Friday, December 2, 2016

The cynicism of it! - Shaw's Major Barbara

I barely know a thing about George Bernard Shaw, most of what I know is likely wrong, and now that I see that I took the dumbest notes on Major Barbara (1905), but how will I learn if I stay silent I say to myself.

Major Barbara is a major in the Salvation Army.  Act II takes place at a Salvation Army shelter.  Great stuff.  Barbara’s father, Andrew Undershaft, is England’s greatest armaments manufacturer.  Act III partly takes place at his gigantic manufacturing plant, which is something like the giant Krupp plant as if it were run by Robert Owen.

UNDERSHAFT [stopping to smell the bouquet].  Where did you get the flowers, my dear?

LADY BRITOMART.  Your men presented them to me in your William Morris Labor Church…  Yes, with Morris’s words in mosaic letters ten feet high round the dome.  NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH TO BE ANOTHER MAN’S MASTER.  The cynicism of it!

UNDERSHAFT.  It shocked the men at first, I am afraid.  But now they take no more notice of it than of the ten commandments in church.

Undershaft is such a perfect cynic about the effects of his products on the world – “Here I am, a profiteer in mutilation and murder” – that he is in practice perversely sincere, as much of a Utopian reformer as his daughter Barbara.  Much of the plot is about Undershaft’s attempt to find a successor to run the factory – a fairy tale where the prize for the plucky peasant hero is a dynamite plant – and I kept detecting the idea, never stated by Shaw that I noticed, that the heir really should be Barbara, even if her ideals are completely different.  She and her father share the impulse to organize the world.

Maybe that is what happens at the end, come to think of it.  Her husband gets the business, but he is an idiot, and a cynical cynic, not a sincere one, a classicist who bangs the bass drum in the Salvation Army only because he wants to marry the wealthy Barbara.

CUSINS.  It takes the poor professor of Greek, the most artificial and self-suppressed of human creatures, from his meal of roots, and lets loose the rhapsodist in him; reveals the true worship of Dionysos to him; sends him down the public street drumming dithyrambs [he plays a thundering flourish on the drum].  (Act II)

The “artificial and self-suppressed” part is accurate, at least.  Please note the appearance of the god of satyrs and fauns, like an Edwardian timestamp.

Perhaps a reader can detect some irony in the play’s central conflict.  Strangely, Shaw was criticized for attacking the Salvation Army, as he describes in the long preface to the play.  As if he were in favor of the cannons and warships instead.  Major Barbara is an argument against the illusion of purity.  “He must either share the world’s guilt or go to another planet” (Preface).  “He” being anyone, everyone.

The first act of the play is a drawing room comedy as funny as the others by Shaw I have read recently, Candida (1894) and You Never Can Tell (1896).  Shaw is expert with upper-class prigs and idiots.  But the rest of the play is bigger, more ambitious.  More in line with my received view of Shaw, the one I carried around for years, not completely mistaken but badly incomplete.


  1. My view for whatever it's worth: the playwright had special difficulties with women in his life, and I always give extra attention to his female characters and their relationships with men.

  2. You know, I am completely ignorant of Shaw's personal life. I know a little bit about his professional and political biography, but nothing otherwise.

    I like to think I am nevertheless dividing my attention among the play's various elements well, but who can say.