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Major Barbara

George Bernard Shaw


Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

CUSINS: By the way, have you any religion?

UNDERSHAFT: Only that there are two things necessary to Salvation.

CUSINS [disappointed, but polite]: Ah, the Church Catechism. Charles Lomax also belongs to the Established Church.

UNDERSHAFT: The two things are—

CUSINS: Baptism and— UNDERSHAFT: No. Money and gunpowder. CUSINS [surprised, but interested] That is the general opinion of our governing classes. The novelty is hearing any man confess it.


CUSINS: Excuse me: is there any lace in your religion for honor, justice, truth, love, mercy, and so forth?

UNDERSHAFT: Yes: they are the graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.

Undershaft reveals the sacraments of what Shaw describes in the preface as his millionaire's "gospel" in his first conversation with Cusins at the Salvation Army shelter in Act II. Cusins has teasingly posed himself as a "collector of religion" interested in anything out of the ordinary Undershaft's creed might offer.

For Undershaft, the world is not in God's power but in the power of the military industrialist. With money and gunpowder, Undershaft participates in the power that truly reigns over Europe, the power that determines the course of society. This re-organization of society—rather than one's faith in a religious doctrine—provides the means of salvation. For Undershaft, man does not need redemption from sinfulness but from the material abjection of poverty, hunger, and sickness. The growth of Christian virtues fundamentally rests on man's material security. Thus Undershaft wants nothing to do with a religion that abjures warfare and wealth. These evils are the necessary means by which man can be saved. Though initially resistant, a fascinated Cusins will soon convert to Undershaft's gospel. In particular, he fully comes to realize Undershaft's power upon the latter's calculated purchase of the Salvation Army, a purchase that reveals how all work of salvation is indeed contingent on those who hold the money and gunpowder.

Ought! Ought! Ought! Ought! Ought! Are you going to spend your life saying ought, like the rest of our moralists? Turn your oughts into shalls, man. Come and make explosives with me. Whatever can blow men up can blow society up. The history of the world is the history of those who had the courage to embrace this truth.

Undershaft exhorts Cusins to turn his "oughts" into "shalls" toward the end of Act III in urging him to surrender himself to the Undershaft tradition. The passage is also important in understanding Undershaft's gospel.

Here Undershaft explosively poses himself, the military industrialist, against common moralist as a man of action. What marks the transformation of the conditional "ought" into the imperative "shall" is the murderous power of gunpowder. As Undershaft declares earlier, the power of "killing" serves as his "final test of conviction," the "only way of saying Must" and imposing one's will. The man who can blow up armies has the power to blow up society. Only he can make history.

there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill fed, ill clothed people. They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty.

This excerpt comes from Undershaft's speech to his family at Perivale St. Andrews in the latter half of Act III. It serves as another elaboration of the gospel of the millionaire.

Here Undershaft declares that the worst crime among men is not murder, but the "crime of poverty." As the passage makes clear, this crime is hardly victimless and it is committed against society itself. Moreover, the poor are the perpetrators, appearing as abject masses from some paranoid fantasy. They kill society's happiness, forcing us to eliminate our liberties and organize "unnatural cruelties" to keep them in check. It is clear that "society" here means the ruling class.

Undershaft will pit himself against poverty, not for the love of the people, but, more chillingly, in the name of order and cleanliness. Indeed, for Undershaft, order and cleanliness are categorical imperatives of sorts and they justify themselves. Though the realization of these imperatives would ostensibly benefit the masses, we can readily imagine how they might come at their expense as well. Simply put, the institution of order and cleanliness easily means the elimination of the disorderly and unclean. Recall then Undershaft's unsettling invocation of the Salvation Army's motto in Act I: "My sort of blood cleanses: my sort of fire purifies."

There is no wicked side: life is all one. And I never wanted to shirk my share in whatever evil must be endured, whether it be sin or suffering. I wish I could cure you of middle-class ideas, Dolly.

CUSINS [gasping]: Middle cl—! A snub! A social snub to me! From the daughter of a foundling!

BARBARA: That is why I have no class, Dolly: I come straight out of the heart of the whole people. If were middle class, I should turn my back on my father's business

Barbara declares herself class-less at the end of Act III upon her conversion to her father's gospel and decision to return to the Salvation Army. She does so as the daughter of a foundling father. Within Undershaft's dogma, the foundling figures as a willful, self-made superman, a man whose thoughts and actions remain free from the chains of familial ties and class convention. The foundling is poised to destroy the old and inaugurate the new.

Thus, for example, as the child of a foundling, Barbara transcends Cusins's "middle-class morality" in her ability to move beyond his received notions of good and evil. Recognizing the necessity of men like Undershaft to the Army, of war and bloodshed to salvation, Barbara has come to realize that "life is all one." Though her Holy Father has forsaken her, she has now adopted her blood "father's business."

For Barbara, her foundling heritage also means that she comes "straight from the heart of the whole people." In other words, she considers herself universal rather than bound to a specific social position. Preaching her father's Word, she can serve as savior to everyone. Ironically, Barbara's proclamation would blatantly deny the class status that makes her Salvationist career possible. As revealed by her assault on Bill Walker in Act II, Barbara is not only compelling because of the "inspiration" she exudes, but also the authority she wields in her aristocratic heritage, a class background that marks her polished speech and professional manner.

Well you see, my dear boy, when you are organizing civilization you have to make up your mind whether trouble and anxiety are good things or not. If you decide that they are, then, I take it, you simply don't organize civilization; and there you are, with trouble and anxiety enough to make us all angels! But if you decide the other way, you might as well go through with it.

Undershaft makes this cheeky repartee to Stephen during the family's visit to Perivale St. Andrews in Act III. It responds to Stephen's concern that the amenities of the community might work to soften the workers and render them lazy. Though perhaps not obviously important thematically, the passage provides a good example of Undershaft's rhetorical abilities. Of particular importance here is Undershaft's rhetoric of common sense. If one goes about organizing civilization, one should do away with trouble and anxiety. Only the moralists prize the two as virtues. Undershaft presents the truth of his gospel as self- evident. Note the patronizing interjection, "my dear boy," underscoring how what Undershaft presents should be obvious. The power of such rhetoric is to exclude what it casts as commonsensical from critique. For example, what does it means for a millionaire to set himself to the task of "organizing civilization" in the first place.

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