Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Major Barbara | Act 3 | Summary



Back in the library at Wilton Crescent the next day, Charles Lomax is surprised to find Barbara wearing a dress rather than her Salvation Army uniform. He admits having thought the Salvation Army was nonsensical and states his preference for the Church of England. Lady Britomart shushes him. Cusins enters, looking worse for wear. The family is shocked to hear he spent the previous night drinking with Undershaft, whom he calls "the Prince of Darkness."

Undershaft enters, and Lady Britomart unceremoniously asks for the additional money the girls need. They discuss the future of his business, which he doesn't want to leave it to Stephen, and suggests Barbara marry a foundling so he can leave the factory to her. Undershaft admits to having trouble finding a suitable heir. Stephen declares he wants nothing to do with the business and asserts he has no abilities or interests in doing anything. Therefore, he thinks he is best suited to go into politics, confident in is his ability to know "the difference between right and wrong." Undershaft agrees: his son "knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career." When Stephen claims to be offended by his father's insults about the government, Undershaft tells him "I am the government of your country." Undershaft knows money rules.

The family prepares to leave on their reciprocal visit to the "cannon works," which Cusins calls "the Works Department of Hell." Barbara imagines the factory to be "a sort of pit where lost creatures ... were driven and tormented by my father." Undershaft retorts his cannon works are "spotlessly clean and beautiful." He also explains the working arrangements of his factory—that his employees tend to manage themselves by separating themselves from those below them and ensuring they are kept in their places. Undershaft has little, but friendly, interaction with his workers. Barbara expresses her anger with her father over ruining her attempt to save Bill's soul. Undershaft suggests Bill could not have walked away from the encounter untouched, and Barbara is encouraged. Her father may be a devil through whom God can still speak.

At the factory, overlooking the town Undershaft has created for his employees, the family share their impressions of what they have seen, Barbara and Cusins have probed somewhat deeper. Cusins declares "everything perfect! ... It only needs a cathedral to be a heavenly city instead of a hellish one." Stephen, too, is impressed, completely converted. They remark on the nursing home, libraries, and other amenities Undershaft provides for the workers, who admire him. In fact, Undershaft has arranged for Peter Shirley to have a job there. When Undershaft joins the group, Stephen questions him about whether such social engineering makes people too comfortable. Undershaft reminds him that a lack of organized society is what exists now and indicates little empathy for the humanity. The opposite is an organized society, but "a sufficient dose of anxiety is always provided by the fact that we may be blown to smithereens at any moment."

Undershaft has had good news about a new gunship. It has killed 300 soldiers at once. Cusins and Barbara are grieved. Lomax exits an explosives shed with the foreman, who forces him out for striking a match to light a cigarette. Lomax claims it isn't dangerous at all. Undershaft takes his matches and suggests Lomax try it at home.

Lady Britomart is impressed with the vast display of wealth the town represents and laments again that the business isn't staying in the family. Cusins then reveals he is a foundling, his parents' marriage being illegal in England. The revelation turns the talk to Cusins's eligibility to inherit the business and marry Barbara, keeping the Undershaft fortune in the family. Cusins impresses Undershaft by negotiating his terms, and it is agreed he will take over the business, although he promises to bring his own ethics to it. He wants "to make power for the world" which is "simple enough for common man to use, yet strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good." He will "make war on war."

Undershaft says he saw "poverty, misery, cold, and hunger" at the Salvation Army shelter, but he has offered real salvation from "the crime of poverty" to his workers. Barbara realizes she can't turn her back on people like Bodger or her father because they are part of the reality of life. She acknowledges "there is no wicked side: life is all one." She hopes to find "the way of life ... through the raising of hell to heaven." She says her old self has died. Cusins tells Undershaft Barbara "has gone right up to the skies."


Act 3 is the most problematic in the play. In fact, Shaw was considering revisions until the time rehearsals began in 1905. He even considered reworking the ending when Major Barbara was made into a film some 35 years later. In many ways the act doesn't fit with the rest of the play. After the drawing-room comedy of Act 1, the realism of Act 2, and the return to the library at Wilton Crescent at the start of Act 3, the sudden inclusion of a utopian fantasy of Undershaft's factory town may seem somewhat jarring.

The lack of a clear resolution at the end of the play is typical of Shavian drama. Despite his boasts of far-reaching power and claiming to be the government itself, Undershaft doesn't defeat poverty. He succeeds only in improving the lives of his workers. Although the town undoubtedly benefits Undershaft's employees, he seems to have no guilt about his product killing 300 men. The audience is left to wonder whether the munitions business will really change under the leadership of Cusins and Barbara and whether they will be able to create the social change to which they aspire. The play begs the question as to how anyone in the arms business can successfully "make war on war."

Although present throughout the play, the theme of heaven and hell is most explicitly explored in Act 3. Drawing on English poet William Blake's late 18th-century work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is full of contraries and paradoxes about good and evil, Shaw shows how heaven and hell are often inverted in the world and can ultimately be reconciled. Cusins and Barbara equate Undershaft's factory with the evils of hell and Undershaft with the Devil, in calling the factory "the Works Department of Hell." Barbara imagines it staffed by miserable souls "tormented" by devilish Undershaft. However, the town is heavenly. It is as beautiful and clean as Undershaft promised, and its inhabitants have everything they need. Paradoxically, Undershaft recalls the Salvation Army Shelter as the truly hellish place, full of hunger and misery. Shaw inverts the two, thereby upending expectations. Barbara comes to understand heaven and hell can be reconciled, that "life is all one." Her father may be a devil, but he is one through whom God can speak. She hopes to achieve salvation by "raising ... hell to heaven."

Charles Lomax once again provides comic relief. Against the weighty themes of heaven and hell and the dramatic tension over Cusins's decision to take up the munitions business, Lomax's idiocy is a light contrast. First he wades confidently and thoughtlessly into the deep waters of theology when he expresses his approval that Barbara has left the Salvation Army by describing his reservations about it as having "a certain amount of tosh." Inarticulate criticism is humorous, especially since he joined in the meetings as enthusiastically as anyone. He claims the Church of England is superior before he is shut up by his soon-to- be mother-in-law. Even funnier is his confidence that lighting a match in a shed where explosives are made is not really dangerous. Audiences have another laugh at Lomax's expense when Undershaft suggests he experiment with that claim later at home.

Barbara's experience in the final two acts of the play, particularly the last few pages, echoes the Passion and resurrection of Christ. Like Christ, who was betrayed and placed under the power of his enemies, Barbara feels betrayed by her father. She even echoes the words of Christ on the cross in Act 2, asking why God has forsaken her. As Christ suffered in the crucifixion, Barbara endures emotional pain when her faith in the Salvation Army is betrayed. She, like Christ, is transformed after a kind of death. Her old beliefs have passed away. Cusins alludes to the ascension of Christ when he describes Barbara as "going right up into the sky" in her enthusiasm for her new role, her way of thinking transformed.

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