Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
Major Barbara is one of George Bernard Shaw’s most stimulating plays. In the early and middle years of his career, he used wit and realism as weapons in his attempt to bestir a complacent society. His iconoclastic nature delighted in overturning accepted morality; one of his famous aphorisms is “all...
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Major Barbara is one of George Bernard Shaw’s most stimulating plays. In the early and middle years of his career, he used wit and realism as weapons in his attempt to bestir a complacent society. His iconoclastic nature delighted in overturning accepted morality; one of his famous aphorisms is “all great truths begin as blasphemies.” In his second play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), he blames prostitution on the men who have no convictions rather than on the poor women without chastity; in Arms and the Man (1894), he mocks romantic views of love and war; and in Candida: A Mystery (1897), he boldly reversed the emphasis of Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) by showing that behind the stereotype of the strong male provider lay crippling insecurities and the inability to love. Although Major Barbara was written and performed in 1905, Shaw coyly set it in January, 1906—slightly ahead of his time—as if to dramatize an imminent time when his thesis about poverty being the root of all evil could be heard.
Shaw’s technique in this play is to use the first act to dramatize the comforts of capitalism and the second to expose its cruelties. In affluent Wilton Crescent, Lady Britomart comically reduces all questions of morality to matters of good and bad taste. To her, polite hypocrisy is a necessary social lubricant. She explains that what infuriated her about Andrew was not that he did wrong things (which he did not) but that he delighted in saying and thinking wrong things and had a type of “religion of wrongness.” She scolds Barbara for speaking about religion as if it were something pleasant and not the social drudgery that she knows it to be. Barbara’s strong will asserts itself in her language of inversion and paradox. She proves to be a match for her father in their early encounters, showing that she resembles him in being a larger-than-life presence. In the second act, the drawing-room comedy gives way to the realism of the slums.
Many Shavian dramas present mentor-pupil relationships in which a pupil, who starts by believing a set of traditional values, goes through a process of disillusionment and maturation until freed from the artificial trappings of societal values and ready to learn genuine strength. Act 2 of Major Barbara may be Shaw’s most compelling example of this formula. Here, the pupil Barbara proves equal to her mentor father. Shaw pivots their clash of values around the soul of Bill Walker, and at first it almost seems as if Barbara may win. When she learns about Horace Bodger’s donation, however, and sees Snobby Price sneak off with Bill Walker’s unclaimed sovereign, she realizes that Snobby’s confessions were manufactured for free meals and that her own work has been futile. The Salvation Army accommodates poverty by merely treating its symptoms and accepting the social status quo. Although the offstage conversions of Todger Fairmile and Walker’s girlfriend are presented in earnest, even Snobby Price recognizes that the army makes more good citizens than true believers: “It combs our air and makes us good little blokes to be robbed and put upon.” The army perpetuates a cycle in which poverty will always have a place. Barbara’s disillusionment is genuine and moving.
Its strengths notwithstanding, the play’s third act is commonly regarded as flawed. (Shaw himself was still rethinking his ending some thirty-five years later when Major Barbara was filmed.) To friends to whom he read his first version of the play, Shaw lamented, “I don’t know how to end the thing.” In his revision, he sought to balance some of the initial one-sidedness. In the version that now exists, Barbara’s disillusionment at the end of act 2 is followed by a second conversion in which she sees that “turning our backs on Bodger and Undershaft is turning our backs on life.” In Shaw’s final design, Barbara, Cusins, and Undershaft form a trinity of sorts in which Undershaft’s power is matched by Cusins’s intelligence and Barbara’s spirituality. Shaw’s creative evolution thus becomes the utopian fantasy that concludes his drama.
Neat symmetries notwithstanding, the play loses some of its emotional appeal in this improved last act. The concluding Shavian discussion excites the mind more than the emotions, and the fine balance of thought and feeling that Shaw achieved in acts 1 and 2 is dissipated in act 3. The earlier vivid image of Barbara’s shattered faith when Mrs. Baines accepts the money of the whiskey king threatens to overshadow her later change of heart. Moreover, details about Barbara’s new mission to the workers at Perivale St. Andrews are vague.
All weaknesses aside, Major Barbara is a rich and rewarding comedy of ideas. Its insistent realities remain compelling: that all social institutions, even churches, are owned by the captains of industry; that the more destructive war becomes, the more fascinating it is to people; and that any system of morality must fit the facts of life or be scrapped as worthless.