A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 2 - Summer 2011

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  “The Landscape of Beyond: Barbara’s Disillusionment and Transformation in Bernard Shaw’sMajor Barbara”- Ellen E. Dolgin

Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara is a play that opens with sparkle and intimacy, exploding tenets of Victorian morality while portraying one of its most cherished institutions: confidential conversation between mother and son. By the time the play premiered at the Court Theatre in 1905, the Victorian spheres for men and women were dissolving but remained embedded. Shaw’s mise-en-scene clearly highlights both the younger generation’s confrontation with Victorian mores and the older generation’s adherence to these. Andrew Undershaft is a version of Thomas Carlyle’s “captain of industry” while his estranged wife, Lady Britomart, is the female knight for Britain: its market as well as its values. Her name and its allusion to Spenser’s Faerie Queene signal Shaw’s recognition of women’s authority as well as the blocking of their potential by custom.

Lady Brit begins the play by revealing to their son, Stephen, that his “absent father” has been supporting the family all along, nonplussing him and piquing audience interest. Clearly, this is the first conversation of such candor and import between mother and son, but Lady Brit expects gendered role performance from her son and is anything but pleased at his reluctance to discuss the issues and his embarrassment and disillusionment from learning that his world is more complex than he imagined.   She chides him: “It is only in the middle classes, Stephen, that people get into a state of dumb helpless horror when they find that there are wicked people in the world. In our class… nothing should disturb our self-possession” (Major Barbara 54-5). Her dominating presence in this act, while short-lived, proves insightful. Stephen shows not only deference to his mother but sincere regard for her choice to sacrifice her marriage for her children’s sake, an ironic allusion to the Spenser heroine she is named for, since Britomart’s destiny in the poem is to marry and give birth to a fierce son. Stephen is the opposite of this.  Lady Brit acknowledges she could not condone Andrew “preaching immorality while practicing morality. You would all have grown up without principles, without any knowledge of right and wrong, if he had been in the house” (MB 57-8).

If Spenser’s commentary about women’s achievements and subsequent stifling are considered tongue in cheek, Shaw’s revelation of matriarchal power can be viewed as both a nod to and a correction of Spenser’s remarks. In this scene, Lady Brit not only manipulates Stephen’s answers to suit her agenda, but she then turns to Stephen as an adult male to “advise her” regarding financial planning for his sisters, having already decided to ask Andrew to the house to discuss this within the hour. For Edwardian audiences this would be comic in two ways: the witty dialogue and the larger reality: womanly women were the domestic power despite patriarchal authority.

By the time Andrew Undershaft meets his adult children, the play’s scope and vision widen perceptibly, as he announces his good mood stemming from the improved ability of one of his armaments to kill twice as many dummy soldiers as before, and avowing his attraction to the motto of the Salvation Army—blood and fire-- as potentially his own. Before the audience can absorb or react to these remarks, Undershaft explains that his morality suits him but not necessarily anyone else (MB 68-70). Lady Brit’s depiction of her husband to Stephen rings true.

Britomart Undershaft has no role as a virgin knight, but does her daughter, MB? An idealist with a common-sense wit, Barbara Undershaft appears to be a Shavian unwomanly woman who attempts to invent herself based on faith, intelligence, assertiveness, and clearly-defined objectives.  She speaks frankly and passionately in public as well as private settings, encouraging others to fulfill God’s purposes. Barbara is zealous, but Shaw’s dialogue for her balances archetypal fervor and colloquial speech. Shaw’s emphasis on Barbara’s vitality also emblematizes the invincibility of youthful mindsets; she begins the play believing in her intrinsic ability to transform others as well as herself.  

Shaw sets up the immediate meeting of minds between Undershaft and Barbara in Act I, ironically prompted by Stephen’s reductive assessment of his father’s view on personal morality, namely, that people are either “honest or scoundrels.” Barbara denial of the existence of either reveals her as the daughter of both parents: “There are neither good men nor scoundrels: they are just children of one Father; and the sooner they stop calling each other names the better” (MB 70-1). Through light-hearted dialogue, father and daughter agree to visit each other’s workplaces to see who can convert the other: rising action and the promise of transformation is in place.  How unfortunate for Barbara that she cannot heed her own advice in Act II.
An earlier work, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, features a daughter with similar staunch beliefs towards her own vocation and connection to the world about her: Vivie Warren. One of Shaw’s clearest indictments of Victorian and Edwardian smugness appeared in this censored play, which treats the woman’s oldest profession as a lesser evil than poverty. Ignorant of her own origin and the details of her mother’s life, Vivie has grown up with tutors and caregivers and graduated from college. Mrs. Warren, who has provided all of this for Vivie, turns out to be a combination of a shrewd executive and a middle-aged Victorian woman who wants her daughter treat her with sentiment, despite the fact that she had spent almost no time with her.  Vivie responds by questioning Mrs. Warren about her parentage and dismisses her mother’s contrived tears. Both Barbara and Vivie confront their parents’ worldviews.

