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...
(The entire section is 734 words.)