from Widowers' Houses. But while in Widowers' Houses this indictment of society is an end in itself, in Major Barbara it is much complicated and put into moral perspective by the manner of its presentation through Andrew Undershaft. For the career of Andrew Undershaft demonstrates that the ways of capitalist society are not necessarily damaging to the individual and the underdog. Although an outsider and foundling Undershaft has achieved his own personal liberation and self-realization as a master of reality within the capitalist system.27 Moreover, he enables his workers to lead a life beyond the dangers of pauperism through the “seven deadly sins” of “food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children” (III, 171 f.).28 He himself calls on all men to take his career as an example to be emulated and as a means to build “an England worth living in” (III, 173). His conduct, therefore, in Shaw's opinion “stands the Kantian test.”29 Now it would be easy to condemn the play for mere provocative brilliancy, as Professor Fergusson has done, and for its outrageous logical shortcomings. But the very easiness of this should signal a warning to all critics. In the play itself, interestingly enough, Undershaft's statement quoted above is not argued out, the interruption by Lady Britomart sidesteps the issue. (This, one of the frequent changes of direction in the debate, shows that the logic of the play's progression is determined, not by the barren logic of the technique of discussion, but by the spiritual state of the protagonists.) But the “Preface” provides the answer which is not given in the play: Undershaft is here compared to Froissart's robber-knight and, though again the knight is not only absolved of all blame for his behaviour, but praised as leading the right and public-spirited kind of life, Shaw continues: “Medieval society, on the other hand, behaved very badly indeed in organizing itself so stupidly that a good life could be achieved by robbing and pilling.”30 Medieval and—by way of comparison of knight and Undershaft—modern society must bear the blame, while the knight's and Undershaft's conduct is under past and present circumstances the right one. This definitely implies the need for social reform.

But this demand for reform is not only modified by Undershaft's career. It is forced into the background of the audience's mind by the main function of Undershaft, which carries plot and themes along, his rôle as the advocate of reality as against idealism, as a guide to Barbara and Adolphus Cusins; this functional aspect of Undershaft's part in Major Barbara has not been duly recognized by the critics of the play. But Undershaft himself realizes that he is driven by “a will of which I am a part” (III, 169). It is this will which uses him as an instrument in his own supersession and thus proves him wrong. An insight into social reality is obviously much more easily provided by description and analysis of it than by constructive criticism and indication of the means by which it can be changed. And the former is, in the main, what Undershaft does: he punctures conventional notions of moral idealism, shows how dependent reforming organizations are on the present capitalist conditions of society, exposes the sedative effect they have on potential rebellion, and demonstrates by his own example the way to freedom and power. The effect on his pupils, Barbara and Cusins, seems to be overwhelming, and even Shaw himself speaks in a letter to Gilbert Murray (7 October 1905) about the inevitability of “the triumph of Undershaft.”31 Add to this, as Martin Meisel has shown, that there is in heartbreak and disillusionment a tendency to accept the social reality,32 and yet another attitude towards society is apparently dramatized in the play. While Undershaft's career seems to say that capitalist society can provide a good life for the energetic individual, Barbara's heartbreak and disillusion might lead to resignation to, and acceptance of, “this frightful irony” (III 156).

But Shaw's own interpretation, though partially right, seems to me to be rather misleading; it does not take sufficient notice of a number of allusions, metaphors, the whole process of Barbara's and Cusins' conversion, and the theme of evolution, which together make the play's attitude towards present society clearer and point to a future solution. There are the Wagnerian allusions and analogies in Major Barbara, which J. L. Wisenthal has recently studied.33 He shows that the historical process of Wagner's Ring, as analysed by Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite, is paralleled in the play: Wotan Undershaft is replaced by Siegfried Cusins, the old hierarchical law—embodied, too, in Undershaft's union with Lady Britomart, the keeper of moral traditions and aristocratic value—by the new (socialist) vision. Cusins' ascendancy prepares the ground for its fulfilment. The motto Cusins as Andrew Undershaft VIII might conceivably write up in his factory, too, supports this interpretation.34 The new armorer's faith is, indeed, crucial for an understanding of the intimations of future progress and thus of the resolution of the contradictions inherent in capitalist society, as propounded by Undershaft. Despite Cusins' confession of “the wreck of my moral basis, the rout of my convictions” (III, 142) by Undershaft, despite Shaw's attribution of victory, Cusins' armorer's faith, his proposed business practices differ significantly from his father-in-law's: “I shall sell cannons to whom I please and refuse them to whom I please” (III, 169). The petulant “So there!,” added to this faith, unmasks the weakness of this attitude based on mere likes and dislikes, and Undershaft drives the point home by immediately calling Cusins “young man.” But in the decisive conversation between Cusins and Barbara at the end of the play, Cusins repeats the remark in a clarified and concrete way:

I now want to give the common man weapons against the intellectual man. I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyers, the doctors, the priests, the literary men, the professors, the artists, and the politicians, who, once in authority, are more disastrous and tyrannical than all the fools, rascals, and imposters. I want a power simple enough for common men to use, yet strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good.

(III, 181)

The abolition of the old armorer's faith is emphasized by Undershaft's absence, lending to Cusins' creed the weight of a direct, uncontradicted statement. Help for the common man, a society which serves him, in short, social progress is Cusins' intention. The possibility of a future socialist society is envisaged and its realization sought by reforms brought about through the cooperation of the common man and the masters of reality. In this way the future serves not only as a criticism of the present, but of Andrew Undershaft's social diagnosis and of his life as well. This is a criticism, admittedly, which the audience has to work out and apply for itself.

