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July 12, 2007

A Discussion in Three Acts: George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Major Barbara
by George Bernard Shaw
first published 1907
Pp. 173. London: Longman's Study Texts, 1985

Available as a Penguin Classics, Major Barbara (Penguin, 2000), £7.99

As and when I was introduced to these things George Bernard Shaw was widely regarded as the second most important playwright in the English language. That was not, of course, his own view; as he remarked in the Saturday Review for September 1896:

With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise William Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.
But Shaw's stock has surely slipped to a degree which would have appalled him. Though he is still considered a fit object of study, productions of his plays are very thin on the ground in the twenty first century. One of the reasons for this, as far as those producing them is concerned, is that they are astonishingly over-prescribed, giving little leeway to the director, the actor or even the set designer. The first stage direction in Major Barbara is 287 words long and describes in detail both the characters on stage, Lady Britomart and her son Stephen, and the library of their house in Wilton Crescent. (Britomart, incidentally, is a name derived from Edmund Spencer, but to our ears it is bound to conjure up the image of some local rival to Aldi and KwikSave.)

Which is a very different approach to stage direction to the despised author who offered us, "Enter the Prince of Wales and Sir John Falstaff" and "Exit followed by a bear". Am I right to think that this might be a clue as to why Shakespeare is, as Ben Jonson put it, for all time whereas GBS has proved to be rather dated?

In football terms Shaw's contempt for Shakespeare is like the good, but essentially ordinary, midfield player who says of his rival who has genuine vision, "But I'm faster than him, I do more running, I'm a better tackler . . . . " He's not just cocky, but also extremely irritating. There's the overdetailed stage directions and the long rambling prefaces (of which more later). And the idiosyncratic punctuation such as dont instead of don't (language is about convention, Bernie - get over it). Worse than any of these is the supposedly phonetic rendition of dialect, in this case Cockney, as in (p. 70):

BILL: Aw knaow you. Youre the one that took awy maw girl. Youre the one that set er agen me. Well, I'm gowin to ev er aht.
I submit that this is a fairly bad idea implemented atrociously. And it's worth asking a question, isn't it, about why regional dialects and lower class accents were rendered so terribly in the first half of the twentieth century whether in print or performance? Much of it seems to have been connected to Shaw, though he wasn't necessarily responsible. If you've winced at Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady you ought to try the appalling performance as the same character by Wendy Hiller in the 1938 movie of Pygmalion. And Stanley Holloway (from Worcestershire) was regarded as a kind of specialist in this field even though he made a complete pig's ear of the two commonest accents in the country, Cockney and Lancashire. Shaw claimed to be able to distinguish between 134 different sounds!? Wheel on Gwynneth Paltrow or Rene Zellweger who actually can distinguish different sounds. But I digress.

So what we have here is a bearded, celibate, vegetarian Irishman who thinks he is the cleverest man in the world and who has some very irritating habits. He is saved by the fact that even though he's about 25% less clever than he thinks he is that's still pretty bloody clever. And he's quite witty. I read most of Shaw's plays when I was in my teens and I enjoyed them, though for some reason I never read Major Barbara, which some people have described as his best play.

It concerns the meeting of the arms manufacturer, Andrew Undershaft, with his wife, Lady Britomart, his two daughters, their fiancées and his son. They have been estranged for many years chiefly because Undershaft subscribes to a long tradition of leaving one's wealth and business to a chosen "foundling" rather than a genetic offspring - like the Antonine emperors rather than a modern monarchy. One of the daughters, Barbara, is a major in the Salvation Army and her mission to save souls is in sharp contradistinction to her father's mission to maximise his wealth and power.

The play is interesting because the "evil" Andrew Undershaft is clever and witty and charming. His gospel is that the creation of wealth is a necessary condition (though certainly not a sufficient one) of good being done. Also that since bad people are going to have serious weaponry, good people should have some as well. He is also a model employer, with a model works and town "between two hills in Middlesex" (! ?). Barbara refers to (p. 129):

. . . this dreadful place, with its beautiful clean workshops, and respectable workmen and model homes.
To which Undershaft replies:
Cleanliness and respectability do not need justification, Barbara: they justify themselves. I see no darkness here, no dreadfulness. In your Salvation shelter I saw poverty, misery, cold and hunger. You gave them bread and treacle and dreams of heaven. I give from thirty shillings a week to twelve thousand a year. They find their own dreams, but I look after the drainage.
And Undershaft triumphs. In the end Barbara's intended, "Dolly" Cusins, is taken to be an adequate "foundling" and becomes Undershaft's heir. Barbara, who has already been disillusioned by Salvationism when her superior accepts her father's money, not only stays with Dolly, but declares that she would have left him if he had not accepted her father's offer. The play ends with Cusins agreeing to turn up for work the following morning.

And one can't help admiring Shaw for taking serious ideas seriously and expressing intelligent thought intelligently. He puts Bentham and Machiavelli on stage and says, in effect: how can you answer that? The play was seen as an "attack" on religion and in a sense it was, but only in terms of ideas which had been around and accepted for centuries. Since Shaw died in 1950 only Sir Tom Stoppard has written plays remotely as ideologically articulate as this and even he puts in a great deal more by way of dramatic entertainment. Well might Shaw have described this as "a discussion in three acts" though in our times with their multiple means of communication the market would not allow you to use a theatre for mere discussion.

Then there is the Preface, all 15,000 words of it - read, of course, after the play. Much of it is barely about the play at all and a good deal, in true academic style is devoted to saying what the author is not and what he is not saying. He is not influenced by Continental "heresiarchs" whether Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Ibsen or Schopenhauer. He is not attacking the Salvation Army. But the curiosity of the preface is that it seems to be written by an entirely different political animal to the play. The play can be very easily read as a defence of capitalism and I guess a lot of people if they read it now without the Preface and without knowledge of the author, would read it so - an argument that no good can occur unless you allow mechanisms for the independent creation of wealth and power. But the preface is written by a radical, a socialist, an approver of revolutions (p. 37):

. . . I am, and have always been, and shall now always be, a revolutionary writer, because our laws make law impossible; our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organised robbery; our morality is an organised hypocrisy; our wisdom is administered by inexperienced or malexperienced dupes, our power wielded by cowards and weaklings, and our honour false in all its points.
This apparent contradiction is not necessarily complicated, but is a matter of historical development. If you are a realist and a consequentialist and therefore a utilitarian who rejects morality not based on these premises as a shibboleth, there is a prima facie case for redistribution and socialism if you don't understand about human motivation and wealth creation - which Shaw doesn't and which was less easy to understand in 1907 than in 2007 (p. 11):
(The rich) know, of course, that they are rich because others are poor
remains, in one of its aspects, the most damaging fallacy of the last two centuries.

But, in any case, Shaw is not consistent to his tough-minded rejection of irrational and hypocritical moralities. He may reject "Crosstianity", but he subscribes, even overtly, to the kind of mystical humanism which is descended from and ultimately indistinguishable from Christianity (p. 34):
But there is a nobler and even profounder Christianity which affirms the sacred mystery of Equality, and forbids the glaring futility and folly of vengeance, often politely called punishment or justice.
Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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the kind of mystical humanism which is descended from and ultimately indistinguishable from Christianity.

What a diabolical [sic] deception! No wonder we have become a nation of "spineless vertebrates", lying helpless before the rising tide of the Saracen.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 14, 2007 08:38 AM
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