Major Barbara is part of The Salvation Army, which began in 1878 to combat the evils of poverty. This organization also pioneered gender equality, as Sonia Lorichs explains: “In the Army equality between men and women was a fact at least half a century before it was in the secular world” (Lorichs in Weintraub 104). Shaw’s known support of the woman question and his work in the Fabian society to improve working and living conditions reflect in many of his early plays. Major Barbara intersects with both a study of the conditions in London and the burgeoning of a more radical branch of woman suffrage, the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst.  Barbara certainly embodies their slogan: “Deeds, Not Words” in her active role in the Army; her uniform gave her access to the public platform in the streets, the favored venue of the suffragettes as well.

More complicated, however, is the range of opinion even within activist women of the time. Shaw’s friend and fellow Fabian, Beatrice Webb was raised to believe that “women’s limited capacities and essential inferiority relative to men would likely have proved a major barrier to substantive independent, creative achievement.” By 1906 she was pro-suffrage (Lewis 85). Shaw’s eventual treatment of Barbara’s work will reflect this perspective. Born in 1858, Webb was closer in age to Barbara’s mother than to Barbara, but Michael Holroyd claims that Beatrice Webb is “the intellectual and biographical model” for Barbara Undershaft because she “was a rich man’s daughter and had gone East Ending with the gospel of social Salvationism” (Holroyd 101). The mother and daughter scene at the end of Act II of Mrs. Warren’s Profession illustrates the thin veneers that such scenes can pierce. Kitty Warren’s own childhood and adolescence was Dickensian; a half sister had died from lead poisoning from her work in a factory, and Kitty was given a great opportunity to serve as a barmaid until the wee hours for board and a few shillings. Kitty tells Vivie that Liz, her older sister, came into the bar, could barely recognize her, and convinced Kitty to join her in the oldest woman’s profession. Vivie argues for the admiration of those who “chose” to sell flowers or work in a lead factory, but as her mother points out that their business was the only one to give women profits rather than starvation wages, Vivie sees the justification, and so do we. (Mrs. Warren’s Profession  249).

Barbara’s passion is matched by self-confidence, which she shows in Act I and the first half of Act II.  She’s enmeshed in the philosophy of The Salvation Army and enjoys success in the East End.  The harshness of poverty shows up in Act II, along with the violence that accompanies powerlessness.  Barbara’s handling of Bill Walker, who has hit three women-- his “missing” girlfriend, an old woman at the shelter, as well as one “little Jenny Hill”-- is masterful; she is quick-witted as well as compelling. Barbara tells him, “It’s no use, Bill. She’s got another bloke…One of her own converts.”  The convert, a boxer, had “wrestled for three nights against his Salvation harder than he ever wrestled with the Jap at the music hall” (MB 87 & 92).

Despite the laugh lines here, it is unmistakable that Shaw acknowledges the violent outbursts that accompany poverty and frustration, and the abuse of women that was blatant but largely treated as invisible, even by an idealistic young woman like Barbara.  The boxer turned convert now treats women like angels who have purpose and a role in public. Barbara applauds this, uses it as a lesson for Bill Walker, yet later in the act, is all right with Snobby Price thinking he could be “glad of my past wickedness” if it could help others be straightened out. Barbara’s remark that “if you had given your poor mother just one more kick” they would have amplified the day’s collection makes audiences wince (MB 101).

Barbara and the minor characters at the Shelter so dominate the act that the key conversation—between Barbara’s fiancée, Adolphus Cusins, and Undershaft alone about religion, money, gunpowder and Barbara—seems less interesting than whether or not Bill Walker will fight the boxer.  Unlike the secret-driven well-made play, Shaw shows his hand here, and changes the tone as well as the pace of the act; yet, we are still caught up in the contest scenario between Barbara and Undershaft.  Undershaft then reveals his plan to Cusins, once he hears from him that his daughter’s faith is “original” and “comes from within.” Undershaft sounds more like a platform speaker than a tycoon here: “ I shall pass my torch to my daughter. She shall make my converts and preach my gospel—“; Cusins interjects: “What! Money and gunpowder!” Undershaft’s unflappable reply: “Yes, money and gunpowder; freedom and power; command of life and command of death” (MB 98) blurs the lines between religion and business. Still, it is his exposition about his own life in the East End as a poor child that cements his position as the play’s center. Cusins’ speech about the romance of loving the poor—true for him and Barbara—evaporates as Undershaft reveals his own first-hand experiences:

“This love of the common people may please an earl’s granddaughter and a university professor; but I have been a common man and a poor man; and it has no romance for me. Leave it to the poor to pretend that poverty is a blessing…We three must stand together above the common people: how else can we help their children to climb up beside us? Barbara must belong to us, not to the Salvation Army” (MB 100).

