By George Bernard Shaw
and comments on critical essays on the play by G.K. Chesterton, Barbara Bellow Watson and Sidney P. Albert. From: BERNARD SHAW’S PLAYS. Edited by Warren S. Smith
New York: W.W. NORTON & COMPANY, 1970
ISBN # 0-393-09942-3
pages 74 and 41

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2012


This play was written in 1905 and set in 1906. I read Major Barbara in order to think it through and enter into some sort of dialogue with Shaw’s ideas. Thus these comments are not written as a review of something one has not yet seen or read. The comments below will assume that one has read the play and basically knows the text. If you have come across these notes and are not in that situation I would encourage you not to read further notes until you have first read the play itself.

Set in 1906, we meet the Undershaft family, British upper class. The father, Undershaft, is the owner of England’s major munitions factory. He has been for years separated from his wife, Lady Britomart and doesn’t at all know his three, now grown, children, Stephen, Barbara and Sarah. Both the girls are involved with men they seem to plan to marry. Sarah is attached to Lomax, a lightweight but cheery fellow and Barbara is going to marry Cusins, seemingly a teacher of Greek.

The play, while set in the events within the Undershaft family, is really about the meaning of human existence, and the nature of individual action and morality. The driving force of the argument is Undershaft and his argument that his munitions work is the right path of human endeavor and that he is actually the humanitarian of the bunch. However, the play is named “Major Barbara” which suggests that Shaw, at least, seemed to think the dilemma of his daughter, Barbara, is more at the center of the play. She is “Major” as a title in the Salvation Army where she tries to help the poor and needy by both feeding them and saving their souls.

The play is a debate on which of these two main views of human existence is to be preferred – a sort of Barbara-inspired religious view of human charity and seeking salvation, versus a much more radical individualist view that human beings themselves have to adapt to the reality of the human species, which means creating one’s own values and having the courage to live them out, facing, even, the view that human beings may not be very encouraging or humanistic, loving creatures – a view espoused by Barbara’s father.

I would argue that neither of these views is Shaw’s view. Rather, he uses both Barbara and Undershaft as dramatic persona to represent positions. Shaw’s own view is closer to Undershaft, but not in the dramatically excessive manner.

Lady Britomart, a sophisticated rich woman, is much more a common figure of a rather obnoxious rich upper-class women of the time. She controls her house, space and children. Her son, Stephen, age 25, is “correct” and under mom. Sarah is to marry Charles Lomax but both of them are rather lightweight characters without much to contribute to the essence of the play.

However “Major Barbara” and her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins are more important voices.

The basic setting of the play – not its argument – is that Lady Britomart has summoned Undershaft to the manor home to ask for more money to help support the three “children,” now of age to marry, but her generous income allowance will not support the children in separate homes with families. Their father has not seen them in many years and doesn’t even quite remember how many of them there are.

On Undershaft’s side, he isn’t unwilling to give more support money to the family, but he will not take Stephen into his munitions business since a centuries long family tradition has the owner of the munitions plant to adopt a foundling to become the next own of the factory. He himself was such a foundling.

In the meeting of father and children, there is an almost immediate attraction between Major Barbara and her father. Yet they appear so different. She is dedicated to the work of the Salvation Army, especially the feeding and care of the poor in order to lead them toward salvation. Undershaft believes each individual has a single proper goal in life – to have money enough to live as one wishes and to have power enough to protect that life.

Actually Stephen sort of sums up the morality of most in his family including his sister Barbara:


“People may differ about matters of opinion, or even about religion; but how can they differ about right and wrong? Right is right; and wrong is wrong; and if a man cannot distinguish them properly, he is either a fool or a rascal: that’s all.”

Undershaft finds that view naïve and totally in error:

“. . . there is only one true morality for every man; but every man has not the same true morality.”

He also sums up his aims in life: “’Money and gunpowder.” In another place he says: “ . . . you must first acquire money enough for a decent life, and power enough to be your own master.”

In another place he says: “. . . money and gunpowder. Freedom and power.”

Undershaft first contributes to destroying Major Barbara’s belief that the Salvation Army’s “conversion” of sinners is an important work. As she takes her father to a visit to their works, the management is having a major problem with money. They come into this family group with the “good news” that a local man has stepped in to solve their financial problems with a huge gift, but it is conditioned on them raising an equal amount of money from other donors. While Barbara has already denounced her father’s work with munitions, the would-be donor has a business that is even more horrific to her – he brews alcoholic drinks, the primary reason so many of her people are ruined and come to the Army in the first place. And on top of this her father immediately offers the second half the money, which DELIGHTS the leaders of the Salvation Army, but so disgusts Barbara that she breaks off all contact with the religion.

The next visit is to the munitions’ plant and it turns out to be a virtual utopian village. It is clean, neat, the workers are well-paid, and there are lovely schools, an art museum, health care, very decent wages and quite loyal and loving employees. Even Barbara cannot help being deeply impressed with the utopia her father’s money has created, despite its source, the creation of weapons of mass destruction.

The genius in Shaw’s writing of the play is that while he sincerely critiques the religious views of Major Barbara, he is not personally embracing the quite radical views of Undershaft. Note one can’t consistently hold A below, and at the same time embrace B as some universal principle. It can, according to A, only be his own particular view.


“. . . there is only one true morality for every man; but every man has not the same true morality.”

B. He also sums up his aims in life: “’Money and gunpowder.” In another place he says: “ . . . you must first acquire money enough for a decent life, and power enough to be your own master.”

G.K. Chesterton, in his 1909 “View of Major Barbara” also attacks Shaw’s view of God, claiming that the God he defines would “not be God to any who understand the concept of God.”
However, he has a second argument claiming that Shaw’s notion that increased wealth and ease would create a much better world is mistaken. For Shaw, Chestertains maintains, “The evil is not ignorance or decadence or sin or pessimism; the evil is poverty.”

Chesterton replies: “Major Barbara (the play) is not only apart from his faith but against his faith.” That’s the point I was making above. Shaw’s industrialist is quite the humanitarian in his utopian village and “his” people live decent material lives. But that’s not the radical individualism of morality which Undershaft also argues.

Another author who has written on “Major Barbara” shares much of this view. Barbara Bellow Watson in “Sainthood for Millionaires” Modern Drama, Vol. II Dec. 1968. Pp. 227-244, claims that Shaw has Undershaft utter his defense of his utopian village as an ironic attack on capitalism’s benefits, and she notes a similarity to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”

“ . . . an irony disguised to show that we may not accept the least of capitalism’s benefits without accepting the last of its depredations… “

She claims the real aim to Shaw is to embrace “ . . . Shaw’s secular religion of Creative Evolution, which is clearly related to his socialism.” A radical individualism.

Note the important difference between the capitalist Utopia itself (which is not generalizable) and the potential universality of Shaw’s view of each person’s embracing his or her own morality. The latter is reminiscent of Plato’s view that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But Shaw’s view goes further and comes fairly close to later 20th century Existentialism.

The Existentialist is less interested, as Existentialist, in replacing capitalism or surviving than in choosing his or her own authenticity. Undershaft seems to need both the utopia of his capitalist village and claiming the universality of the need of the individual to choose his or her own personal morality.

The play is a delight to read. It is witty, funny, troublesome, aggravating, but always thoughtful and challenging. I think it’s not only worth reading, but worth seriously engaging as a dialogue on morality.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett