In his play Major Barbara, Shaw focuses on the development of identity in his lead character, Barbara Undershaft. Although Barbara has a strong sense of self at the beginning of the play, Shaw shows that her identity is not fixed and simple but fluid and complex Her identity is composed of many factors that, initially, seem at odds. She is the daughter of wealthy parents whose lifestyles she rejects. Instead she chooses to work for the Salvation Army, accepting the tiny sum of a pound a week as salary. While her allegiance at the play's outset lies almost wholly with the Army, Barbara will come to realize that her family may enable her to better perform the work of God. This realization will bring her closer to God, closer to her parents and family, and, ultimately, bring her to a true concept of her identity within the world in which the play is set.
From the beginning of the play, Barbara has, in essence, three parents1 Lady Britomart, Andrew Undershaft, and her heavenly Father, God, whom she serves through her work in the Salvation Army. Act One establishes the positions of these three parents in Barbara's life. As the play begins, the audience discovers that Barbara has been entirely brought up by her mother and does not even know her biological father. Although her mother has raised her, it soon becomes clear that Barbara has rejected Lady Britomart's way of life. Before Barbara even walks on stage, her mother expresses disappointment in the path Barbara has taken: "I thought Barbara was going to make the most brilliant career of all.... And what does she do? Joins the Salvation Army; discharges her maid; lives on a pound a week; and walks in one evening with a professor of Greek whom she has picked up in the street."
Barbara has clearly forsaken the opulence of her mother's life as well as Britomart's idea of an appropriate career for a respectable society woman. Yet, there is another way to see Barbara's relationship with her mother. As feminist critic J. Ellen Gainor remarked in her book Shaw's Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender, "The first half of the play .. stresses Barbara's maternal resemblance, which Shaw notes in several stage directions as well as in a wonderfully comic speech by her mother.'' The speech Gainor referred to is that in which Lady Britomart complains about Barbara's "propensity to have her own way and order people about" and adds, "I'm sure I don't know where she picks it up," when it is, in fact, obvious that Barbara's behavior resembles that of no one so much as Lady Britomart herself. In addition, while Barbara has rejected the luxury of her mother's lifestyle, she continues to live in her mother's house; her autonomy and austere lifestyle are supported by a safety net in the form of her mother's wealth In spite of her verbal declarations of independence, Barbara is reliant on her mother's way of life and still very much Lady Britomart's daughter.
Undershaft's initial relationship with Barbara is also established in the first act. Barbara's name is Undershaft, and she has been raised on her father's fortune (though her determination to live on "a pound a week" symbolically rejects that wealth). But in his introduction to the critical collection George Bernard Shaw'sMajor Barbara , Harold Bloom points out that in the course of their initial discussion, Barbara and Undershaft are "[bonded] against the mother, as each stands for. religion as the Life force.'' The two also agree on the motto "blood and...
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fire"—although there is considerable difference in the meaning each takes from the phrase.
At the end of Act One, when Barbara and Undershaft each agree to visit the other's place of work, the bond between father and daughter is again emphasized. After years of absence from their lives, Undershaft arrives and, while not completely winning them over, immediately wins the attentions of his daughters. When Lady Britomart complains about a father who "steals [the children's] affection away from [the mother]," Shaw establishes a tension between the paternal and maternal, the masculine and feminine forces in Barbara's life Gainor saw Barbara as the product of both parents, embracing the masculine as well as the feminine in her work in the Salvation Army. As Gainor pointed out, "the Army's essential function is more 'feminine': nurturing and concerned with the personal, while its structure is 'masculine': an army with hierarchies of power and financial concerns."
In spite of the tension between masculine and feminine, the first act presents Barbara as primarily a child of God. It is for her "heavenly Father" that Barbara has abandoned her father's money and her mother's concept of a “brilliant career'' and chosen to do the work of God. When Lady Britomart tells Undershaft that Barbara "has no father to advise her," Barbara replies, "Oh yes she has. There are no orphans in the Salvation Army.'' God the Father has become Barbara's parent as well as the center of her work. Even Barbara's name and clothes reflect her total absorption into the world of this father She is no longer Barbara Undershaft but Major Barbara. She wears the uniform of the Salvation Army. Despite the resemblance she bears to her father and mother. Barbara sees her identity as fixed. She is the child of God. God's work (as represented by the Army's mission) is her work. Barbara sees no compromise in this; her work with the Army is the ultimate expression of her devotion to God.