            Cusins warns him that he can’t buy Barbara, but Undershaft says only that he can “buy the Salvation Army” (MB 100). Barbara is aware of none of this, in keeping with the solid tradition of dramatic irony.  With the others around, Undershaft is-- forgive the pun-- disarming, and fulfills his end of the bargain and more.  He will march, play the trombone and contribute to the collection. Barbara refuses his donation as she does Bill Walker’s because she will settle for nothing less than their souls and believes the needed money will come through prayer, even if she admits that bodily hunger overpowers all.

When it’s clear that the shelter is in danger of closing, Undershaft gives half the funding to ensure the shelter’s existence and promises to get Bodger the distiller to produce the other half. The General, Mrs. Baines, welcomes the money, never believing for a moment it is tainted. Barbara cannot. Her inflexibility at this point creates ambivalence for many readers/audience members. On the one hand, we admire her convictions; on the other, we see her class privilege and know that, unlike her father, she has never known more than intellectual or spiritual need.   The same critique can apply to Vivie Warren. When she learns that her mother still operates as a Madam because she likes the work, Vivie turns away from her, permanently. Vivie believes she is fully independent because she will be earning a partnership in an actuarial firm going forward, but she fails to acknowledge her dependence on her mother’s monthly allowance, which she now refuses as dirty money.

Shaw includes the Salvation Army’s perspective in the Preface: “they questioned the verisimilitude of the play not because Mrs. Baines took the money, but because Barbara refused it.” Bill Walker returns the punch, as it were, to Barbara, when she won’t take his last pound because Bill doesn’t want to be saved. He’s insulted but turns it on her: “Wot prawce Selvytion nah?” (MB 109).  As her bubble bursts, so does her apparent solidity; Barbara seems to shed her belief in her own judgment along with her uniform.  The sense of betrayal she feels from witnessing her father’s effortless cheque to the Salvation Army shows how superficial her “unwomanly behavior” really is. As seriously as she took her work, it was never more than an avocation: for all her independent thinking, she was not living on her own.   She may have been certain before her father’s donation that there are no good men or scoundrels, but is that still the case? 

The play may carry Barbara’s name and position as its title, but by the end of the second act, Barbara’s disillusionment overpowers her raison-de-etre for being part of the Army.  As Stephen refused to join his father and the others for music at the end of Act I, Barbara refuses to go to the Salvation Army event at the end of Act II with her father and Cusins, despite the pleas of Jenny Hill and the General.  The end of the act shifts from comedy to the look, sound, and feel of 19th-century periodical literature and melodrama. Barbara is determined to show others how to go beyond the seemingly impossible present circumstances they face, but becomes momentarily stymied by “storybook” notions of the immediacy of results. Is she now more about words than deed? Clearly, in her zeal, Barbara sometimes fails to recognize other people’s more moment-by-moment concerns. This blind spot shakes her confidence at the middle of her journey, so she must struggle to live in the real world as well as the imagined one.  These conflicts, both internal and with the status quo regarding gender, lead to a landscape of beyond:  in straddling them, does Barbara Undershaft remain the exception to the rule for young women?

In Act III Barbara appears sans the uniform, pale and disheartened, but willing to fulfill her end of the bargain and go to the cannon works along with Lady Brit and the rest of the family.  Shaw’s contrivance that only an orphaned male, and not a legitimate son, can inherit the cannon works reminds us that we have been duped along with the original audiences. What we assumed to be the rising action between Barbara and Undershaft is only a prologue of sorts to the real (aka masculine) conflict: a telling inversion of dramatic irony. Then the crown jewel of the play appears: the planned city of Perivale St. Andrews, which is clean, prosperous, and as full of amenities as our current planned communities.  It is the staging of the Fabian’s ideal. Undershaft’s “intention” to pass things to Barbara, that had appeared to the audience as a feminist bent, is merely veneer, despite his high-blown rhetoric.

Unlike their exchange in Act I, Undershaft is playing twenty questions with Barbara, determined to win her confidence that his is the only place for her to thrive. He tells her, in abbreviated fashion, about his past, in effect summarizing the speech to his true inheritor, Cusins, behind Barbara’s back in Act II; consciously or not, Shaw’s choice here mirrors rather than mocks Victorian family relations. When Barbara examines her whole heart and explains the full impact of her father’s actions at the shelter, likening it to the emptying of the heavens, he admonishes her not to “make too much of your little tinpot tragedy” (MB 144). While the contrast between the workers’ life-affirming community and the East End shelter forces us to favor Undershaft’s argument, his diminishment of his daughter’s crisis of conscience is a distasteful return to Spenser’s remarks about women’s place in society.

