Places: Major Barbara

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1907

First produced: 1905

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Play of ideas

Time of work: January, 1906

Places DiscussedWilton Crescent

Wilton Major BarbaraCrescent. Fashionable section of London’s upscale West End. Act 1 is set in the library of Lady Britomart Undershaft’s house, which she has tastefully decorated with money from her husband, who has become wealthy by manufacturing arms. Although the pictures, books, and music portfolios identified in stage directions suggest the Undershaft family will be gathering in an enlightened environment conducive to liberal thinking, Lady Britomart steps forward as a Victorian relic of upper-class materialism. Thus, the library’s rich decor calls attention to Lady Britomart’s insistence upon money as the panacea for whatever problems she and her adult children confront.

West Ham

West Ham. Location of the newly whitewashed Salvation Army shelter in London’s impoverished East End in which the play’s second act is set. Seen through Barbara Undershaft’s eyes, the shelter represents charitable compassion. Conversely, for the destitute who seek refuge here from the January cold, it represents food as bribery. Barbara has devoted herself to saving souls within these bleak surroundings, but she is no match for her intruding millionaire father who proves that her means for rescuing the downtrodden are hollow. After Undershaft purchases her religious idealism by donating five thousand pounds to the shelter, Barbara walks away under a leaden sky, knowing that her illusions have been as thin as the whitewash on the slum warehouse.

Perivale St. Andrews

Perivale St. Andrews. Location of Andrew Undershaft’s munitions foundry set amid the hills of Middlesex. The fictitious Perivale St. Andrews of act 3 is a frighteningly perfect utopian community made up of churches, libraries, schools, banquet chambers, and nursing homes. Not to be overlooked, however, the dummy soldiers strewn under a high explosives shed testify to the ghastly effects produced by the bombshells on display at this “triumph of modern industry.” The foundry clearly symbolizes the entrepreneur’s right to spread destruction; however, from among the clutter of props in the closing scene, Barbara emerges as an energetic life force who intends to use her inherited money and power to fight the evils of war.

BibliographyBentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw. 1947. Reprint. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1957. One of the best writers about modern drama, Bentley sets forth ideas about Shaw that place later critics in his debt. His study is one of the first important books on Shaw.Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. 4 vols. New York: Random House, 1987-1992. Authoritative, superbly written, and richly detailed, these books are models of the biographer’s art. In the second volume, The Pursuit of Power 1898-1918, Holroyd discusses Major Barbara, giving particular attention to the troublesome third act and its ambiguities, about which he writes with discernment.Shaw, George Bernard. Bernard Shaw’s Plays, edited by Warren S. Smith. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. This edition of Major Barbara and three other Shaw plays includes a useful selection of critical essays, including a reprint of G. K. Chesterton’s 1909 objections to the play, Barbara Bellow Watson’s 1968 essay that discusses both the play and Chesterton’s complaints, and an article that studies Shaw’s correspondence with his friend Gilbert Murray, the scholar on whom Adolphus Cusins is based.Shaw, George Bernard. The Collected Screenplays of Bernard Shaw, edited by Bernard F. Dukore. London: George Prior Publishers, 1980. In his introduction, Dukore devotes twenty-eight pages to a thorough analysis of Shaw’s script for the 1941 film version of Major Barbara and an informative comparison of that version with the stage version.Zimbardo, Rose, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Major Barbara. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Six complete essays and portions of five others offer differing approaches to the play. Zimbardo’s remarks on the play’s conformity to the comic paradigm, Joseph Frank’s essay on the play’s movement toward a Shavian salvation, and Anthony S. Abbott’s comments on realism are insightful and accessible to the general reader.
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