In the second act, Shaw shows Barbara Undershaft as Major Barbara. Salvationist, child of God. Although this scene at the shelter shows Barbara in her element, doing the work of her heavenly father, it is also at this point in the play that Undershaft begins to stake his claim on her In his discussion with Cusins, he reveals that he loves Barbara, revealing his paternal emotions for her. Undershaft identifies Barbara with himself. When Cusins says that "Barbara is quite original in her own religion." Undershaft answers. "Barbara Undershaft would be... it is the Undershaft inheritance." He then goes on to say "I shall hand on my torch lo my daughter." As Gainor appraised, "The father sees in the daughter an image of himself and intends 10 develop her capacity to carry on his public functions, as well as convert her to a form of Undershaft philosopher." Undershaft sees himself as Barbara's true father. Bernard F. Dukore wrote in his book Bernard Shaw: Playwright, "Symbolically as well as literally, Undershaft sires Barbara " As Barbara's father, Undershaft sees her identity in him and wants her to do his work Later Barbara will see that being the daughter of Undershaft is indeed a part of her identity. She will also realize that being his daughter enables her to better perform her religious work.
But in Act Two, Barbara still sees Undershaft as the man in opposition to her true father, a man whose business negatively affects her real work. In support of this, Shaw does suggest that that Undershaft is the opposite of God, Throughout Major Barbara, Undershaft is referred to as the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, and Mephistopheles. And it is in the second act that Barbara's earthly father reveals the hypocrisy of the Salvation Army. In essence, Undershaft buys the Salvation Army, and Barbara sees her identity as a child of God destroyed. She expresses that loss of identity m the symbolic action of pinning her Salvation Army brooch on Undershaft's collar. In the third act, she will exchange her uniform for ordinary clothes.
Barbara later cries out, "My God: why hast thou forsaken me?" In addition to losing God and the Salvation Army, she has also lost her work. "I'm like you now," she says to Peter Shirley. "Cleaned out, and lost my job.'' She later expresses the importance of this loss: "I stood on the rock eternal; and without a word of warning it reeled and crumbled under me. I was safe with an infinite wisdom watching me ... and in a moment .. I stood alone." The identity she saw as permanent seems to be gone altogether.
It is in the third act that Barbara begins to synthesize a new identity out of the fractured parts of her character. At first, when Barbara prepares to leave for Undershaft's factories and model town, the gulf she sees between God and Undershaft is emphasized when she describes her sense of Undershaft's work: “I have always thought of it as a sort of pit where lost creatures with blackened faces stirred up smoky fires and were driven and tormented by my father " Clearly she is describing the traditional Christian imagery of hell with her father as the Devil. But Undershaft is not the devil, and it is in this act that she begins to accept him as a parent. When he tells her, "You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you lost something " This statement shows Undershaft in an understanding, fatherly role. For her part, Barbara begins to see that her father's work may do some good and that she may be able to learn from him.
It is here that Undershaft tells her he saved her soul from the seven deadly sins: "Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability, and children." It is only because of Undershaft, who has provided for Barbara's physical needs her entire life, that Barbara had the means to be able to seek and serve God. Her acceptance of Undershaft as her father is emphasized when, after Cusins decides to succeed her father, Barbara reveals that, had he not, she would have married the man who did. As Dukore pointed out, "Barbara, marrying Cusins, becomes—since Adolphus takes his new father's name—Mrs. Andrew Undershaft." Since Undershaft's successor must take his name, Barbara would have become Mrs. Andrew Undershaft regardless of who became her father's heir. Bloom, taking a Freudian point of view, saw Barbara's acceptance of her father as symbolically incestuous and refers to the pair's "dance of repressed psychosexual courtship." It seems more accurate, however, to see her as becoming fully her father's daughter, retaining, even in marriage, her father's name. In addition, this name is also her mother's, which places her even more strongly with both of her earthly parents.
