Shaw's 'Major Barbara': its overall message to us

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Shaw's 'Major Barbara': its overall message to us


What is the overall message to us in Shaw’s Major Barbara

if there is any (particular or definite) one at all

- with special focus on the characters of:

a) Undershaft

b) Cusins?

At first sight there seems to be a tremendous difference between those two characters as if they opposed and repudiated/excluded each other in terms of their respective attitudes towards society and life in general.

At a closer and more persistent look, however, this seeming difference vanishes piece by piece (until they form a unanimous unity in mind and action), the more one gets to learn about either of them.

To start off with Undershaft, what view, for instance, does he hold of:

a) politics

b) economy

c) himself as to his position (i.e. function/task) in society?


In his answer to Lady Britomart, who wanted to be advised by him on what profession (vocational occupation - to avoid the derisive term of “job” she herself wouldn’t use as a lady of standing) her (or rather their) son Stephen should take up, he becomes very outspoken and clear on what he thinks of modern politics and politicians (i.e. government) in Britain. → cf. Penguin edition pp.123f.


A good-for-nothing (i.e. an imbecile here) – and that is what Undershaft thinks of Stephen, his own “flesh”, so to speak – is just good enough to enter politics. There in parliament, in that case the House of Commons (= the lower house of representatives elected by the British people), situated in Westminster, the heart of London, he can join a perpetual assembly of talkers, not ‘doers’. Their speeches are of no importance. What those ‘politicians’ do – they apparantly chat away senselessly all day long – has no bearing respectively influence on real life. What controls and determines life instead is industry, are the capitalists, the businessmen, one of whom Undercraft most powerfully is. No matter how these ‘tycoons’ keep the wheels of industry turning (by whatever means), what they do is morally all right as long as they keep people busy, give them a living by employing them. It doesn’t concern Shaw, whose position is identical with Undershaft’s (→ autobiographical feature), or even occurs to him that money/capital won by the production and sale of arms/guns, gunpowder and the like is destructive in itself. There is no moral aspect about money, no question as to how it is “made”: honestly or by corrupting society (through selling it alcoholic liquids, for instance, as Bodger does). Ultimately the wealth accumulated by the rich is passed on and (re-)distributed to a wider group of participants: the more capitalists earn, the higher their income, the more they spend, which in turn is to the benefit of a vast range of people from various (if not all) social layers. Thus a capitalist is a helper, a public benefactor, no matter whether he keeps up the ‘good things’ in life in accordance with what society expects him to do or not. Any capitalist can trespass any convention or violate any rule (cf. the rule of law and order) as long as they abide by the (unspoken) principle of sharing out their riches onto others.


Politicians (embodying government) have failed in this respect obviously according to Undershaft/Shaw. To avoid greater, enduring damage (to the public) they were doomed to become slaves of the industry, in other words, dominated, controlled and manouvred (if not manipulated, which implies having been made fools of) by the leading industrialists (the establishment in Undershaft’s eyes?) of the country.

No, my friend: you will do what pays us. You will make war
[= seen as a source of making money] when it suits us. (p.124)

Within this concept (of employing people and making war at the same time) Undershaft can be considered a patriot contributing to his nation’s welfare and international social prestige (“my want is a national need” > what he needs is of national interest). His kind of thinking is a typically modern type of thinking. It bears features of a totalitarian dictator – though Undershaft/Shaw pretends to have a heart for the socially oppressed and suppressed, the underdogs in society (the losers).


As an industrialist of “our time” ( a new era has begun in the Age of Imperialism steering towards a world war), Undershaft is already aware of the role the public media have adopted. Their influence on public opinion can’t be denied (any longer). This is what Undershaft has got to know, too. And he pays tribute to it. Significantly he has won control of them so that ‘a free press’ can predominantly spread his views (= biased opionions, preconceptions?) of things in this world.


And it is this combination of industry + the media in one hand that reminds me of the tragic, fatal outcome of Germany’s and Italy’s history under the dictators of Hitler and Mussolini (> totalitarian states). Therefore Shaw’s ideal concept of a ‘socially-minded’ capitalism that runs the media too is just a short step away from potential dictatorship. Undershaft (like Shaw) is certainly/undoubtedly a most benign and beneficent person with a ‘noble’ mind in a way (>He donates a lot of money to the Salvation Army, yet not quite unselfishly). However, what confronts him with scathing criticism from the Church and the Salvation Army in particular is his downright pragmatic attitude to life, which lacks any scruples whatsoever.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Cusins is not just a professor of classics, of ancient Greek theory and idealism. He is a practically-minded person as well in that he ‘collects religions’ as he says. Thus he can be seen as an eclecticist, someone who does not conceive of new ideas to change the world – a principle Undershaft rejects as he says you can’t alter society, inferring that society has got a fixed (static) order (= class system), which you have got to make use of to your own and everybody else’s benefit – but who uses things the way they are by selecting the best from each religion as if the good aspects of each faith could be added up and moulded into one harmonious fountain of (everlasting) happiness.


The very fact that he is not a helpless theorist lost in the reality of this world becomes evident in these two instances:

a) when he admits to Barbara and his future father-in-law that what he was after
    was not the Army, but Barbara, the pragmatic side of it.
    Ostensibly he has never been a true, confessing Christian. Nor has he ever been a
    true blue theorist believing in Plato’s or Euripides’ teachings


b) the moment he strikes a bargain/deal with Undershaft, his business partner in spe.
    None of us (readers/audience) would have deemed it possible that Cusins – under the
    camouflage of a Greek professor and learned scholar – would be capable of
    surpassing/outdoing/exceeding Undershaft’s wit, not only verbally (in terms of such
    a speedy exchange of highly sophisticated remarks and counter-formulations),
    disguising/unmasking his interlocutor, but also in a shrewd, cunning mode of ‘fair play’.



My tutor’s comment:


Good work. I still have questions about Shaw / the play's socialism. Is capitalism to hasten the empowerment of the poor? Or, is it an endpoint? An intelligent discussion here.