You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.
– George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics, from Major Barbara
The first time I read George Bernard Shaw’s play, Major Barbara, which was written and premiered in 1905, I was a sophomore in college in the spring of 1982, deeply committed to devouring all literature and wanting to become a writer. The play was included in Literature in Critical Perspectives (1968), an anthology of plays, short stories, poems, and essays, designed to teach “principles and techniques of literary interpretation to freshman and sophomore college students in introduction-to-literature courses.” Instead of being grouped by genre, they were organized by the major critical perspectives of the day: Social, Formalist, Psychological, and Archetypal.
The anthology and my English professor opened my eyes to reading literature more critically and with an open eye and heart to the human condition. The introduction to the critical perspective Social, entitled “Criticism and Sociology” by David Daiches, investigated how a writer’s social origins and social factors affect their work. Shaw wrote, in his 1891 essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism, that society is made up of three discrete types of people: “philistines, who have no capacity for creative thought; idealists, who believe in the tangibility of the impossible; and realists, who can see the world for what it is.” The morality play Major Barbara brilliantly brings all three types to one stage, with an interesting twist as to who the “hero” is.
Major Barbara is a young English woman who, as a major in the Salvation Army, is committed to saving the souls of the poor at a time when capitalism and military industrialism ruled. Her mother, the upper-class Lady Britomart Undershaft, reaches out to her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, to supplement Barbara’s and her sister’s dowries, as both are marrying men whose present incomes can’t support them. Barbara’s fiancé, Adolphus Cusins, a Greek scholar, is a secularist but he joins the Salvation Army out of love for Barbara.
Andrew Undershaft’s lack of morals is equal to the vast wealth he has accumulated from his munitions manufacturing empire, which is the leading producer of the world’s guns, cannons, torpedoes, submarines, and aerial battleships. Lady Britomart estranged herself from her husband not because of his aim to sell weapons of destruction to anyone who will pay him, but because of his commitment to a tradition in which the heir to the Undershaft fortune must go to an orphan who would be groomed for the position. (Undershaft was an orphan and brought into the empire.) It didn’t help that Undershaft was none too impressed with his only son. His son and two daughters are not happy at all to see him, whom they are told by their mother has re-entered their lives to help them out financially.
Barbara is aghast to accept his “blood money,” but they agree to be open-minded and to gain an understanding of one another by seeing each other’s world, or element. Undershaft is to visit the Salvation Army’s shelter in the city slums and Barbara and the rest of her family are to visit his munitions plant. Undershaft declares that he could “buy” the Salvation Army. When he – out of his love for his daughter, whom he sees as just as brilliant as he – donates a sizeable amount to the Salvation Army, which thrills both her colleagues and the poor, a disillusioned and distraught Barbara resigns from the organization. [On a historical note and one that informs the play, the Salvation Army, which was called the Christian Mission in the 1870s before it changed its name in 1878, increasingly used military metaphors to reach out to the working classes, who at time were drawn to militarism].
Barbara keeps to her promise and tours her father’s munitions plant and colony, where Undershaft’s workers live. Through the course of the visit, Cusins reveals that he is an orphan, and already in Undershaft’s favor, he becomes heir to the family’s fortune. But will Barbara now spurn him? In fact, she tells Cusins she would turn her back on him if he refused the offer. In the course of three days, the duration of the play’s timeframe, she has come to understand that you simply can’t feed the poor when you are poor. Turning her back on her father and other wealthy people like him is like “turning our backs on life,” according to Barbara. “There is no wicked life: life is all one,” she tells Cusins.
Furthermore, Barbara comes to this understands because – she ardently believes – she is the daughter of a foundling. Rather than be amidst the starving poor, whose salvation and conversion through the soup kitchen is certain so long as there is bread to eat, Barbara sees greater possibility in converting the middle and upper classes. Their basic needs are already met and therefore can focus on their spiritual needs. Their souls are more in need of saving – the “fullfed, quarrelsome, snobbish, uppish creatures, all standing on their little rights and dignities, and thinking that my father ought to be greatly obliged to them for making so much money for him – and so he ought. That is where salvation is really wanted,” she excitedly tells her future husband and heir to her father’s empire.
I had never seen a live production of Major Barbara. So when I saw that the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), San Francisco’s premiere nonprofit theater company (415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, 415.749.2228), was bringing the play to its stage, I told David we were going and were joined by our friends Mimi and Jon, who are fans of Shaw’s Pygmalion. I haven’t been to the Geary Theater in many years, so it was a treat to be back and see it in its revitalized splendor. The settings of the three-act play were nicely done, especially the last act’s high-explosive sheds at the arsenal of Undershaft and Lazarus, which featured ominous gray bombs, like steel sharks, hanging down from the rafters and stuffed muslin dummies with red targets painted on their chests.
Dean Paul Gibson, the Canadian actor who played Andrew Undershaft, and Kandis Chappell, who played Lady Britomart, were phenomenal. First of all, I admit to having a difficult time hearing actors speak on stage, but I could hear every crystal-clear word spoken by Chappell and most of Undershaft’s lines. Chappell’s character had the choicest lines, aside from Undershaft, as they were full of comic contradictions, which I was happily able to appreciate! Gibson was a fine Andrew Undershaft, who was morally despicable and yet whose arguments couldn’t be disputed. He conveyed his convictions convincingly. And agree or agree to disagree, you end up admitting that much of what he proclaimed is true – perhaps not right, but nonetheless true! – and just as true today.
After seeing Major Barbara, I pulled out my anthology, which I had kept – full of faded green highlights and neatly written notes in the margins – with the intention of reading it again. I wish I had read it before last Saturday evening. I would have relished the lines as they were being said on stage. The play demands it. Though now, when I read it again, I’ll hear Gibson and Chappell’s fine theatrical voices in my head and clearly see the library, soup kitchen, and munitions plant. And I can stop and savor each verbal battle, full of contradictions and ironies. I highly recommend Major Barbara for an uninterrupted weekend afternoon read!
Unfortunately, the play ends this Sunday, February 2nd. For those who appreciate Shaw and are in the area, this is a great production to see. Whether you see it on stage or read it, you will be in awe, wondering how more than 100 years later Major Barbara is just as timely and incredibly relevant today as it was at the turn of the 20th century – a trait that defines greatness. Bravo Shaw!