Despite her disillusionment with the Salvation Army (and her "deal with the devil" in becoming Undershaft's heir), Barbara remains her heavenly Father's daughter as well; she has merely exchanged her idealistic view of God's work for one more realistic. She recognizes that poverty is in itself an evil, but her concern is still for saving souls, though no longer "weak souls in starved bodies.... My father shall never throw it in my teeth again that my converts were bribed with bread.'' She will continue to do the work of God but on different terms1 "Let God's work be done for its own sake "
In addition to accepting both Undershaft and God as fathers, in the final scene Barbara turns again to her mother. "After all," she says, "my dear old mother has more sense than any of you." Although Barbara contrasts her mother's desire for "the houses and the kitchen ranges and the linen and the china," of Perivale St. Andrews with her own focus on "all the human souls to be saved," she still accepts her place as her mother's daughter. At the end of the play, Shaw describes her cry, "Mamma! Mamma! I want Mamma," as childlike, and describes Barbara as "[clutching] like a baby at her mother's skirt." Gamor viewed the reversion of Barbara to a childlike state as her acceptance of her role as a woman in her society. According to Gainor, women at this time "must... be reinscribed within the feminine realm to rationalize or confirm their status." She went on to say, "As Victorian culture associated the child with the feminine, a display of childish behavior affirms the gender of the daughter." So Gainor saw Barbara's identity reverting to an earlier association with' her mother thus establishing her femininity and subservient place in society.
There is, however, another way to view Barbara' s childlike behavior in die final scene. As John A. Bertolini wrote in his book The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw, "Barbara herself is mad with delight for the idea of conversion, especially conversion as a cleansing away of the old self." What Barbara experiences in the last scene can also be seen as "self-renewal through childlike behavior." Although the final scene certainly does identify Barbara as her mother's daughter, it also can be seen as indicative of a rebirth. Barbara has become a new person with a new identity which is a combination of all facets of her character.
Barbara's new identity, however, is not solely with mother, father, or God. She has synthesized all three of these influences; she encompasses the masculine, the feminine, the spiritual. Similarly, her work is now also a synthesis, the domestic aspect of her marriage reflecting her mother's influence, her new understanding of the Undershaft business reflecting her father's, her desire to save souls reflecting God's. All are integrated to create a new sense of work, a new sense of family, and a new way of life Barbara's character loses its fragmentary nature, and she becomes her true self.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Shaw wrote a number of plays concerned with wealth and its distribution, but Major Barbara may be the most complex in theme and the most successful as drama. Barbara Undershaft has defied upper-class conventions by becoming a major in the Salvation Army, dedicating herself to the poor of London, who, naturally enough, resist her ministrations whenever they go beyond food and shelter. Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek given to quoting Euripides, pretends an equal dedication in order to be near her. Her mother, Lady Britomart— the owner of one of Shaw's most resounding character names—now needs more money for her children's marriages and turns to her long-estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, a munitions maker of low birth but noble proportions. He is "fabulously wealthy, because there is always a war going on somewhere''; but the "Undershaft inheritance," which insists that the business must be passed on to another foundling boy, has been the cause of the rupture in their marriage. Andrew Undershaft is at the opposite moral pole from Barbara, yet father and daughter are immediately fascinated with one another and strike a bargain: he will visit her shelter if she will visit his armament works. The shelter is also in financial need and is saved from ruin only by the generosity of Undershaft and a whisky distiller; Barbara, shocked that the Army will accept money from two such manufacturers of evil, loses her faith and resigns her position But Undershaft's creed, that the worst of all possible crimes is poverty, begins to convert Cusins and Barbara, especially when they see its effects in his Utopian company town. When Cusins turns out to be a foundling he is installed as the heir to the Undershaft money, gunpowder, and destruction, with Barbara by his side.
