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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Wilton Crescent

Wilton Crescent. Fashionable section of London’s upscale West End. Act 1 is set in the library of Lady Britomart Undershaft’s house, which she has tastefully decorated with money from her husband, who has become wealthy by manufacturing arms. Although the pictures, books, and music portfolios identified in stage directions suggest the Undershaft family will be gathering in an enlightened environment conducive to liberal thinking, Lady Britomart steps forward as a Victorian relic of upper-class materialism. Thus, the library’s rich decor calls attention to Lady Britomart’s insistence upon money as the panacea for whatever problems she and her adult children confront.

West Ham

West Ham. Location of the newly whitewashed Salvation Army shelter in London’s impoverished East End in which the play’s second act is set. Seen through Barbara Undershaft’s eyes, the shelter represents charitable compassion. Conversely, for the destitute who seek refuge here from the January cold, it represents food as bribery. Barbara has devoted herself to saving souls within these bleak surroundings, but she is no match for her intruding millionaire father who proves that her means for rescuing the downtrodden are hollow. After Undershaft purchases her religious idealism by donating five thousand pounds to the shelter, Barbara walks away under a leaden sky, knowing that her illusions have been as thin as the whitewash on the slum warehouse.

Perivale St. Andrews

Perivale St. Andrews. Location of Andrew Undershaft’s munitions foundry set amid the hills of Middlesex. The fictitious Perivale St. Andrews of act 3 is a frighteningly perfect utopian community made up of churches, libraries, schools, banquet chambers, and nursing homes. Not to be overlooked, however, the dummy soldiers strewn under a high explosives shed testify to the ghastly effects produced by the bombshells on display at this “triumph of modern industry.” The foundry clearly symbolizes the entrepreneur’s right to spread destruction; however, from among the clutter of props in the closing scene, Barbara emerges as an energetic life force who intends to use her inherited money and power to fight the evils of war.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The early 1900s saw an increasing interest in socialism (which advocates government ownership and/or control of the production and distribution of goods and services) worldwide, with Russian workers revolting against the Czar in 1905 In the United States, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle depicted the horrifying working conditions of immigrant laborers m the meat packing plants of Chicago and called for a socialist solution. Sinclair inadvertently attracted more attention to the impurity of the meat products Americans were consuming than the plight of the workers, but the resulting passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was nevertheless a victory of sorts over unbridled capitalism.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, England had changed from a primarily agricultural society to an industrial nation, and many people had moved from the country to the towns. The rise in industry brought an increasing amount of worker unrest and unemployment, which rose between 1900 and 1904. At the time, the government began to take more responsibility for the unemployed With the passage of the Unemployed Workmen Act of 1905, committees to assist the unemployed were established by the government, yet unemployment remained a major problem, working conditions were far from ideal, and laborers remained dissatisfied. There were a large number of strikes, and membership in trade unions doubled between 1900 and 1914.

In this climate, the socialist Fabian Society, of which Shaw was a member, gained influence. The Fabians believed in changing society through participation in government—as opposed to overthrowing governments through revolutions—and members were elected to a variety of positions. The Fabian Society was only one of many organizations armed at bringing...

(The entire section is 2,923 words.)