Friday, February 8, 2008

Major Barbara

Sometime back Howard commented on a post by quoting Major Barbara by Shaw.  I hadn't seen or read that play and I was curious.  I finally got around to reading it the other day and found it full of very interesting comments concerning economic philosophy, religion and the meaning of life.  Perhaps it would be interesting if Howard wanted to lead a discussion of Shaw's ideas.  With respect -Joel


Ira Glickstein said...

I was not familiar with Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw and I have not (yet) read it.

For Blog members who would like to read it, here is a clickable link:

When you get to the linked page, look in the left-hand column under Shaw's photo and you can click on the Preface, Act I, Act II, and Act III.

Happy reading and I hope Howard, Joel, and others join in on some good cross-discussion.

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

I just completed reading the (long) Preface for Major Barbara by Shaw and am quite confused!

It seems Shaw (a Socialist writing in 1906) believes industrial capitalism is evil and designed to enrich the few and enslave the many, using police and soldiers to round up and imprison those in poverty who have no choice but to violate the law. I can understand (from a Darwinian point of view) how this could be a valid characterization of the state of human civilization.

However, Shaw's proposed solution to this problem is to make poverty, per se, a capital offense!

He says it twice in the Preface:

"... the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty, and that our first duty--a duty to which every other consideration should be sacrificed--is not to be poor." [Emphasis added in this quote and others below.]

"Suppose we were to abolish all penalties [such as flogging and prison] for such [common criminal] activities, and decide that poverty is the one thing we will not tolerate--that every adult with less than, say, 365 pounds a year, shall be painlessly but inexorably killed, and every hungry half naked child forcibly fattened and clothed, would not that be an enormous improvement on our existing system, which has already destroyed so many civilizations, and is visibly destroying ours in the same way?"

"...we do not imprison dogs. We even take our chance of their first bite. But if a dog delights to bark and bite, it goes to the lethal chamber. That seems to me sensible. To allow the dog to expiate his bite by a period of torment, and then let him loose in a much more savage condition (for the chain makes a dog savage) to bite again and expiate again, having meanwhile spent a great deal of human life and happiness in the task of chaining and feeding and tormenting him, seems to me idiotic and superstitious. Yet that is what we do to men who bark and bite and steal. It would be far more sensible to put up with their vices, as we put up with their illnesses, until they give more trouble than they are worth, at which point we should, with many apologies and expressions of sympathy, and some generosity in complying with their last wishes, then, place them in the lethal chamber and get rid of them."

Since I have not yet read the play through I do not know if Shaw is serious or being a "devil's advocate".

Does anybody know his actual views on this?

Ira Glickstein

PS: William F. Buckley once suggested we impose the death penalty on anyone who commits a serious crime. Then to show our humanity, impose a 25 cent fine for any repeat offenders! (Of course he was kidding.:^)

Howard Pattee said...

I’m no expert on Shaw. Wikipedia on Shaw has enough links to keep you busy. My first exposure to Shaw was the movie Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941) with Dame Wendy Hiller as Barbara, Rex Harrison as Cousins, and Robert Morely as Undershaft. It was directed by Gabrel Pascal, but Shaw is credited with the scenario and screenplay. Shaw would not allow any actress but Hiller to play Barbara (and Eliza in Pygmalion).
Emotionally I enjoy everything Shaw writes whether I agree or not. My “intellectual” opinion about Shaw is that he is a genius at stating great half-truths so cleverly that the other half is not apparent. Check out Shaw’s quotes at

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard and Joel: I've just completed reading Major Barbara and I enjoyed it --without understanding it at all.

Since you two guys got me into reading it, I'd appreciate your views on what Shaw was getting at.

I found the story line to be interesting as I read it, but, after thinking about it, it is quite ridiculous.

The basic premise is that the head of the cannon works must always be a foundling with no formal education. Thus, the current head must not choose his biological son as his successor. This makes some sence since a foundling who rises to that level must be both smart and tough.

What makes no sense is that Barbara, who, as Major Barbara of the Salvation Army is so dedicated and successful would lose her religious faith when the Salvation Army accepts major funding from the head of the cannon works and a beer maker. It makes less sense that the head of the cannon works cannot find a suitable foundling and so chooses Barbara's fiancee, a Professor of Greek, because he happens to be a foundling.

This type of senseless folly is suited to my favorite WS Gilbert (and Sullivan) comic operas, but Shaw's works are supposed to be serious.

Please help me out.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Ira said: This type of senseless folly is suited to my favorite WS Gilbert (and Sullivan) comic operas, but Shaw's works are supposed to be serious. Please help me out.

Joel responds: I don't know if I can help, but this is the way I look at it.

I took a look at Wikipedia's entry on G.B. Shaw. His thoughts about economics and society seem to be a reaction to events of his time. English society was very much a class or caste system in 1905 when Major Barbara was written. It doesn't seem surprising that Major Barbara should reflect Shaw's revolt against the plight of those idealized impoverished workers whose labor enriched the upper class owning all the land by birthright. Although Shaw was a Fabian Socialist at the time that Major Barbara was written and he continued in this vein for several decades, he saw the error of his ways about socialism and communism eventually. In the thirties, like many of the intellectuals of his time, he defended Stalin even after the truth of Stalin's murderous regime became known. The rise of National socialism and its turn toward dictatorship was another disappointment for Shaw and his notion of the worker's paradise.

From Wikipedia's entry on Shaw:

Near his life's end that hope failed him too. In the preface of Buoyant Billions (1946-48), his last full-length play, he asks

"Why appeal to the mob when ninety-five per cent of them do not understand politics, and can do nothing but mischief without leaders? And what sort of leaders do they vote for? For Titus Oates and Lord George Gordon with their Popish plots, for Hitlers who call on them to exterminate Jews, for Mussolinis who rally them to nationalist dreams of glory and empire in which all foreigners are enemies to be subjugated."

As for the inconsistent turns of the plot, like those comically found in G&S, I don't look for consistency in even the most serious play. I figure that he author, especially one like Shaw, wants to make his points and will use every device he can get away with, to accomplish the goal. At the same time he has to convince his backers that the show will sell some minimum number of tickets. I would think that a playwright envisions himself as an oracle at Delphi, using any device he fancies to convey his truth. I think that it's also the case that throughout history playwrights have used quirkiness to sneak subversive ideas past the powers that be.

I once read a university textbook about stage direction. One of the prime directives (sometimes violated these days) is that the action must not penetrate the "proscenium arch." This physical arch over the stage, separates the imaginary world of the play from the real world of the audience. Each member of the audience suspends disbelief in their minds' eye as they enter the play world.

An actor penetrating the arch results in a rude awakening from a sort of hypnotic trance. When we understand an author to be "serious," I think that we imagine him to be reaching across the arch to grab us by the throat and force his ideas upon us. In doing so, he wakes us and we defend ourselves against the challenge. I think that's why we can enjoy a play in written form, yet reject its philosophy entirely.

With respect -Joel

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, I’ve been too busy to keep up. Sorry your rational thinking found Shaw ridiculous. The cure for that is to stop thinking rationally. That is the difference between art and science. There are no rational fairy tales or children’s books that are popular. The imagination is not rational.

I suggest you try reading Androcles and the Lion, which is totally irrational, or Saint Joan:

JOAN: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
CAPTAIN ROBERT: They come from your imagination.
JOAN: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.