If Shaw had wished to write a simple play he would have made Undershaft an industrialist like Andrew Carnegie, someone whose labor practices may have been questionable but who made contributions to social and economic advancement Instead Undershaft is made to be a sower of death, like Alfred Nobel, disdaining common morality and the common excuses for his trade, selling munitions to anyone who applies, reveling in the devastation his guns bring. Nobel wished to buy respectability by endowing a prize for peace; Undershaft demands that his contribution to the Salvation Army be treated anonymously. As Cusins notes continually, Undershaft is a Prince of Darkness, a Dionysus in touch with the underside of human existence. Thus the dilemma he presents to Barbara and to readers and audience is enormously complicated. If poverty is the worst of crimes, then anything that eradicates it is good, even if that thing is, itself, normally considered evil. In this extreme of cases, Shaw's play implies, the end not only justifies Undershaft's means, but his means are the only realistic ones that can achieve the end
A powerful second act in Barbara's West Ham shelter shows that the Salvation Army is an unwitting tool of the status quo: it relieves the effects of poverty just enough to blunt the edge of social revolution, without actually altering the conditions of the classes or attempting to redistribute wealth. The violence and desperation of a bully like Bill Walker cannot be corrected by hot soup and a prayer meeting because they are caused not by moral defects but by social inequities. When Barbara loses her faith in the Army she awakens to the sentimental nature of the Christian promise of salvation; she also slowly awakens to the fact that the Army, dependent upon the largess of capitalists, is therefore part of the capitalist establishment, as much as the Parliament that Undershaft brags is in his pocket As one of the spiritual and economic unfortunates, Walker knows this truth in his bones. After the Army has accepted Undershaft's money, Walker speaks the cruelest and most incisive line of the play, rubbing salt into Barbara's wounds: "Wot prawce selvytion nah?"
The cannon is the metaphoric heart of Major Barbara From its mock-military title to its numerous references to actual battles, the play offers glimpses of the destructive impulse; the final scene is literally dominated by a huge cannon center stage In shifting its attention from Barbara's spiritual dilemma to Undershaft's vision of an orderly universe based on gunpowder, the play seems to promote the strongman as savior, and firepower as the ultimate arbiter. Shaw's Preface, a brilliant essay on the nature of wealth, provides a less disturbing philosophic context by suggesting that public choice need not lie between poverty on the one hand and bombs on the other, since it is capitalism that sanctions both, m a more humane economy both would be eradicated. But the play itself is profoundly ambiguous in its social morality; the diabolic Undershaft is its most gripping character, and even when he is taken ironically Major Barbara resists neat categorizing.
Despite its disturbing theme, its theatrical vitality has been unquestioned since the first performance in 1905. Shaw wrote it for Granville Barker's Court Theatre seasons, his first play designed with a specific company of actors in mind (Barker played Cusins, a role modeled on their mutual friend Gilbert Murray, whose translations of Euripides, which Cusins quotes, were also being performed at the Court). Since its twin subjects of war and money have been the central subjects of the 20th century, it has shown little sign of losing its hold on us.
Source: Dennis Kennedy, "Major Barbara" in The International Dictionary of Theater, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St James Press, 1992, p 462.
Genuine theatrical salvation for Major Barbara, perhaps Bernard Shaw's most relentless discussion for the stage, is the chief pleasure of the 1987 Shaw Festival where huge and handsome, if unadventuresome, productions are often the rule. As conceived by Christopher Newton, who also serves as the festival's artistic director, Major Barbara finds in the spectacle of its staging a visual accompaniment for the dazzling brilliance of Shaw's ideas.
Major Barbara has been directed with the scope and vision of opera, thereby revealing yet another key to a play in which Shaw, the music critic and great arbiter of the western artistic heritage, provides a symphony of thought articulated and debated m the intellectual duets of Undershaft and Cusins and in the passionate verbal arias of Barbara and the poor she intends to save. The stylized tones and rhythmic variety of the play's language are enriched, as the Salvation Army's activities are, with music: Barbara sings, Lomax is ordered to accompany prayers on the organ, Undershaft plays the trombone, and Cusins beats a huge drum to be near the woman he worships with the fervor of felt religion. These apparent clues to the musical nature of Major Barbara march through the production like a Salvation Army hymn, and the motif is completed at the play's end, when, after Barbara and Cusins have agreed to make war on war, "We're In The Money" plays softly and cynically as the house lights come up.