But Major Barbara as a study in natural history is only partly concerned with social questions; it is, above all, as Shaw wrote to Ellen Terry, “a frankly religious play,”35 and religion for Shaw means in the final analysis always the gospel of creative evolution. The “Preface” names directly only Undershaft as an exponent of the Life Force, and I have already indicated his ironic participation in the progress of life. The play, again, relies on implication and on the audience's ability to recognize a fundamental Shavian concept in various indirect guises and metaphorical expressions. One reason for this mode of presentation may have been that Shaw was, when he started work on Major Barbara, in the midst of preparing Man and Superman for the Royal Court, and dreaded repeating himself, but probably felt that he could rely on the playgoers' prior knowledge. Be that as it may, the depiction of the Life Force completes the natural history of Major Barbara.

First, there is the Salvation Army. What endears the Salvation Army to Cusins (and Shaw) is that it works analogously to the Life Force. It is a force of vitality, “of joy, of love, of courage” (II, 116). Moreover, its conversions are conversions to a better and higher life, from waster to man, from kitchen-worm to woman, from professor of Greek to rhapsodist, to use Cusins' splendidly pertinent and highly ironical examples. Viewed thus, the Salvation Army is one of the oblique expressions of the Life Force in the play. But, of course, this affinity is ironically undercut by Undershaft's proof that it is entirely dependent on capitalist society, by the way it unwittingly supports the pernicious status quo. The Army's pull towards the higher life is countered and paralysed by its acceptance of present social reality. Believing that it can use Bodger and Undershaft, it is itself used to their ends. The deadlock the Salvation Army finds itself in demonstrates that the direct way to a higher life is barred, that salvation cannot arise out of the present social conditions. When Bodger and Undershaft buy the Salvation Army, Barbara's heartbreak is not so much caused by this bare fact, but by the realization that her work has been futile: Bill Walker's sarcasm, Snobby Price's theft of the sovereign, and Rummy Mitchens' vengeful triumph drive the lesson home that there is no salvation for this—to use Shaw's earlier distasteful phrase—“human material.” Although the Salvation Army retains some qualities of the Life Force, it is, in the process of trial and error by which the latter works,36 an error.

Other metaphors and expressions of the religion of creative evolution remain equally oblique. When, for example, Cusins comes close to identifying “the power that wields Barbara herself” (II, 119), he does so negatively, excluding various religious creeds and leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions. Yet there are clearer signs of the pervasiveness of the Life Force. Cusins' treatment provides interesting insights. The attraction which draws him to Barbara is, even in the stage-direction which introduces him, identified as the power of creative evolution: “By the operation of some instinct which is not merciful enough to blind him with the illusion of love, he is obstinately bent on marrying Barbara” (I, 80). This idea is repeated a number of times (II, 118; III, 163; III, 177), showing Cusins' awareness of the strength of the mystical pull which draws him on. Even more definite is Cusins' description of the quality of his attraction to Barbara: “Dionysos and all the others are in herself. I adored what was divine in her, and was therefore a true worshipper” (III, 164). As the Life Force is nothing but the force to drive man towards reaching godhead,37 Cusin's love of Barbara's spark of divinity is a progressive element. It points towards the creation of a higher human being, the superman, godhead. The marriage of Cusins and Barbara, therefore, transcends mere social progress, it is a potential element of metabiological advance.38

But the most obvious sign of the power of the Life Force is Barbara Undershaft's development, her heartbreak and disillusion, her final conversion. By the end of the second act she has been driven into complete disillusionment as to the possibility of immediate salvation in a capitalist society. In contrast to Todger Fairmile, who “didnt give in to his salvation until his heart was going to break” (II, 113), Barbara's heartbreak is not resolved at once. The impasse she finds herself in after her disillusionment is externalized in her resumption of fashionable clothes at the beginning of the third act. But this apparent acceptance of her social rôle and the social reality behind it, is only a passing stage in her process of learning. It is also a necessary stage, for heartbreak and disillusionment are the preconditions of true salvation. Her father, the instrument of the Life Force, points the way: “If your old religion broke down yesterday, get a newer and a better one for tomorrow” (III, 171). Her visit to the model town of Perivale St. Andrews and the lesson she learns from her father that only material comfort has kept her out of the reach of the seven deadly sins, help her to grasp intuitively the way to true salvation. Her final conversion takes place after Cusins' decision to transform society according to socialist principles, thus relating social progress to true salvation in a future perspective.

Undershaft, who is instrumental in bringing about heartbreak and conversion, is restricted to these functions in the pattern of the play. Though he has led the way to the promised land, he will not be allowed to enter it. The terminology of socio-economics and metabiology, which has caused much difficulty,39 supports this evaluation of the play. The difference between Undershaft on the one hand and Barbara and Cusins on the other, is stressed: In Undershaft's gospel the two layers of imagery are put side by side paratactically, proving their equal importance: “Yes, money and gunpowder. Freedom and power. Command of life and command of death” (II, 120). This is the religion of the millionaire (II, 111); only for him are the parallel terms easily available. In contrast, the creed of Barbara and Cusins has a strong future implication:

Let God's work be done for its own sake: the work he had to create us to do because it cannot be done except 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.
Then the way of life lies through the factory of death?
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.

