A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

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ISSN 2045-1024


Sidney P. Albert, Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in Major Barbara. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. 304pp. ISBN 978-0813037646.
reviewed by Lawrence Switzky

Friedrich Nietzsche defined philology as reading very slowly. If that’s the case, then Sidney P. Albert is one of the greatest philologists of our time: at 97, he has been preparing this monograph on Shaw’s re-purposing of his classical sources in Major Barbara for over fifty years. Albert’s energetic reading (and re-reading) of Shaw’s 1905 play attends closely to Plato’s Republic, which Shaw would have read in Francis Cornford’s translation, and The Bacchae of Euripides, which Shaw knew through his friend Gilbert Murray’s loose, lyrical translation. Shaw’s reputation as an artist and as a philosopher has waxed and waned since his death. Albert is betting that by placing Major Barbara at the forefront of the Shavian canon, he might galvanize Shaw on two fronts at once.

In the Preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Shaw declared, “There is, flatly, no future now for any drama except the drama of thought.” Albert takes Shaw at his word by demonstrating Shaw’s apprenticeship in the drama of thought by way of Greek philosophy and philosophical drama. Albert’s inter-textual method occasionally compares specific passages. More frequently, though, he relies on the model of the “current,” a subterranean but ubiquitous flow of influence, emblematized in this study by Dionysus, the ruling deity of the theatre, The Bacchae, and Major Barbara (and incarnated in the latter play’s munitions dealer, Andrew Undershaft). Shaw’s acts of transformative textual ventriloquism as he parrots and adjusts his ancient sources are presented as an “ability to enter into the personality of another being and to transmute human life” (59), as protean as Dionysus’ possession of his votaries. This broader vision of Shaw inhabiting, inspecting, and exploding Plato and Euripides allows Albert to consider Major Barbara as a key to Shaw’s strategies of appropriation and to his vigorous, if under-credited knowledge of the classics.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is a meaty essay on how Major Barbara might be read as “a functional analysis of society akin to Plato’s [Republic],” as well as Shaw’s investment in the relevance of the Socratic dialogue “as a living expression of personality and drama germinating in the impact of mind upon mind” (4). While considering Socratic irony, the compatibility of myth and reason, and other Platonic concerns, Albert is most tenacious in arguing that Perivale St. Andrews, the would-be “ideal community” (35) offered up in Act III, is more of a utopian tease than a credible social blueprint. Albert insists, with continual reference to Plato, that the model city in Major Barbara is deliberately imperfect: “A place where good and evil meet, its glowing virtues are conjoined with its macabre and vicious destructiveness” (45). The purpose of Shaw’s Republic is to clarify the causes of moral error, rather than to offer a single solution to it, so that realistic work in the world can be pursued.

The second, much longer section (more than three times longer, in fact) is on Shaw and the Bacchae. At the center of Albert’s analysis is what he calls the “nutrition passage,” a paragraph from Shaw’s Epistle Dedicatory to Man and Superman, written three years before Major Barbara, that acts as a thematic “current” in the later play. The nutrition passage proposes that the “crude vitality” of natural self-interest must be checked by higher philosophical and artistic goals: “The secondary ideals of the artist, the values of morality and religion, and salutary social growth will all be lost unless the scramble for the more elemental necessities of life acquires rational direction and control” (62). In Major Barbara, the characters are stakeholders in what seems to be a battle, though it’s really a compact, between the martial, erotic, and alimentary forces of Dionysus and the civilizing claims of Barbara and, less reliably, her fiancé Adolphus Cusins.

Albert’s sensitive, if etymologically dense, reading of Shaw through Euripides sheds light on Major Barbara’s notoriously opaque ending: “If the moral of The Bacchae is that we ignore at our peril the Dionysian demands of nature and human nature, the homologous moral of Major Barbara is that we ignore at our peril the power basis of morality and civilized society” (196). The analysis maintains a neat correlation of cosmic and human scales, kneading together abstruse philosophical concerns with the specific desires and outbursts of Shaw’s characters. Weirdly, though, by framing Shaw so resolutely within the framework of the classics, the urgency of the need for knowledge to answer to power and vice versa seems to recede into an academic debate. Albert asserts Shaw’s topicality, but Shaw might seem even more prescient by allowing Major Barbara a solo beyond the gravitational pull of its forebears.

Perhaps that’s beside the point. What Albert most consistently illuminates is how Major Barbara rewards attention to every word, allusion, and stage direction. Here, for example, is how he reads Barbara’s otherwise unexceptional change of clothes between Acts II and III:

As in the Bacchae, bodily adornment reflects spiritual condition. The change of habit thus symbolizes Barbara’s dislocation, and to a marked degree, the loss of her distinctive identity. A serenely self-confident Major Barbara has been reduced to a disquieted, unsettled Barbara Undershaft. Barbara discards the Salvationist garb that linked her materially to the Army once that religious body begins dancing to her father’s tune, yet her present attire is itself a visible indication of a new vulnerability to his influence. Before long he will remind her that these garments, like those worn by other members of her family, have been bought with his money (135-136).

This sort of slow reading, philological or otherwise, demonstrates the value of sustained attention by performing it. The study concludes with an exuberant appendix on some of Shaw’s further philosophical antecedents—mostly Hegel, Kant, and other Platonic dialogues—that could be a book on its own.