Each scene seems to have been orchestrated with comparable insight and choreographed as well with precision of movement and gesture. The curious and outraged Wilton Crescent quartet of Lady Britomart and her children, unable to resist Undershaft's charm, gives way in the second act to a chorus of humiliation in the Salvation Army shelter that crescendos into a lament of hypocrisy and despair. For the grand finale at Perivale St. Andrews, the characters flow effortlessly about Undershaft's stark white Utopia, anxious to grasp a new illusion in which the benefits of wealth are an endless song.
These operatic dimensions of the play are boldly stated in the designs of Cameron Porteous, who uses the full height of the Festival Theater stage to dwarf Shaw's principals in settings as elaborate and as meaningful as the ideas they discuss Lady Britomart's library is a huge, rich room of books, marble, pottery, and dark wood, a small corner of the British Empire exhibiting its wealth. The walls are covered with paper and stained glass depicting the wild growth of the jungle that lies just beneath the polished exterior of those who live there, for these are powerful and rich people who are summoned together to discuss serf-preservation through a continuation of their position and wealth. They descend, in Act II, into the hell of the East Ham shelter, a dimly lit, towering grey brick affair with smoke rolling across the littered floor. The nightmarish quality of the setting reinforces the moral quandary of this inferno where an army of angels unwittingly perpetuates the suffering it seeks to assuage, and the devilish Undershaft offers the only hope of an earthly redemption from poverty.
The scenic tour de force, however, occurs in the third act as the library revolves in full view into the foundry of Undershaft and Lazarus, visually suggesting the creative evolution from the former world into the latter that will be effected through the inheritance of Barbara and Cusins. The works themselves are wittily conveyed: a huge, phallic cannon dominates a setting of white marble steps, Greek columns, and dummy soldiers displayed like so many Attic statues. The classicism of Cusins, already incorporated into the enterprise he intends to transform, appears frozen in another time, and thus the setting metaphorically asserts that his real connection to ancient Greece lies in the spirit of Dionysus within himself. That spirit draws him to Barbara and will propel them past her father into a future they envision but do not as yet understand.
Jim Mezon's Cusins, full of a calculated subtlety that grows into confidence by the play's end, emerges as a formidable revival to the properly demonic Undershaft, played by Douglas Rain with great verbal dexterity and just a hint of relief that the life force is indeed doing its work through him as he passes on the foundry to his chosen heirs. Both men bring a sexual edge to their roles, giving further credence to Shaw's contention that the superman is compelling and irresistible. Martha Burns as Barbara is full of confused energy, waiting to be awakened by her father's challenge and Cusins's love. The three form a Shavian love triangle in which the object of their affection is the force they instinctively recognize in one another.
The entire cast seems to have discovered a rich sexual energy in the play that imbues its comic moments with human folly and heightens its philosophical intrigue with unstated tension. Frances Hyland avoids the temptation to play Lady Britomart as a cousin to Lady Bracknell, opting instead to create an aging ingenue who pinches her cheeks to look attractive for Undershaft and sees in Barbara and Cusins a reflection of the feelings for her husband that she still relishes. As performed by Jon Bryden, Bill Walker's attacks on Jenny Hill and Rummy Mitchens seethe with the potential for rape, whereas Steven Sutcliffe's Stephen seems to wander through the play trying to figure out why anyone would expect him to marry. Lomax and Sarah, played by Michael Howell and Barbara Worthy, serve as effective foils for Cusins and Barbara. In the utter banality of their relationship, they demonstrate Shaw's belief in the power of the intellect to transform and sustain. The most passionate moment of Major Barbara occurs, appropriately, when Cusins and Barbara agree to accept Undershaft's challenge. As they embrace in a long, provocative kiss on the steps of the foundry, there is no mistaking that for Shaw the passion of the intellect and passion itself are inseparable.
This is an inspired production, a Shavian masterpiece accorded as little reverence as Undershaft himself gives tradition, yet thoughtful enough to make Shaw's ideas live and breathe through his characters, who, with us since 1903, are now beginning to touch the realm of myth. The result is fresh and very funny, tantalizing the audience with possibilities of the human spirit we already expect will never come to pass.
Source: Michael C O'Neill, review of Major Barbara in Theatre Journal, Volume 40, no. 1, March, 1988, pp. 105-06.