(III, 184)

This is the way and the aim of the Life Force. Although it is expressed by paradox and echoes from Bunyan, Blake and the Bible, the paradoxes are not bare verbal wit with no referent in reality but, like the paradoxes of Christian religion, due to the limited knowledge of man and to be resolved in the mind of God, or, in Shavian terms, in the progressive movement of the Life Force. Cusins will prepare the ground by helping the common man; then Barbara can fight the real class war, which “will be a war of intellectual classes; and its conquest will be the souls of the children.”40

It is in this way that Major Barbara settles the relationship between social and metabiological forces and progress. Social progress is the necessary precondition for metabiological fulfilment. This is, above all, demonstrated by the consecutiveness of social diagnosis and metabiological therapy, by the conversion of Barbara, by the attraction of Cusins to Barbara's divine element and their marriage, and, most strongly, by the supersession of Undershaft, which is pointedly underlined by his absence when Barbara and Cusins find their creed and aim. This idea is most clearly summarized in The Black Girl in Search of God, and not developed in a complete dramatic pattern as in Major Barbara, where the creed of Shaw's persona is eloquently described:

But nothing would ever persuade him that God was anything more solid and satisfactory than an eternal but as yet unfulfilled purpose, or that it could ever be fulfilled if the fulfilment were not made reasonably easy and hopeful by Socialism.41

The seeming paradoxes and contradictions of Major Barbara can, therefore, be resolved by relating them to the reality of the Shavian concept of natural history, to his Weltanschauung. Only if the relevance of this concept is neglected, or—and there is no denying that this is possible—if it is repudiated as fantastic nonsense, only then are the play's moorings in reality cut loose and its referents evaporate into verbal paradoxical cleverness.


  1. The Idea of a Theater, Princeton, 1968, p. 183.

  2. William Archer, for example, calls the plot “a negligible figment of unconditioned fantasy” in The World, 5 December 1905. Even Desmond MacCarthy, probably the most penetrating of early Shaw critics, comes very close to calling Major Barbara contradictory, confusing and paradoxical; cf. the collection of his reviews, Shaw, London, 1951, p. 53 f.

  3. Ibid., p. 181.

  4. Margery M. Morgan, The Shavian Playground. An Exploration of the Art of George Bernard Shaw, London, 1972, p. 157. Cf. also Daniel J. Leary, “Dialectical Action in Major Barbara,The Shaw Review 12, May 1969, pp. 46-58.

  5. Cf. among others Harold Fromm, Bernard Shaw and the Theater in the Nineties, Lawrence, 1967, p. 138; J. L. Styan, The Dark Comedy, Cambridge, 1968, p. 124.

  6. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw, London, 1970 ff., I, p. 126.

  7. Bodley Head, I, p. 474.

  8. Bodley Head, V, p. 518. Shaw is thus a splendid example of the way of thinking Karl R. Popper has so brilliantly analysed in The Poverty of Historicism, London, 1960.

  9. Robert A. Nisbet, Social Change and History. Aspects of the Western Theory of Development, Oxford, 1969, p. 140; cf. Friedrich Meinecke, Die Entstehung des Historismus, München, 1946.

  10. Bodley Head, I, p. 385.

  11. Shaw's profuse employment of the terms “nature,” “natural,” “unnatural” ought to stimulate analysis and remedy current critical neglect. Archibald Henderson, who is among the very few to realize the importance of this key-concept, defines it much too simplistically as “an effort to depict naked instincts upon the stage,” in George Bernard Shaw. His Life and Works, London, 1911, p. 433.

  12. Bernard Shaw. Collected Letters 1898-1910, ed. Dan H. Laurence, London, 1972, p. 668.

  13. Major Critical Essays, Standard Edition, p. 17.

  14. Cf. Charles A. Carpenter, Bernard Shaw and the Art of Destroying Ideals, Madison, 1969.

  15. Standard Edition, p. 102.

  16. Standard Edition, p. 215. The Prologue of Ra to Caesar and Cleopatra, written in 1912, makes the same point.

  17. Bodley Head, II, p. 739 f.

  18. Bodley Head, II, p. 761.

  19. Bodley Head, II, p. 796.

  20. Bodley Head, V, p. 337.

  21. One of the best studies is still Eric Bentley's Shaw, London, 1967; cf. also the recent account by Leon Hugo, Bernard Shaw. Playwright and Preacher, London, 1971.

  22. Bodley Head, II, p. 511.

  23. Cf. the Foreword to the Popular Edition of Man and Superman: “… a religion is nothing but a common view of the nature of will, the purpose of life, the design of organism, and the intention of evolution” (Bodley Head, II, p. 532).

  24. Bodley Head, I, p. 378.

  25. Bodley Head, III, p. 18.

  26. Bodley Head, III, p. 37.

  27. The theory, that Shaw's characters are socio-economically determined, neglects this fact; cf. the rather narrow and thesis-ridden study by Friedhelm Denninghaus, Die dramatische Konzeption George Bernard Shaws, Stuttgart, 1971.

  28. All quotations from Major Barbara are from the Bodley Head Edition and identified by act (Roman numerals) and page (Arabic numerals) in the text.

  29. Bodley Head, III, p. 27.

  30. Bodley Head, III, p. 27 f.

  31. Collected Letters, p. 566.

  32. “Shaw and Revolution: The Politics of the Plays,” in Shaw: Seven Critical Essays, ed. Norman Rosenblood, Toronto, 1971, pp. 106-34.

  33. “The Underside of Undershaft: A Wagnerian Motif in Major Barbara,The Shaw Review 15, 1972, pp. 56-64.

  34. Cf. Bernard F. Dukore, “The Undershaft Maxims,” Modern Drama 9, 1966, pp. 90-100.

  35. Collected Letters, p. 582 (25 November 1905).

  36. This theme is most fully treated in The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, but cf. also Bodley Head, II, p. 741.

  37. Cf. Shaw's letter to Lady Gregory (19 August 1909): “To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching Man to regard himself as an experiment in the realization of God” (Collected Letters, p. 858).

  38. Cf. Barbara Bellow Watson, “Sainthood for Millionaires: Major Barbara,Modern Drama 11, 1968, p. 227.

  39. The highly perceptive attempt of Sidney P. Albert to relate the two strands of terminology still does not see the final achievement of the play: “The Price of Salvation: Moral Economics in Major Barbara,Modern Drama 14, 1971, pp. 307-23.

