Major Barbara | Study Guide

George Bernard Shaw

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Major Barbara | Preface | Summary

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Summary

In the 1906 preface to Major Barbara, Shaw claims he will "help ... critics ... by telling them what to say about it." In his view, critics need to stop "treating Britain as an intellectual void" when they assume a connection between his work and the plays of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. On the contrary, Shaw claims his inspiration comes from Irish novelist Charles Lever, explaining he is interested in "the conflict between real life and romantic imagination."

In Andrew Undershaft, Shaw creates a character who understands what Shaw himself asserts: "the greatest of our evils, and the worst of our crimes is poverty." Yet England seems resigned to the existence of the poor. It would be better for the country to have more men, wicked and rich like Undershaft, than honest and poor like Peter Shirley. When money is understood to "represent health, strength, honor, generosity, and beauty" and "the evil to be attacked is ... poverty," then Undershaft's worldview makes sense. Children should not be taught that pursuing money is wrong.

Although some have interpreted the play as an attack on the Salvation Army, Shaw explains the Salvation Army, like the Church of England, is too dependent on the financial support of large companies and the capitalist government to be genuinely on the side of the poor. Rejecting the idea of atonement for sins, Shaw argues "you will never get a high morality from people who conceive that their misdeeds are revocable." He believes salvation must instead come through the redemption of the nation as a whole.

Shaw criticizes the British government for its outdated and inconsistently enforced laws. If the British government is to survive, it must enact change. First, any able-bodied adult who refuses to contribute should get "no crumb" of the national wealth. Second, lawbreakers who "delight" in their misdeeds must be euthanized. Third, "creeds must become intellectually honest."

Later, in 1933 Shaw laments that the world has still not come to understand poverty "is to be prevented at all costs." He adds that the British government has not followed his advice to make "good bread" available to the public, like a municipal water supply.

Analysis

The preface is less of the author's explanation of the play, as readers might expect, and more of a platform for a variety of subjects. It does, however, reveal much about Shaw's views and personality. A prolific writer not only of plays and reviews, Shaw penned many tracts, copious correspondence, and political manifestos for the Fabian Society: an organization that advocated evolutionary, not revolutionary, socialism for Britain. He was outspoken, controlling, difficult, and opinionated. The claim in the preface that he will tell critics "what to say about [the play]," shows his confidence in his intellectual superiority and condescension for his fellow drama critics. His criticism of government and directions on policy changes reveal his unconventional, socialist, and sometimes anarchistic political positions. Shaw had opinions on nearly every role and practice of government, from elections, to the penal system, to women's pay, to the use of the English alphabet. His most passionate political position was the need to abolish private property. In the preface, readers get just a glimpse of the vast array of Shaw's opinions and the manner in which he chooses to express himself.

The preface also explains Shaw's moral relativism. According to Shaw, men like Undershaft, whom society considers wicked, are actually the kind of men England needs, rather than honest men like Peter Shirley. Undershaft's fortune has the power to create real change. To Shaw, the worst kind of evil is poverty, so anything that can be done to defeat it, even making munitions that create death, is necessarily good. Shaw, like Undershaft as his mouthpiece in the play, doesn't believe religion will save people, but money will. It is therefore wrong, according to Shaw, to see the pursuit of money as evil, when it is the very thing that can save society. Shaw contradicts traditional ideas of morality by arguing that those individuals society views as evil, like Undershaft, are really its potential saviors, and those believed most pious, like Salvation Army leaders, are doing no real or permanent good.

In the preface Shaw introduces several themes he will explore in the play. His interest in "the conflict between realism and romantic imaginations" is more concisely expressed as realism versus idealism and is present throughout the three acts. He argues for the necessity of fighting poverty to save the nation, with even more nuance in the play, by contrasting it with the notion of spiritual warfare and salvation. Whereas the preface extols the power of money, the play will expand the theme to include other types of power.

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