Undershaft’s brief exchange with Barbara is best characterized by Ellen Gainor, who emphasizes the primacy of father’s lessons over mother’s during this era, which is a way of putting Barbara into her “proper” place in the patriarchal order (Gainor 163). I would add to this Undershaft’s reminder that his financial care of her saved her from the crime of poverty and enabled her to become Major Barbara (MB 146).

Bernard Dukore zeroes in on Undershaft’s full exchange with Barbara, and emphasizes the scene’s role in bringing Barbara to a fuller, clearer understanding of herself. Dukore reminds us that the play is not a tragedy, so her disillusionment is “really a sobering splash of water, and her renewal of faith is not simplistic.” He places this perspective in the context of the stage directions about Barbara as “hypnotized” and “transfigured” and her Glory Hallelujah line which conveys her delight at Cusins’ deal with her father (Dukore 71).  Dukore threads together much, but appears unconcerned at Shaw’s inherent sexism here.
Contemporary audiences, particularly younger members, shrink from Barbara’s immediate capitulation. In their eyes, by transforming her activist zeal into a larger vision of what she could achieve in Undershaft’s workers’ city, she does so at the price of her self-determination, of her dream. Andrea Adolph asserts that, “far from the iconoclast that some critics, a number of them feminist, consider him, Shaw in this play only establishes his ability to work within a particular set of cultural codes” (Adolph 72).

Had Shaw’s play ended with the Glory Hallelujah line, the focus would be on Barbara and the resolution of the contest with her father would be complete. However, the final few moments of the play, which arguably serve to remove any idealized language as the ending, cast Barbara as a puerile, indecisive adolescent, turning to her mother to choose her marital home. The ending is totally out of synch with any other moment of her onstage presence, leaving us to wonder why Shaw chose to close the play on a more Victorian note than it began.


1 Britomart symbolizes chastity and judgment. In Book III, Canto II of the poem, Spenser notes that women won much glory in martial activity in ancient time but the record of these achievements have been censored, due to men’s envy; Spenser also admits that the limitations on women stem from this same cause.
2 Here Shaw is acknowledging and challenging Ruskin’s influential treatise on male and female education, Sesame and Lilies (1864) which became a sub-text for J.S. Mill’s Subjection of Women (1869).  See Ellen Dolgin, Modernizing Joan of Arc pp 61-3 & note 36 of chapter 5, p.187, for further discussion.
3 As Andrea Adolph notes, Barbara has shied away from the control she perceived in her mother’s drawing room, but is not conscious of how she has internalized it and brought it with her to her interactions at the East End shelter. See SHAW 21 (2001), pp 69-70.
4 This is why I disagree with Ellen Gainor’s contention that Barbara was an independent, working woman at the beginning of the play. See Gainor, Shaw’s Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender (1991), p. 223.
5 See Martin Meisel’s discussion of the blending of melodrama and discussion play in Major Barbara  in Shaw and the Nineteenth Century Theater (1984), p. 296.

Works Cited

Adolph, Andrea. “Virginia Woolf’s Revision of a Shavian Tradition.” SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies, Volume 21, 2001: 63-79. Print.

Dolgin, Ellen Ecker. Modernizing Joan of Arc: Conceptions, Costumes, and Canonization. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008. Print.
Dukore, Bernard. “Machiavelli, The Shark and The Tinpot Tragedienne 1”(SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies) 25 (2005): 59-72. Print.
Gainor, J. Ellen. Shaw’s Daughters: Dramatic and Narrative Constructions of Gender. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Print.
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. Volume 2: The Pursuit of Power.  NY: Vintage, 1991. Print.
Lewis, Jane. Women and Social Activism in Victorian and Edwardian England. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1991.  Print.
Lorichs,  Sonia. “The ‘Unwomanly Woman’ in Shaw’s Drama.” in Fabian Feminist: Bernard Shaw and Woman.University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 1977:  99-111. Print.
Meisel, Martin. Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theatre. NY: Limelight Editions, 1984. Print.
Shaw, Bernard. Major Barbara. In Pygmalion and Three Other Plays. Intro & notes J. Bertolini. NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004: 5-159. Print.
-------------------. Mrs. Warren’s Profession. In Plays Unpleasant. NY: Penguin, 1946: 181-286. Print.
Spenser, Edmund. “Book III, Canto II” in The Faerie Queene- Ed. Thomas P. Roche. NY: Penguin, 1987: 402-15. Print.