  40. Bodley Head, V, p. 328.

  41. Standard Edition, p. 69.

Trevor Whittock (essay date October 1978)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6235

SOURCE: Whittock, Trevor. “Major Barbara: Comic Masterpiece.” Theoria 51 (October 1978): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Whittock discusses Major Barbara as a great English comic drama.]

The English dramatic tradition—if we can divert our eyes for a moment from the figure of Shakespeare who bestrides our petty, narrow world like a colossus—is essentially a tradition of comedy. Not that Englishmen have not written, or attempted to write, tragedies. Edward Marlowe, in the words of one of his characters, did ride in triumph through Persepolis; though Shakespeare indicated how much he thought his contemporary's heroics were mostly rant and rhetoric when he made the boastful braggart Pistol quote the line. John Webster presented the skull beneath the skin; but Bernard Shaw suggested how much it was in waxen effigy only when he dismissed Webster as a ‘Tussaud laureate’. Ben Jonson penned tragedies, but it is his comedies we revive. Reel off the names of the British comic dramatists, however, and a glittering succession appears. Jonson, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Sheridan, Gay, Goldsmith, Gilbert and Oscar Wilde. Above all, Shaw. And of course, Shakespeare—he is, after all, inescapable.

Shakespeare and Shaw are still the great figures in English comic drama. With Shakespeare comedy was only one facet of the universal genius. With Shaw it was the quintessential achievement of a lively and provocative man: music critic, drama critic, Fabian socialist, debater and propagandist, philosopher, wit, self-proclaimed professor of natural scientific history, and dramatist. In his best comedies all his talents meet and compound, and for us still explode in scintillating entertainment. The best of Shaw's best includes Major Barbara. Not only is it a delightful play, it is a great one.

The play opens innocuously enough. The scene is the library of a well-to-do aristocratic household: a setting appropriate to conventional ‘drawing-room’ comedy, to the comedy of manners. The first character we see is Lady Britomart (how suggestive that name is!). In her is instantly recognisable a succession of stage females, the long line of dominating English matrons. Soon she is condescendingly explaining to her priggish son, Stephen, that his father was a foundling, and now there are problems of the inheritance. Instantly recognisable stock stage situations. The audience relaxes, letting themselves be drawn into what they must feel will be conventional entertainment. Having thus lulled and enticed his audience into the play, the dramatist is now all set to mock these conventions, turn them upside down, or even show frightful implications in them. To reveal flesh and blood where the audience thought they need expect nothing more than greasepaint and canvas. In short, the dramatist proceeds politely—Shaw is always polite in his wicked way—to assault the audience with incidents, characters and themes normally never associated with genteel comedy at all.

Consider with what the audience have been faced by the end of the second act. No luxurious living room but a Salvation Army shelter, a refuge for the starving and desperate. Very different social types here: ‘a commonplace old bundle of poverty and hardworn humanity’, prematurely aged by deprivation and hardship; an honest workman who has been consigned to the human rubbish heap because at the age of forty-five he is too old to satisfy his employers; a professing socialist, who makes false confessions and would rob a blind man if he had the chance; a brutal thug who hits the old woman in the face; and (let us include him here) the millionaire father introduced in Act I who, unashamedly, deals in wholesale slaughter. The audience have been made to witness a demonstration of the power of big business to buy religious institutions, and have been made to listen to debates on moral and religious principles, including several savaging attacks on the Christian tradition. The audience have also had to follow a subtle psychological presentation of different ways of believing in confession and salvation. The scene finally reaches a climax in the destruction of the heroine's faith, the climax itself culminating in her crying out the tragic words Christ uttered on the Cross: ‘My God: why hast thou forsaken me?’—and this without any sense of blasphemy or mockery.

Intractable comic material? Not at all. The whole act is exciting, amusing, exhilarating. Barbara's manipulation of Bill Walker, reducing that blustering bully to a guilty soul seeking absolution, is an original piece of comedy such as only Shaw could have conceived. And Undershaft's ironic manipulation of the Salvation army in his campaign to ‘convert’ Barbara, while not exactly laughable, is no less fascinating and no less brilliant a piece of inspired writing.

But when we reflect on the extraordinary quality of the play it is not only the memorable moments we must take into account. Perhaps more important than these is the way very diverse material has been brought together and combined into something quite new. Drawing-room comedy, social realism, lowlife melodrama, polemic and satire and more than a touch of tragedy, religious fervour and economic arguments, Euripides and Ibsen, the ‘Blood and Fire’ of the Salvation army and the ‘Blood and Fire’ of the maker of cannons. No wonder some critics have suggested that a play such as this, so heterogeneous with serious matter, would be more accurately described as a tragi-comedy rather than a comedy.

What is remarkable is Shaw's ability to collate and control this material. If I pay tribute to this ability by designating it as wit, and give it pride of place in the qualities Shaw possessed as a dramatist, I am not suggesting that this quality is in any way a superficial one. On the contrary, I wish to give that word wit its fullest weight. When people praise Shaw's wit they are usually drawing attention to Shaw's verbal ingenuity, his power to surprise and amuse with the elegant twist of a phrase. Yes, indeed. But in the history of literary criticism the word wit has been loaded with heavier ballast. Dr Johnson, in an essay on one of the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, distinguished several meanings of the word wit, and in particular defined wit as the metaphysical poets possessed it, thus:

But Wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises. …

Shaw also possessed wit in this sense: the attribute of an independent mind selecting unexpected material and then fusing it together in a way which not only unifies but also discovers unforeseen relationships. In short, to a high degree, it is the power of imaginative organisation. It is immensely more difficult to achieve in drama than in poetry because the scale is larger and the medium is technically very demanding. But Shaw did have this creative gift.

