Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Major Barbara | Act 1 | Summary



Act 1 opens on a January evening in the library of a home in Wilton Crescent. Lady Britomart, a middle-aged, wealthy, upper-class woman summons her son, Stephen Undershaft, to speak with her. She is "well-mannered and yet appallingly outspoken and indifferent to the opinions of her interlocutors." After telling Stephen where to sit and scolding him for fidgeting, she then demands he take on a leadership role in the family, reminding him he is adult and she, "just a woman." Stephen, a 25-year-old man who has enjoyed the privileges of education and travel, is used to taking a submissive role. He finds himself at a loss as to how to proceed when she tells him he must advise her on a matter of family finance. His sisters, Sarah and Barbara, will need more financial support. Sarah's fiancé, Charles Lomax, will come into a fortune in 10 years, but until then Sarah will need £800 a year. Barbara will need support of £1,200 indefinitely because her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins, though brilliant, is a scholar with no means of supporting the two in an acceptable manner. Lady Britomart plans to make a marriage match for Stephen soon, too, despite his preference for finding his own wife. She tells him not to pout.

Stephen is shocked to learn his mother intends to ask his estranged father, Andrew Undershaft, for the money. Although Lady Britomart disapproves of the family munitions business and claims Undershaft acts "above the law," she acknowledges dependence on his support. Her own father, an earl, is not in a position to support all the children and their households. Stephen recoils from speaking about such matters. He recalls being ridiculed by classmates for his father's business, considered common among his class, and the pain of having his name attached to all manner of munitions in the news.

Lady Britomart and Andrew Undershaft are separated because of the Undershaft tradition of leaving the lucrative munitions business to a foundling, rather than a legitimate child, and also because Lady Britomart disapproves of her husband's "religion of wrongness." Although she claims "one doesn't mind men practising immorality so long as they own that they are in the wrong by preaching morality," she "couldn't forgive Andrew for preaching immorality while he practised morality."

Stephen is appalled to learn his father's parents weren't married. Because of this tradition, Undershaft has refused to leave the business to Stephen. Stephen claims he would be ashamed to have any part in it and doesn't want to ask his father for a penny. Without an alternative, however, Lady Britomart concludes they must ask Undershaft for the money, thanking Stephen for agreeing with her once it was "properly explained." She announces, to Stephen's surprise, Undershaft will be joining them shortly. Lady Britomart then calls her daughters and their fiancés into the library to tell them Undershaft will join them shortly. Lomax finds the situation most unusual and doesn't know how to behave. Cusins rightly intuits Lady Britomart wishes for them to all behave and do her credit.

Undershaft is announced by the butler and greets his wife. He is surprised to see so many people in the room and doesn't recall how many children he has. Awkwardly, Undershaft assumes Lomax is his son and introduces himself. Even after Cusins explains the identity of everyone in the room, Undershaft comically greets them by the wrong names. Undershaft asks Barbara about the Salvation Army, where she works, to her mother's disappointment. Barbara claims all people need salvation and invites him to visit the shelter. The discussion soon turns to arms manufacture, and Undershaft counters Lomax's claim that "the more destructive war becomes, the sooner it will be abolished." Undershaft's view is that "the more destructive war becomes the more fascinating we find it." He affirms his pride in his occupation and in not conceding to guilt by philanthropy. On the contrary, he puts his profits in developing more powerful weapons.

Undershaft agrees to take up Barbara's invitation, extending a corresponding one for her to visit his foundry and warning she may give up "the Salvation Army for the sake of cannons." She hopes he will do the opposite and says he can ask anyone in the East End for the address of her shelter. He says she can "ask anyone in Europe" for the location of his business.

Lady Britomart calls for family prayers, and Undershaft says his "scruples" will not allow him to participate. He suggests a service in the drawing room with Barbara would suit him better. Cusins, too, objects to some parts of the prayer book and leaves. The others join him, except for Lady Britomart and Stephen. She cries a bit and says they favor their father over her. Suddenly she decides she will go, and only Stephen refuses.


Shaw uses Act I to create a certain set of expectations in the minds of his audiences. The first act is set in an upper-class home, with all the characters an audience would expect to find there: a stereotypically proper and domineering British matron, a butler, and several grown, dependent children. The scene is domestic and concerns family matters, including a disinherited heir, a problem with finances, and, for good measure, the scandal of an illegitimate family member. These are the hallmarks of a comedy of manners, or drawing-room comedy—a popular genre originating in Victorian England. Meeting many of the expectations of the genre, Shaw creates a scene that will make the audience comfortable, ready to enjoy a witty satire focusing on the various shortcomings of the upper classes. However, the end of Act 1 is just uncomfortable enough to suggest the playwright has other plans. Having created a set of expectations, Shaw can now "assault the audience with incidents, characters, and themes normally never associated with genteel comedy at all," as critic Trevor Whittock claims.

In Act 1 Shaw gets his first laughs from the audience from Lady Britomart's interactions with Stephen. Lady Britomart treats her son like a small child, telling him when and where to sit and to stop fidgeting, and then immediately commands him to advise her on financial matters. She is relentlessly overbearing, yet calls herself "just a woman" who needs him to take up the leadership role of the family. Her inconsistencies and over-the-top personality are the basis of much of the humor in the first act. Stephen is the fall guy, unsure where to turn or what to do in light of his mother's contradictory demands. Humor comes also from Stephen's horror and disgust at the source of his own privilege. It's hard not to laugh at a man who lives and is treated well yet feels sorry for himself because his father is famous and rich, no matter the reason. Undershaft's ridiculous reintroduction to his family is good for a few laughs as well. Not only does he not recognize any of his children, he doesn't seem to recall how many he has. The Undershaft family comes off as rather silly in Act I. This relatively light humor will serve as a contrast to the next act.

Stephen's discovery and disillusionment over the source of his family's money foreshadows events in Act 2. For his whole life Stephen has had to bear the ridicule of his peers about his father's business. His very name has been attached to such common, distasteful, immoral things as bombs. Because his parents have long been separated, and he has lived in complete ease without his father's presence, Stephen has never learned the truth of the family's financial position. Idealistic, naïve Stephen may want to refuse money from his father, but his more realistic and pragmatic mother realizes her estranged husband is her only source of income and has no qualms about asking for money. Stephen's disillusionment foreshadows Barbara's feelings in Act 2, when the Salvation Army accepts money from a brewer and from her father. Lady Britomart's pragmatism foreshadows Mrs. Baines of the Salvation Army in Act 2, who is happy to turn any funds to a good cause, no matter their source.

Shaw modeled several characters in the play on real people. Cusins is based on Shaw's friend Gilbert Murray, a classicist whose translation of The Bacchae, by Euripides, is used in the play. Murray's mother-in-law, the Countess of Carlisle, is believed to be the inspiration for Lady Britomart. Barbara is modeled on both Murray's wife, Lady Mary, and an American actress, Eleanor Robson, whom Shaw unsuccessfully tried to persuade to star in the play. Andrew Undershaft, wealthy munitions manufacturer, is modeled on three leaders of the armaments industry in Shaw's day: Alfred Nobel (1833–96), who invented dynamite; Sir Basil Zaharoff (1849–1936), Greek arms dealer of questionable origins; and Fritz Krupp (1854–1902), German arms manufacturer.
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