Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Major Barbara | Act 2 | Summary

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Summary

In the yard of Salvation Army West Ham shelter, an older woman, Rummy Mitchens, and an out-of-work painter, Snobby Price, sit and enjoy the free bread and milk. They admit to each other they are only playing the parts of converted sinners and lying about—or exaggerating—their misdeeds to take advantage of the shelter's services. After all, Rummy asks, "Where would they get the money to rescue us if we was to let on we're no worse than other people?" A young Salvation Army worker, Jenny Hill, brings Peter Shirley into the yard. He has been laid off because of his apparent age, though he claims to be only 46 and young enough to continue working. He is embarrassed to receive charity.

A large, intimidating man, Bill Walker, stands in Jenny's way and demands she get his girlfriend, Mog, out of the shelter. He pushes Jenny, causing her to fall; hits Rummy when she tries to intervene; and then grabs Jenny by the hair and punches her in the face. Shirley confronts Bill about hitting a woman and bets he couldn't fight a real man like the boxer Todger Fairmile. Shirley adds that Bill had better watch out because the Major at the shelter is the daughter of an earl, a fact that does worry Bill.

Barbara comes outside to obtain the two men's information. She tells Bill he must be brave to hit a girl who works for God. Frustrated, Bill asks for Mog again. Barbara reveals Mog has been converted. She has left for another shelter with a new boyfriend she converted, who happens to be Todger. Jenny says she has forgiven Bill, who feels more and more uncomfortable and guilty, as Barbara presses him about his need for salvation.

Undershaft arrives to see the shelter, and Barbara introduces him to Shirley as a fellow Secularist (one who rejects or ignores religion and believes in the material world). Undershaft objects, saying his religion is "Millionaire," and poverty "is not a thing to be proud of." Shirley says he would rather have a clear conscience than Undershaft's money, but Undershaft counters that he "wouldn't have your income, not for all your conscience." Cusins arrives as Barbara tries to calm—and convert—Bill. Encouraged by Cusins, Bill leaves, probably to confront Mog and Todger.

Cusins and Undershaft then talk alone after the others leave. Discussing religion, Undershaft tells Cusins only "money and gunpowder" are necessary for salvation. The men claim to like each other despite their differing views. When Undershaft admits fatherly love for his daughter and his intention to leave his business to her, Cusins is genuinely shocked. He is sure Barbara will never be converted to her father's way of thinking, despite Undershaft's claims that Barbara will "make my converts and preach my gospel." Indeed, in attempting to convert Barbara to his way of thinking, Undershaft believes he can "buy the Salvation Army" and thus drive Barbara from it. "All religious organizations exist by selling themselves to the rich," he explains.

The others return with a few donations. Barbara admits the shelter will have to close if it doesn't get funding soon. She refuses Undershaft's offer to donate, saying he "can't buy ... salvation here." Cusins intuits Undershaft's underlying plan, calling him "Mephistopheles! Machiavelli!" Bill, too returns, miserable. Todger and Mog prayed for him. Wracked with guilt, Bill offers to give Jenny money to make things right. She won't take it, nor does Barbara let her take it for the shelter. He leaves it on the table, and Price later steals it.

Salvation Army matron Mrs. Baines arrives and announces a generous donor, Lord Saxmundham, has pledged £5,000 if other donors will match the amount. Undershaft knows Lord Saxmunham is really Horace Bodger, the distiller who was granted a title for funding a new cathedral. Undershaft reckons the 5,000 pounds is for the saving of Bodger's soul. At Mrs. Baines's request, Undershaft agrees to donate the remaining 5,000 pounds. Barbara objects because Bodger's product contributes to alcohol abuse in the neighborhood, but Mrs. Baines responds that the money can be put to good use, despite its source. The donors, too, have souls needing to be saved, as does everyone else, she adds. Refusing would do nothing. Cusins is caught up in everyone's excitement about saving the shelter, but Barbara says he is breaking her heart. He claims he is "possessed" by Dionysus. She takes off her Salvation Army pin and puts it on her father. As the group leaves, jubilant, she cries, "Drunkenness and Murder! My God: why hast thou forsaken me?" Bill gloats, asking her what price buys salvation now. She says she nearly had his soul.