We observe it in the diversity of his material and the organisation of that material: in his arrangement and invention, the balance of scene unit against scene unit, the juxtaposition of character and character, the playing off of dramatic incident and dialectic argument against one another so as constantly to provoke fresh comprehension of human motive and possibility. The climax of Act II which I mentioned earlier may be taken as an illustration.

(calling to the procession in the street outside) Off we go. Play up, there! Immenso giubilo. (He gives the time with his drum; and the band strikes up the march, which rapidly becomes more distant as the procession moves briskly away.)
MRS Baines:
I must go, dear. Youre overworked: you will be all right tomorrow. We'll never lose you. Now Jenny: step out with the old flag. Blood and Fire! (She marches out through the gate with her flag.)
Glory Hallelujah! (flourishing her tambourine and marching.)
(to Cusins as he marches out past him easing the slide of his trombone) ‘My ducats and my daughter’!
(following him out) Money and gunpowder!
Drunkenness and Murder! My God: why hast thou forsaken me?
(She sinks on the form with her face buried in her hands. The march passes away into silence. Bill Walker steals across to her.)
(taunting) Wot prawce selvytion nah?

This ‘metaphysical’ wit of Shaw is omnipresent in the play, appearing in small detail as well as in large-scale incident. May I cite one further, small example. Consider how in a sentence Shaw can sum up the essence of Plato's political argument in The Republic, and put it into a position where it can illuminate the plot of the play, give further insight into the characters, and yet in its mockery suggest that Plato was a bit naive.

Plato says, my friend, that society cannot be saved until either the Professors of Greek take to making gunpowder, or else the makers of gunpowder become Professors of Greek.

Perhaps these examples may be used to illustrate two other remarkable qualities displayed by Shaw in his drama. First, he carries his learning lightly. Though Major Barbara is crammed with literary, philosophical or mythological references, they are presented with gaiety, and generally do not slow or weigh the play down. Only in retrospect, or in close analysis, are we likely to appreciate how precisely they are used, and how they add dimensions to the drama. Secondly, Shaw deals in real ideas, not just propaganda catch-phrases, newspaper clichés or intellectual counters. His dialectic always progresses. Idea breeds idea; the dialogue and incidents test and reshape the ideas. That is why many people witnessing a Shaw play suddenly find themselves to their surprise rediscovering the pleasures of thinking. For thinking is an exciting process, and Shaw showed how it could also be an exhilarating source of drama.

Shaw's gaiety, his width of reference, quickness of intellect, his craftsmanship, and the seriousness of his commitment to his art—above all his wit as I have described it—ally him to one of the figures he most admired, the composer Mozart. Like Mozart, particularly the Mozart of the operas, Shaw tends so to delight us with the harmony and balance of his organisation that we may be tempted to overlook the sorrows and tragedy that are also part of that order. Shaw's comedy is optimistic and uplifting, but it is not so at the expense of omitting the painful and frustrating aspects, the tragic experiences of life. Indeed, it is recorded that Shaw insisted that Major Barbara ‘might easily have been transformed into a tragedy.’

It is not surprising that comedy may include, even be about, painful or serious subjects. Byron summed it up: ‘And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'Tis that I may not weep.’ Who hasn't at some time observed a husband and wife, with tensions in their marriage, give expression to those tensions in wisecracks and jokes? Some of the commonest humour springs from the humiliations of our very existence: bed-pans, false-teeth, bald heads, skinny bosoms. We laugh and attempt to bury the anguish. Yet in the very denial is a kind of acknowledgement: a targetting of our suffering. This is one sort of comedy, and there are dramatists who work in this area (for example, the scene in Ben Jonson's Volpone where Mosca eggs on Corvino to enumerate in revolting terms the ailments of the supposedly dying Volpone.)

But there is another sort of comedy—higher in kind perhaps. This comedy does not dwell on malformed man trapped in the absurd miseries of his existence. Rather, it proposes that man's follies spring from his misdirected passions and false ideas; and it goes on to suggest that, through self-knowledge or some visitation of grace, man may be redeemed and come to dance in joy. The dramatists whose comedy is of this kind produce in the audiences an experience of unlimitedness, a joyous sense of ‘great mystery and infinitude’. Its supreme exponents in English are Shakespeare and Shaw. In Shakespeare's great comedies the opening scenes portray how tangled people's lives can be. As the plays proceed the follies multiply and the tangles knot and tighten. Yet somehow disaster is averted, all is resolved, and the plays actually end with a dance of celebration. How? The process is mysterious. But mankind is schooled into happiness, and—the plays often suggest this explicitly—it is achieved by ‘great Creating Nature’. In the groves of the Forest of Arden or in the moonwashed woods of a midsummer night, in touch with a natural harmony and order they cannot comprehend, men discover their own true natures and are re-united with bliss. In Shakespeare's vision—unproved and perhaps unprovable—lies a conviction that the universe is fundamentally harmonious and beneficent, and that man could, were he only to open himself to its healing powers, re-create that harmony and good in his own little world.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

But for a moment men do hear it, and are transformed. Not all, though. Always there is someone who stands back, holds aloof or denies it: a Shylock, a Malvolio, a Jacques or an Antonio. In this life the circle is never quite completed, only eternally promised.

Shaw's comedy, too, is basically of this kind. It moves from folly and error, to challenge and disillusion, and on again to discovery and purpose. Not for Shaw lacerating laughter, the humour begot in despair and frustration. His satire, even at its most provocative, is neither morbid nor malicious, but rational and generous. Mankind can grow wiser, better, nobler; and he spreads this feeling with buoyant Irish charm. There are no real villains in Shaw, only misguided mortals who do evil because they don't know how to avoid doing it. But life and reason may school them yet. The comedy shows it happening. Shaw was, by temperament and by conviction, suited to this kind of comedy. How, in Major Barbara, the comedy reflects his convictions, and how the convictions shape the comedy I shall try to explain, and to do so I must unfold the central arguments of the play.

