Places Discussed

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 827 words.)

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were elected to a variety of positions. The Fabian Society was only one of many organizations armed at bringing about social reform. A number of individuals became known for their own efforts as well. Late Victorian and Edwardian England had begun to see poverty as the result of unemployment radier than the immorality of the poor, and so people were open to efforts at reform. This new attitude toward the poor is reflect inMajor Barbara, which depicts poverty as an unnatural (even immoral) state for humankind.

Religion was an important force in England at this time, and churches were a major influence on efforts at social reform. In 1890, Salvation Army founder William Booth published In Darkest England and the Way Out, in which he argued that England, with the horrors of its own poverty, could not consider itself superior to Africa. Booth called for major changes in society in order to eliminate poverty. Shaw was greatly impressed by Booth's work, and its influence, particularly Booth's perception of poverty, can be seen in Major Barbara.

Although the importance of churches at this time cannot be ignored, there was also a rise in agnosticism, the belief that it is impossible to know whether or not there is a God. The term "agnostic," m fact, was coined by British naturalist Thomas Huxley in 1869 In 1859, Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species, in which he presented his theories of evolution and natural selection. Darwin's theories shocked Victorians, as it cast doubt on traditional religious beliefs (most notably the belief that man was divinely created rather than evolved from lower primates as Darwin's work suggested), and religious people still felt threatened by Darwin's dieories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

For many, this period was a time of doubt as scientific progress seemed to call the truth of religion into question. In general, the good of increasing developments in science and technology was itself doubted. Early in the nineteenth century, the Luddites, who considered advancing technology to be an evil, had literally smashed the machines of the Industrial Revolution. This mistrust of scientific and technological progress, which continued into the next century, is reflected in Major Barbara when Undershaft delights in the development of more advanced weapons technology, which is "better" because it can kill people more efficiently.

Another area of much disagreement was me subject of women's rights. The struggle for women' s suffrage (or the right to vote) in England began in the 1870s and continued, without success, until 1926, when women were finally allowed to vote. At the time Major Barbara was produced, it had only recently been decided that women had the legal right to own property. And in Major Barbara, when Lady Bntomart wants the Undershaft business to go to Barbara, this is accomplished by naming Cusins, Barbara's future husband, as Undershaft's successor. The place of women in society, however, was changing The term "new woman," probably coined in 1894, came into prominence. The new woman was a member of a new, more liberated, generation. She believed in women's suffrage as well as education for women and the end of the sexual double standard. The character of Barbara, who gains the masculine title of Major and who looks for fulfillment and duty outside of the home but who by the end of the play clearly embraces domestic life and the world of her mother as well, reflects the changing roles of women m Shaw's time.

Literary Style

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Plot and Subplot Critics have noted at least four possible plots in Major Barbara: the conversion struggle between Barbara and her father, the question of how Lady Britomart will secure incomes for her children, the question of whether Barbara and Cusins will marry, and Barbara's battle for Bill Walker's soul. Although each are distinct plots, all are intertwined throughout the course of the play. The "good vs. evil" contest between Barbara and her father is most often seen as the main plot, as the action of the play revolves around its development. The others can be considered subplots. Although they are important, their main function is to support the main plot thread and their resolution is subordinate to that of the primary storyline.

Setting Since Shaw did not specify a time period for the action in Major Barbara, the action can be assumed to take place around 1905, the year of the first production. The action takes place in three locations: Lady Britomart's library, Barbara's Salvation Army shelter, and Undershaft's factory and model town of Penvale St. Andrews. The depiction of these three locations highlights the conflict between Barbara and Undershaft. They meet first on neutral ground, then in her territory, then in his, which also becomes Barbara's by the end of the play. The stage is used to illustrate the opulence of Lady Britomart's way of life in Act I, the poverty and degradation of the shelter in Act II, and the clean, modest comfort of Undershaft's place of business in Act III. Also m Act III, however, the mutilated dummy soldiers serve as mute testimony to the horrors of Undershaft's business, undermining some of Perivale St. Andrew's beauty.

Allusion An allusion is an indirect reference, usually to another literary work. Being familiar with an author's allusions leads to a deeper understanding of his or her work. In Major Barbara, references to Undershaft as the Devil and Mephistopheles as well as the selling-and saving-of souls are allusions to the Faust legends, in whichFaust sells his soul to the Devil. The best known English-language retelling of this tale is Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Dr. Faust (1594). Another well-known version is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (Part I, 1808, Part II, 1832). There are also numerous references in Major Barbara to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and to Euripides, whose play The Bacchae (406 B.C.) is about the worship of Dionysus.

Symbolism A symbol is a person, object, or action that suggests something else. Barbara's Salvation Army uniform and brooch are symbols of her faith in the Salvation Army. When she loses her faith, she no longer wears either. The mutilated dummy soldiers that appear in Act m are symbols of the violence of both war and capitalism.

