Major Barbara is a literary use of myths and their cultural references. Its conception was facilitated by the two-volume 1890 publication of Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and its treatment of the Christian Gospel story as only one myth among others. Shaw based Major Barbara on several Christian legends; the myth of Barbara, the patron saint of gunners and miners, is linked with a version of Christ’s mission, betrayal, passion, and ascension. These Christian elements are combined with the myth of Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power. The combination and alteration of these myths as well as numerous discussions on ethics and religion make Major Barbara one of Shaw’s most ambiguous plays, one that continues to provoke rival interpretations.
In a kind of drawing-room comedy, the play’s first act introduces the Undershaft family: the bourgeois Lady Britomart, a caricature of the grande dame; her husband, the weapons producer Andrew Undershaft, from whom she has been separated for decades; their daughters Barbara and Sarah and their fiancés; and the slow-minded, pampered son Stephen. Lady Britomart invites her husband to her house in order to ask him for more money to support their children and to make him reconsider his decision that in keeping with tradition his weapons enterprise can be inherited only by a foundling. Their daughter Barbara, a Salvation Army major, invites Undershaft to see her shelter. He agrees to do so if she will visit his weapons factory.
The play’s second act is set in Barbara’s Salvation Army shelter, a Dickensian illustration of poverty. While looking for his girlfriend, the strong, unruly Bill Walker slaps two women. He feels remorse for his deed and...
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Lady Britomart Undershaft summons her children to her house in the fashionable London suburb of Wilton Crescent. Stephen, the first to arrive, greets his mother in the library. Lady Britomart, a formidable woman fifty years of age, intends to discuss the family’s finances. She reminds Stephen that his sister Sarah’s fiancé, Charles Lomax, whose inheritance is still ten years off, is too brainless to support a wife. She objects less to Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek, who is engaged to her daughter, Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army.
Stephen timidly mentions the name of his father, Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy munitions manufacturer who is estranged from his family. Lady Britomart admits that she had invited Andrew that night to solicit financial help from him. Stephen disdains the tainted Undershaft capital, but his mother informs him that their present income comes not from her own father, whose only legacy to his family is an aristocratic name, but from Andrew. She also explains that her separation from Andrew comes from her objections to the longstanding Undershaft tradition of turning over the munitions operations to a talented foundling. Seven generations of foundlings have taken the name Andrew Undershaft and run the business, but she objects against Andrew’s disinheriting Stephen.
The girls and their fiancés arrived shortly before Andrew, who, having been away for twenty years, does not recognize his own children. Barbara’s conspicuous Salvation Army uniform turns the conversation to a discussion of personal morality. Andrew’s motto, he explains, is “unashamed,” and he candidly admits that he reaps handsome profits from “mutilation and murder.” He and Barbara challenge one another to a sort of conversion contest. Andrew agrees to visit Barbara’s shelter in the slums if she will visit his weapons factory in Middlesex.
At the squalid Salvation Army post in West Ham a few days later, two poor Cockneys, Snobby Price and Rummy Mitchens, huddle for shelter from the January cold. In low voices they discuss how they routinely make up dramatic public confessions of sins to get free meals. Jenny Hill, a worker for the army, brings in Peter...
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