When his plays were being published in Germany, Shaw wrote to his German publishers suggesting that Major Barbara, together with Man and Superman and John Bull's Other Island, should be grouped together under the title Comedies of Science and Religion. By science Shaw meant a systematic body of knowledge, and included politics under this heading as he believed politics too was a study and practice that could be systematised. But the title he proposed serves as a reminder that the arguments for Major Barbara have religious, as well as political and economic, ramifications. We shall have to follow separate strands initially, before seeing how they all come together.

The arguments of the play are presented by means of two interrelated plots which form the basis of the play's action. The first plot, derived from conventional melodrama, is the search for an heir to Undershaft's armament industry. (With typical effrontery Shaw inverts the convention: the heir will turn out to be not a foundling who must prove the legitimacy of his birth but a legitimate child who must prove he was really a foundling.) The second plot turns on Barbara's challenge that she may convert Undershaft to the Salvation Army, and his counter-challenge to her.

… There are neither good men nor scoundrels: there are just children of one Father; and the sooner they stop calling one another names the better. You neednt talk to me: I know them. Ive had scores of them through my hands: scoundrels, criminals, infidels, philanthropists, missionaries, county councillors, all sorts. Theyre all just the same sort of sinner; and theres the same salvation ready for them all.
May I ask have you ever saved a maker of cannons?
No. Will you let me try?
Well, I will make a bargain with you. If I go to see you tomorrow in your Salvation Shelter, will you come the day after to see me in my cannon works?
Take care. It may end in your giving up the cannons for the sake of the Salvation Army.
Are you sure it will not end in your giving up the Salvation Army for the sake of the cannons?
I will take my chance on that.
And I will take my chance of the other.

What connects the two plots is that Cusins too must be ‘converted’ before he will accept his true inheritance, and Barbara does not declare herself until he has chosen.

Shaw portrays Barbara as a truly religious person. Rejecting the meaninglessness of her secure and pampered existence at Wilton Crescent, Barbara seeks to serve a cause greater than herself, and thinks she has found it in the Salvation Army where she can bring spiritual enlightenment and practical help to the needy poor. Cusins, on the other hand, is a humanist—intellectual and sceptical—though as a scholar he is extremely well-read in the history of religions. His profession, Professor of Greek, allies him to the great, rational civilisations of Greece and Rome. He combines the best learning of the past with contemporary aspirations for justice and equality. (The character is acknowledgedly based on that of Gilbert Murray.) Behind Cusins' mild demeanour lies a strong and determined man; his pursuit of Barbara is one indication of this. To ensure that Barbara and Cusins are fitting opponents for the struggle with Undershaft, Shaw is careful in the first and second acts to show their strength: Barbara's vitality and fervour, Cusins' determination and intelligence. In particular the episode with Bill Walker reveals how Barbara has inherited the best of both her mother and her father.

Undershaft breaks Barbara's faith when he demonstrates that the Salvation Army can, like any other organisation of that nature, be bought. By his cheque to the Army he proves that the pipers who call the tune are Undershaft and Bodger. The full implications of this emerge gradually. One implication is that Barbara's faith rested on shaky foundations because it assumed that spiritual welfare could be separated from the material circumstances of life. Man does not live by bread alone; but without bread he may not live at all. No faith can be sustained which ignores the basic conditions of existence. Furthermore, however the Salvation Army may wish to alleviate the misery of the poor, it is incapable of abolishing the circumstances that create poverty and hardship. Should it attempt to change these circumstances it would be squashed by people whose wealth depends on their existence, and indeed it is only tolerated by the power-holders because it conditions the poor to accept their lot and thus prevents them rising in revolt for a better deal. Nor can people who are starving and scraping be brought to spiritual enlightenment: they can only be bribed by charity to pay lip-service to religious doctrines. The false confessions made by Rummy Mitchum and Snobby Price for hand-outs are examples of this, and the point is driven home when Undershaft says:

… I enabled Barbara to become Major Barbara; and I saved her from the crime of poverty.
Do you call poverty a crime?
The worst of crimes. All the other crimes are virtues beside it: all the other dishonors are chivalry itself by comparison. Poverty blights whole cities; spreads horrible pestilences; strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound, or smell of it. What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there, a blow now and a curse then: what do they matter? they are only the accidents and illnesses of life: there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London. But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill fed, ill clothed people. They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty. Pah! (turning to Barbara) you talk of your half-saved ruffian in West Ham: you accuse me of dragging his soul back to perdition. Well, bring him to me here; and I will drag his soul back again to salvation for you. Not by words and dreams; but by thirty eight shillings a week, a sound house in a handsome street and a permanent job.

True religion is only possible when people have the energy and the freedom from want to pursue it. Undershaft argues that material prosperity must be given priority, and only when people are paid and productive, and can afford homes and food and clothing, only then can the works of the spirit really begin. The lives his employees lead at his factory prove his point: they have security and dignity, and they worship at a multitude of churches. (The film script emphasises this point even more than the original play.)

There is good, sound sense in much that Undershaft says, and today in South Africa, with our own ill-paid, ill-fed, ill-housed populations, we could do worse than heed the gospel according to St. Andrew Undershaft.

And will he be the better for that?
You know he will. Dont be a hypocrite, Barbara. He will be better fed, better housed, better clothed, better behaved; and his children will be pounds heavier and bigger. That will be better than an American cloth mattress in a shelter, chopping firewood, eating bread and treacle, and being forced to kneel down from time to time to thank heaven for it: kneel drill, I think you call it. It is cheap work converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other. I will undertake to convert West Ham to Mahometanism on the same terms. Try your hand on my men: their souls are hungry because their bodies are full.

Undershaft's strength of feeling about the evils of poverty springs from his own sufferings and hardships as a youth. It was in that period he became resolved to be a full-fed free man at all costs, even if he had to kill to do it. Here Shaw provides another contrast: that between Peter Shirley and Andrew Undershaft. Peter is a humble and honest man; though he is not a professing Christian he does live the life of a Christian. And where does it get him? He is sacked and forgotten. In the harsh capitalist world of competition and exploitation the Christian virtues are not only irrelevant: they are actually a handicap. The price of survival is to scrap them. Undershaft chooses to be the exploiter rather than the exploited, and flourishes.

Undershaft's creed is a capitalist one, but Undershaft speaks as a capitalist who knows what his wealth has delivered him from (and delivered his family from); he knows the benefits he can obtain for himself and his employees, the benefits of material security. This knowledge gives authority to his arguments. Now the question arises, how far is Shaw the socialist endorsing the argument of Undershaft the capitalist? To answer this we must consider another question and a much more important one. Why does Shaw make Undershaft a manufacturer of cannons, a merchant of death and destruction? The answers to this question will take us to the very heart of the play.

If Shaw had wished he could have given Undershaft some more socially approved occupation; he could have made him a capitalist of a more benevolent kind—a ship builder, a clothing magnate, or even an oil baron. But by making him an armaments manufacturer, Shaw is able to emphasise an aspect of capitalism that might otherwise be played down, namely, its ruthlessness. Undershaft, Lazarus and their employees are secure and comfortable because the goods they make murder and maim countless other people. This serves as a metaphor to describe all capitalism. Though capitalism may abolish pockets of poverty and exploitation, it will not abolish poverty and exploitation themselves: indeed its own success depends on their existence. Thus Shaw the socialist is only endorsing the gospel of Undershaft to a qualified extent. Something more adequate must be sought. This brings us to the choices that face Barbara and Cusins.

Their dilemma is greater than the one Undershaft faced as a young man; for him it was starvation or a full belly; for them the course they adopt must satisfy the demands of their consciences which tell them they must serve the spiritual and material welfare, not only of themselves or a select group, but of all men. Without this hope they cannot be reconciled to accepting the inheritance awaiting them. Earlier I said Undershaft had to convert them, but what he does is not strictly speaking a ‘conversion’ at all. They don't accept the capitalist aspect of his creed; rather they take from him the challenge and the pointer to how mankind may move beyond capitalism. Undershaft rallies Barbara with the challenge: ‘Try your hand on my men: their souls are hungry because their bellies are full’; and Cusins he recruits with, ‘Dare you make war on war?’ They accept their inheritance: Barbara so that she may do God's work for its own sake when material prosperity has rendered bribes unnecessary; Cusins so that he can use the armaments works to give weapons to the poor that they may through force and revolution create a society where the necessities of life will be guaranteed to all. Undershaft's ruthless capitalism, which has demonstrated the importance of material security, points the way to socialist revolution and spiritual evolution.

At several points in the play itself Undershaft is associated with the ancient Greek god, Dionysus. Cusins calls him Dionysus several times, and also quotes lines from the Greek dramatist Euripides whose play, The Bacchae, was about the Dionysian religion. Philip Vellacott, in his introduction to his translation of the play, briefly sums up the religion thus:

By the time the cult of Dionysus made its first appearance in Greece—at what date is not known—the Olympian gods were already firmly enthroned. Dionysus, however, seems to have taken his place among them within a very short time; he was accepted as son of Zeus, and given a place alongside Apollo at Delphi. He was primarily a spirit of life, and of all that produced or liberates life; liberates it from pain or fatigue, from tedium or ugliness, from the bonds of responsibility, law, pity, or affection. One of his most obvious and popular gifts was that of wine; but his exclusive association with wine was a later development. Music, dancing, and above all the excitement of group-emotion, of worshipping in a company distinguished by dress, secret rites, and a consciousness of power residing in mass-surrender to the supernatural—these were all means by which this cult attracted not only the more excitable Oriental, but the Greek who for one reason or another found the demands and restrictions of civilized life profitless and irksome.

(Penguin Classics)

The Bacchae tells how Dionysus, in disguise, comes to Thebes where the king, Pentheus, has denounced the religion. Dionysus punishes the king for his blasphemy by possessing the women of Thebes, including Pentheus' own mother, with madness, and tricks Pentheus into going to spy on them. Imagining him to be an animal, the women hunt the king down and literally tear him to pieces. The last scenes of this tragedy are savage and appalling. Shaw not only makes reference to Euripides' great tragedy: his own play actually echoes it. Undershaft/Dionysus comes to the Salvation Army, possesses the women (Mrs Baines, Jenny Hill and their like) by means of his ‘charity’ and leads them triumphantly in religious procession (Undershaft blowing a trombone), having torn Barbara/Pentheus to pieces—figuratively only, of course—by rending apart her religious assumptions. Through this analogy between Undershaft and Dionysus, and the parallels in the action of the two plays, Shaw emphasises how, when a form of belief arises, its assault on the old assumptions will seem savage and cruel. In the arrival of the new will be apprehended fear, cruelty, madness, destruction, as well as exhilaration, joy and release. But the spirit of life is remorseless, and bears down any opposition. ‘Blood and fire’ is as appropriate a motto for the Dionysian force as it is for the maker of cannons.

