Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855
In the second volume of his biography, Bernard Shaw, Michael Holroyd writes of early reactions to Major Barbara's first production, focusing on the fact that, as Holroyd puts it, "The critics were impressively divided.'' Holroyd quotes one reviewer who spoke of the play's "religious passion," as well as another who called Shaw "destitute of the religious emotion," and a third who suggested that Major Barbara's "offences against good taste and good feeling" should have resulted in the play's censorship. Shaw, Holroyd writes, was accused of "deliberate perversity" and praised for his "sense of spiritual beauty." He was called “a high genius" as well as "a writer whose absence of feeling makes him a very unsafe guide." While the play no longer faces charges of blasphemy or immorality, it continues to be controversial. Much of that controversy revolves around the seeming ambiguity of Shaw's purpose. As Harold Bloom writes in his introduction to George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, "the drama moves finally in a direction equally available for interpretation by the extreme Left or the extreme Right."
Writing in 1905, reviewer William Archer, quoted in Margery Morgan's compilation File on Shaw, said that “The play is one long discussion between Barbara... and Undershaft; and to Undershaft Mr. Shaw resolutely gives the upper hand." Some critics have continued to follow Archer's lead, seeing Undershaft as the clear winner in the play's central conflict,-as he supports realism over Barbara' s idealism. Pat M. Carr in Bernard Shaw refers to Undershaft as Barbara's "mentor," saying that he contributes to her growth with "his greater realistic knowledge of the ways of the world." Undershaft, says Carr, is "the devil's advocate who has all the sensible lines."
Other critics, however, have focused on the complexity of Shaw's ending. In Bernard Shaw, Playwright: Aspects of Shavian Drama, Bernard F. Dukore notes that Undershaft has a "more viable morality than [Cusins and Barbara], since it fits the facts of life." But Dukore goes on to point out that Cusins and Barbara will ultimately change Perivale St. Andrews "from paternalistic capitalism to presumably socialist democracy." Although Undershaft's model city can be seen as heaven, according to Dukore, "it is a potential heaven, or ... a hell that may be raised to heaven." Barbara Bellow Watson, in her essay "Sainthood for Millionaires," in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara acknowledges that the apparent victory is Undershaft's. He achieves "the reversal of all the stubbornly held opinions of his opponents," but Watson adds that Undershaft's seeming victory is "paradoxical only if we expect a socialist author to render simplistic fantasies in which virtue (poverty) triumphs over vice (money and power), or suffers in the right way." In other words, Shaw does not abandon his own socialism in this play; Undershaft only seems to be victorious. Shaw's criticism of capitalism is subtle; Watson refers, for example to "the products of Capitalism being miserably on display in Act II," which takes place at the shelter. In the end, Watson says, "Christianity may be vanquished, but materialism has not triumphed." Alfred Turco, Jr., in his essay "Shaw's Moral Vision" (also in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara) also writes that Undershaft is not the clear winner, but, in Turco's opinion, the important point is not that Undershaft has failed to wholly convert Barbara, but, in fact, that each has succeeded, in part, in converting the other. Turco writes, “Barbara and Cusins 'give up' the Salvation Army by accepting the cannon factory, and Undershaft gives up his cannons by placing the power they represent at the service of the religious impulse.'' Neither side has lost and "The respective 'professions' of Barbara and Undershaft will now develop in meaningful relation to each other instead of in isolation." The resolution of the play is in the syntheses of Barbara and Undershaft's convictions.
Margery M. Morgan, in her essay "Skeptical Faith," argues, however, that no such synthesis exists, but the play must be seen in a larger context. Morgan says the ending "implies a recognition ... that the true resolution of socialist drama belongs not in the work of art but outside it in society. "She acknowledges that, within the play, there is a resolution of plot in Cusin's acceptance of Undershaft's offer, but "as a total structure of ideas the play remains a paradox in which antitheses retain their full value and cannot be resolved away." Within the play, for Morgan, there is no resolution. In his essay "Shaw's Own Problem Play," J. Percy Smith argues that at least part of the problem in Major Barbara's interpretation lies in "the ambivalence of Shaw's attitude to the central moral question that [the play] raises. In other words, the ending remains unclear because Shaw himself never decided who really triumphs.
In spite of continued argument over the play's ending, most critics writing today agree that Major Barbara is one of Shaw's greatest works, and the play's importance in modern drama is virtually unchallenged. For many, the complications and seeming paradox of the play's final act only add to Major Barbara's complexity and richness as well as Shaw's reputation as one of the twentieth century's greatest playwrights.