Comedy The word comedy can refer to a play that is light and entertaining and has a happy ending. It can also be used to mean a play that deals with serious topics in a light or satirical manner. Major Barbara is both. There are many humorous moments throughout the play: Undershaft's inability to remember the names of his children, Lomax's stupidity, illustrated by his numerous inane comments and by his smoking in the explosives shed, nearly blowing up the Undershaft business; Lady Britomart's control of her controlling husband Shaw satirizes the Salvation Army by showing the recipients of its largesse gain this Christian organization's assistance by deceit. He also satirizes the violence of capitalism by juxtaposing the beauty of Perivale St. Andrews with the horror of the work done there. The play also has a happy ending. The heroine Barbara has found her work and, as occurs in numerous comedies, the play ends with a decision to marry.

Dialogue Dialogue is an important aspect of Major Barbara, which has been criticized for what is sometimes seen as an excessive emphasis on verbal argument. Much of the " action'' of the play, in fact, is actually in the dialogue, as characters' discussions move the drama forward. For instance, Cusins' decision to succeed Undershaft is preceded by lengthy arguments about moral issues. Shaw himself referred to the plays as "a discussion in three long acts.''

Compare and Contrast

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1905: Interest in socialism grows with the development of many socialist organizations and an attempt at revolution in Russia. Although this revolution initially fails, hopes among socialists for future revolutions are high.

Today: The collapse of the governments of the Soviet Union and East Germany serves to create strong doubts about the possible viability of any socialist regime (many argue that, like Russia's system, a socialist government cannot function without becoming a communist dictatorship). Although there are still socialist organizations, their beliefs are now well outside the mainstream of society.

1905: Women struggle for basic rights, including the right to vote, which is not granted in England until 1926.

Today: In the United States and England, women have earned legal rights equal to those of men, but many believe that much progress remains to be made, particularly in non-Western countries.

1905: Christianity is a major force, affecting all aspects of society, but interest in agnosticism continues to grow. In Western nations, members of non-Christian religions are subject to discrimination.

Today: Christianity remains viable, though its influence on society as a whole is lessened. Interest in non-Christian religions increases, and adherents of those religions face less prejudice. Agnosticism and atheism are acceptable—and increasingly popular—options.

1905: The government becomes more involved in social programs. Individuals and organizations make major efforts at social reform.

Today: Many people believe that the government cannot effectively solve social problems, and the governments of England and the United States have cut spending on social programs, resulting in a greater emphasis on volunteerism and privately-funded organizations such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International.

1905: Charles Darwin's theories continue to cause debate. Much scientific progress is made, including Einstein's publication of his paper on the theory of relativity, but many question the good of rapid scientific and technological advances.

Today: The theories of natural selection and evolution are accepted by most educated people, but there is an increase in the search for scientific evidence for creationism (the belief that man was created, fully-formed, by God). The cloning of sheep raises serious ethical questions. The astronomical increase in the use of computers causes some debate over advancing technology's effect on the quality of life.

Media Adaptations

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Major Barbara was adapted as a film in 1941, with additional scenes and characters added by Shaw. The film was directed by Gabriel Pascal and starred Wendy Hiller, Robert Morley, Rex Harrison, and Robert Newton.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bertolim, John A. The Playwrighting Self of Bernard Shaw, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale), 1991, pp. 64-65.

Bloom, Harold. Introduction to his George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, Chelsea House (New York), 1988, pp. 1-11.

Carr, Pat M. Bernard Shaw, Frederick Ungar (New York), 1976, pp 58.

Dukore, Bernard F. Bernard Shaw, Playwright: Aspects of Shavian Drama, University of Missouri Press (Columbia), 1973, pp 86-90.

Gainor, J. Ellen. Shaw's Daughters- Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor), 1991, pp. 218-24.

Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw Volume II 1898-1918. The Pursuit of Power, Penguin (London), 1989, pp. 147-48.

Archer, William. File on Shaw, edited by Margery M Morgan, Methuen Drama (London), 1989, p. 54.

Morgan, Margery M. "Skeptical Faith" in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House (New York), 1988, pp 49-73.

Smith, J Percy. "Shaw's Own Problem Play" in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp 133-51.

Turco, Alfred, Jr. "Shaw's Moral Vision" in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp 103-31.

Watson, Barbara Bellow. "Sainthood for Millionaires" in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp 13-31.

Further Reading Bloom, Harold, Editor. George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, Chelsea House, 1988. This is a collection of papers by numerous critics on different aspects of Shaw's play.

Briggs, Asa. A Social History of England, Weidenfeld and Nicolson (London), 1994. A study of English society from antiquity to the present, this books contains a lengthy chapter on the Victorian and early Edwardian eras.

Gainor, J. Ellen. Shaw's Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender, University of Michigan Press, 1991. This is a study of women in Shaw's plays, focusing on the conception of womanhood in Victorian culture and the image of the daughter m Shaw's plays.

Peters, Sally. Bernard Shaw The Ascent of the Superman, Yale University Press (New Haven), 1996. This is an extended literary biography of Shaw, discussing his life as well as his works.

Werntraub, Stanley. Shaw's People. Victoria to Churchill, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park), 1996 This book focuses on Shaw and his relationships with and attitudes toward various people of his time, including Salvation Army founder William Booth It places Shaw more completely in the context of his society.


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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.




Critical Essays