Cusins, the Euripidean scholar, naturally spots the analogy and, expressing it, he gives vent to his own alarm before the challenging figure of Undershaft. Cusins again, and Shaw through him, makes further use of literary mythology when he associates Undershaft with another legendary figure, that of the Prince of Darkness. Certainly the reference to Mephistophilis conjures up the story of the scholar Faust who was tempted to sell his soul to the devil, and reveals how the scholar Cusins initially responds to Undershaft's challenge to forget the pursuit of a dead language and seize the power of life and death. But the Mephistophelean portrait Shaw sketches of Undershaft owes less to the dramatists Marlowe and Goethe than it does to the poet William Blake. For Blake, particularly in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, presented a new way of conceiving the devil which enormously fascinated and influenced Shaw. Briefly and oversimply, Blake envisaged life as a progression created through the clash of contraries, in particular the contraries of Reason and Energy. His Satanic figure is not a force of evil, but rather of rebellious energy denounced by the sour Jehovah of intellect and repression whom Blake sometimes called Urizen (Your reason). Blake's devil then is a force of life, of instinct, trying to break the bonds established by arid intellect and established morality. Like Blake's devil, Undershaft comes with the gifts of energy and liberation. His so-called immoral doctrines assault conventional pieties; his vitality breeds enthusiasm and commitment; even his trade testifies to his destroying in order to liberate. As Blake puts it in one of his proverbs of Hell, ‘The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.’ (Some of Undershaft's aphorisms are almost straight from Blake: for example, ‘There is only one true morality for every man; but every man has not the same true morality,’ is implied in Blake's, ‘One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.’)

By bringing in these associations of godhead, Shaw gives a greater substance to the effect of Undershaft. But how does he present Undershaft's own picture of himself? In Act I he makes Undershaft describe himself as a ‘mystic’: this remark is not explained until the following exchange in Act III:

From the moment when you become Andrew Undershaft, you will never do as you please again. Don't come here lusting for power, young man.
If power were my aim I should not come here for it. You have no power.
None of my own, certainly.
I have more power than you, more will. You do not drive this place: it drives you. And what drives the place?
(enigmatically) A will of which I am a part.

The will of which Undershaft is merely a part is the will of Creative Evolution—life striving ever upward in its drive to greater comprehension. The vital spirits in each generation pass the task on to those who succeed them: so Undershaft's handing on of the inheritance is really a handing on of the creative destiny. The ‘blood and fire’ Barbara and Cusins choose to serve is the life and energy of godhead using its human creatures in the evolutionary surge. Hence the speeches of Barbara and Cusins, very near the end, are life-celebratory. In particular, Major Barbara who thought her soul had died in West Ham finds it resurrected in Perivale St. Andrews. She recovers her pride, and recovers her joy—the joy of submission to a Purpose, to a Life Force.

… 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 except 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.
Then the way of life lies through the factory of death?
Yes, through the raising of hell to heaven and of man to God, through the unveiling of 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 drawing room? Never, never, never, never: Major Barbara will die with the colors.

Here is the real affirmation of the play. Now too is it possible to see how the comedy is at one with the meaning, the structure of the play with the argument. Shaw once defined comedy as ‘nothing less than the destruction of old-fashioned morals.’ The play begins with people set in their complacent beliefs and established illusions, as Lady Britomart is described in the first stage direction (‘limited in the oddest way with domestic and class limitations, conceiving the universe exactly as if it were a large house in Wilton Crescent …’). Till life comes along in the shape of Dionysus Mephistophilis Undershaft to kick that little world to pieces about them. But despite the pain of loss they must welcome the actions of life because it pushes mankind forward. Life shatters and destroys, only to rebuild and re-create; at first the destructive element terrifies, later with liberation the energy and power are celebrated. Hence the answer to the question posed earlier, why did Shaw make Undershaft a manufacturer of explosives? As the agent of the Life Force he comes to demolish so that reconstruction can begin.

Come, come, my daughter! dont make too much of your little tinpot tragedy. What do we do here when we spend years of work and thought and thousands of pounds of solid cash on a new gun or an aerial battleship that turns out just a hairsbreadth wrong after all? Scrap it. Scrap it without wasting another hour or another pound on it. Well, you have made for yourself something that you call a morality or a religion or what not. It doesnt fit the facts. Well, scrap it. Scrap it and get one that does fit. That is what is wrong with the world at present. It scraps its obsolete steam engines and dynamoes; but it wont scrap its old prejudices and its old moralities and its old religions and its old political constitutions. Whats the result? In machinery it does very well; but in morals and religion and politics it is working at a loss that brings it near bankruptcy every year. Dont persist in that folly. If your old religion broke down yesterday, get a newer and a better one for tomorrow.

The newer and better religion, morality, political constitution, whatever, must fit the facts: that is, accept the conditions life lays down. The political level of the play—the arguments that Christian morality and liberal humanism are no longer adequate to cope with the world of the twentieth century, that the achievements of technology and capitalism must give way to social equality—these arguments are only an illustration of the more fundamental issue: that men must move forward with the movement of life itself, serving with their creative energy that ultimate Creative Energy which makes what will be. Shaw's play does more than preach this doctrine: it enacts it. In the very structure and unfolding of the play the audience is made to experience that movement of life within and through the mode of comedy: the dismay, the disillusion, the challenge, the doubt, the celebration. Just as Shakespeare's comedies move to a glimpse and promise of the divine harmony, so Major Barbara may be described as a divine comedy of creative evolution. In time the play's politics may date, even theories of ‘creative evolution’ may become old hat, yet so long as men can struggle against the fetters of false ideas, be disillusioned yet learn from it and lift themselves again, and feel anew a purpose and a service in living, so long will this play be valid.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Criticism: Mrs. Warren's Profession (1902)


Criticism: Man And Superman (1905)