George Bernard Shaw is rarely easy and never simple. He continually pushed boundaries and tested limits, and his 1905 play ‘Major Barbara’ is no exception.
Set against the backdrop of Edwardian Britain, where the problem of huge slum populations would eventually lead to the 1906 landslide victory of the Liberal Party and the creation of the welfare state, Shaw explores the issues of morality, poverty and gender. The battle lines are drawn between Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy arms dealer, and his estranged daughter Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army. She tackles working-class poverty through bread and religion, and believes her morally dubious father just another soul to be saved. But when the Army needs funds to keep going, it is Undershaft who saves the day with a large cheque and Barbara is forced to re-examine her priorities.
Shaw is difficult to read even now. His humour and politics show a response to both Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche mixing dandy-esque paradoxes with biting nihilism. I often found myself questioning whether Undershaft’s arguments are convincing or the rest of the characters are simply weak-minded.
He only sat there and completed the wreck of my moral basis, the rout of my convictions, the purchase of my soul. He cares for you, Barbara. That is what makes him so dangerous to me.
Despite its era ‘Major Barbara’ still feels incredibly relevant. We have the same qualms about ethical donations and notions that ‘bad’ companies cannot erase their sins with blood money. We continue to attempt to define lower-income families into the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, often coupled with underlying assumptions of their laziness or lack of work ethic. Shaw’s ability to prick hypocritical liberal attitudes is both illuminating and uncomfortable, and the reader is pulled back and forth between Undershaft’s ideology that poverty is ‘the worst of all crimes’ and Barbara’s mission of spiritual guidance.