edited by Nicholas Grene
Major Barbara is a play about power, religion and capital: Shaw’s story of a conversion contest between an arms manufacturer and a Salvation Army Major is a provocative dramatization of the relationship between money and morality. As with Mrs Warren’s Profession and Pygmalion, the play exposes the material reality behind the political and moral philosophies of the time.
Andrew Undershaft is an immensely powerful and wealthy arms manufacturer, owner of a company with immense pan-European power. His wife, the imperious Lady Britomart, was outraged by his decision to disinherit his own children and separated from him many years ago, but now finds she must ask Andrew for money to support their three children. Andrew’s consequent visit to his estranged family introduces him to his energetic daughter Barbara, who has recently been made a major in the Salvation Army, and her Greek professor fiancé, Adolphus. Their ideological conflict leads them into a conversion contest: Andrew will visit the Salvation Army shelter, and Barbara will visit the munitions factory.
Major Barbara is a challenging comedy of ideals which subverts ideals and moral expectations, following a three act structure intended to advance understanding by stages as per Shaw’s dialectic method. It was first produced in 1905 at the Royal Court, London, to great acclaim, despite one newspaper criticising Shaw for his ‘withering attack’ on the Salvation Army, a claim that Shaw disputed in his later Preface to the play; nevertheless, it was to be one of the series of his plays produced at the Royal Court (along with John Bull’s Other Island (1904) and Man and Superman, amongst others) that would help establish Shaw as a respected playwright. Its discussion of the morality of armaments was apt at its time of writing, when Britain was allied with Japan in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5; ongoing warfare sealed Major Barbara’s relevance throughout the twentieth century, and it was made into a 1941 film with Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller as Adolphus and Barbara.