Analysis

Act 2 serves as a contrast to the first act in its setting, characters, subject matter, and tone. After the comfortable, well-appointed library of the Undershafts' Wilton Crescent home, the freezing yard of the West Ham shelter is unexpected. Snobby Price, Rummy Mitchens, and Bill Walker are the products of the streets of London's poor East End and quite a contrast to the rich Undershaft family. While the first act deals with a conflict over inheritance and a father's fortune, the second features a hard-hearted man with a cockney accent beating up women. The tone of the two acts is also quite different. Gone is the light satiric humor of the drawing-room comedy. Although it is not without humor or satire, the second act is much darker. In it people are hungry, thieving, and desperate.

However, Act 2 mirrors the first act in at least one significant way. Barbara's disillusionment, the climax of the second act, reflects the similar shock and dismay her brother felt at discovering the source of his family's wealth. Barbara wants nothing to do with Bodger's donation to the Salvation Army because the product that has made him rich has harmed the neighborhood, in the form of drunkenness. When the Salvation Army accepts the donation despite the donor, she is disenchanted. Stephen had the same reaction on learning his family depends on the wealth of his father, who has made his fortune in cannons and other instruments of death. Stephen is dismayed to find his mother has no qualms about asking Undershaft for money. For the moment, both Stephen and Barbara are committed to opposing the source of their disillusionment.

The themes of salvation and of realism versus idealism are explored in Act 2, in which two types of salvation are contrasted. The first is the spiritual salvation the Salvation Army wishes to offer the poor of the East End. Barbara wants to save Bill Walker's soul, and Jenny wants to forgive him. Bill, however, wants to buy his forgiveness, much as Bodger wants to buy his salvation. Barbara rejects this false, transactional saving of souls. She claims salvation cannot be bought, while Undershaft asserts wealth is his entire religion. He wants to convert Barbara to his "gospel" of "money and gunpowder" and save her from what he sees as her fantasy. Barbara clings to her own notions of morality and spirituality. Even the Salvation Army is more realistic and practical than she is, taking money from any willing source. Shaw demonstrates Barbara's idealism—strict rejection of things and people she finds morally abhorrent—would lead to the closing of the shelter and no good, while Mrs. Baines's realism leads to its benefit. Undershaft's realism, too, leads to prosperity, as the audience will discover in the act to follow.

Shaw includes several literary references in Act 2, through Cusins's names for Undershaft. When Cusins begins to perceive Undershaft's plans to buy the Salvation Army and manipulate Barbara into disavowing her religion, he calls Undershaft "Mephistopheles" and "Machiavelli." Mephistopheles is the name of a devil from a German tale of Faust, a man who sells his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for extraordinary powers and wealth. This reference suggests the Salvation Army's donation from Undershaft is a similar deal with the devil, that it too is losing its soul.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was an Italian philosopher, statesman, and playwright. He is most known for his cynical advice to leaders to act not according to what is ethical but according to what will be most beneficial. Cusins calls Undershaft "Machiavelli" when he offers money to the Salvation Army, knowing Barbara will lose her faith if the money is accepted, which is exactly what Undershaft wants. It is Machiavellian because it is expedient. Undershaft doesn't consider Barbara's feelings or the deceit of donating with an ulterior motive. For him, the end justifies his means—and one must accept collateral damage.

In a further literary reference, Cusins calls Undershaft "Dionysus." A Greek god from The Bacchae, by Euripides, Dionysus punishes blasphemous King Pentheus by possessing the women of Thebes, who hunt the king down and tear him apart. Cusins claims he is possessed by Undershaft, and the Salvation Army leaders as well are caught up in the enthusiasm of Undershaft's gift. Their joy at accepting his money tears Barbara's faith apart. Dionysus is also associated with wine and revelry, so Dionysus also alludes to drink and Bodger's whiskey.
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