Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670
The play revolves around the contrast between the Salvation Army, aiming to save the souls of men and women by preaching humility and submission, and the weapons factory of Andrew Undershaft, which provides its workers with a realistic escape from what would otherwise be a dreary life of poverty. Ironically, the model city standing alongside stockpiles of explosive materials is of more tangible help to the poor than the ineffective charity and hope for the hereafter offered by the Salvation Army. In short, the poor are better served by jobs than by prayers.
Major Barbara, Undershaft’s daughter, is a powerful spokesperson for the Salvation Army and dominates the first part of the play. While Lady Britomart, her mother, and Stephen, her brother, are simply comic caricatures of unthinking, hypocritical morality, Barbara is articulate and compassionate in trying to spread the traditional virtues of love, honor, justice, and truth.
She is, however, no match for her father, who has turned these virtues completely upside down. His motto is “Unashamed,” signifying that no moral caution deters him from making a profit from weaponry. Like most literary devils, Undershaft is a fascinating character, charming because he is honest, witty, and successful. When he visits Barbara at work saving souls, he convinces her that only his kind of power works in this world: Even the Salvation Army is supported by contributions from unscrupulous benefactors like himself.
Barbara’s confrontation with her father is not so much a defeat as a revelation of her true character. Ultimately she is very much her father’s daughter, receptive to the kind of vital life-force that makes him such an effective businessman. The similarity to her father is confirmed at the play’s end when she prepares to marry Adolphus Cusins, a foundling with no family ties and an unconventional upbringing, prerequisites to be the amoral heir of Undershaft’s empire.
Like most of Shaw’s plays, MAJOR BARBARA is an entertainingly comic and stageworthy battle of ideas. While he by no means urges everyone to get involved in the business of war, he does suggest that any truly effective plan for improving the lot of mankind must presuppose that conventional morality is a greater obstacle than a help.
Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw. 1947. Reprint. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1957. One of the best writers about modern drama, Bentley sets forth ideas about Shaw that place later critics in his debt. His study is one of the first important books on Shaw.
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. 4 vols. New York: Random House, 1987-1992. Authoritative, superbly written, and richly detailed, these books are models of the biographer’s art. In the second volume, The Pursuit of Power 1898-1918, Holroyd discusses Major Barbara, giving particular attention to the troublesome third act and its ambiguities, about which he writes with discernment.
Shaw, George Bernard. Bernard Shaw’s Plays, edited by Warren S. Smith. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. This edition of Major Barbara and three other Shaw plays includes a useful selection of critical essays, including a reprint of G. K. Chesterton’s 1909 objections to the play, Barbara Bellow Watson’s 1968 essay that discusses both the play and Chesterton’s complaints, and an article that studies Shaw’s correspondence with his friend Gilbert Murray, the scholar on whom Adolphus Cusins is based.
Shaw, George Bernard. The Collected Screenplays of Bernard Shaw, edited by Bernard F. Dukore. London: George Prior Publishers, 1980. In his introduction, Dukore devotes twenty-eight pages to a thorough analysis of Shaw’s script for the 1941 film version of Major Barbara and an informative comparison of that version with the stage version.
Zimbardo, Rose, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Major Barbara. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Six complete essays and portions of five others offer differing approaches to the play. Zimbardo’s remarks on the play’s conformity to the comic paradigm, Joseph Frank’s essay on the play’s movement toward a Shavian salvation, and Anthony S. Abbott’s comments on realism are insightful and accessible to the general reader.