It is a cold January morning in the West Ham shelter of the Salvation Army. The cold has stung two diners at the lunch table into "vivacity"—the sly, young Snobby Price and hard-worn, middle-aged Rummy Mitchens.
They introduce themselves to each other. Price remarks that they share the misfortune of having unpronounceable names due to their parents' class pretensions. Rummy asks why Price is unemployed. He explains that he is intelligent and sees through the capitalists, drinks for happiness, leaves the available work to others out of class solidarity, and steals like a capitalist. When he learns that Rummy is married, he jokes about her being another respectable woman feigning vice to get rescued by the Army. Price himself tells of his blasphemy, gambling, and beating his mother to win the Army's favor. The worse you appear, the more satisfying your salvation to the Army staff.
Jenny Hill, a pale, overwrought Salvation lass, enters leading Peter Shirley, a worn-out elderly man, to the table. She runs off to fetch him lunch. Shirley recounts how he has lost his job to a younger man. He weeps with shame before the prospect of taking a free lunch but does so when Jenny assures him that he will be able to pay them back someday.
Suddenly Bill Walker, a rough young man, appears and menacingly flings Jenny toward the door of the shelter. Apparently Jenny took his girl from him, and Bill has come to reclaim her. Rummy runs to Jenny's aid, and Bill cracks her across the face. Price withdraws in fear, fleeing into the shelter with Rummy to fetch Major Barbara.
Shirley rises and confronts Bill, asking what kind of man terrorizes women, the elderly, and the starving. Bill would never dare face his son-in-law's brother, the wrestler Todger Fairmille. In response, Bill taunts Shirley for taking a handout and Shirley bursts into tears. Shirley warns the young tough, however, against taking on the Major. She is the Earl of Stevenage's granddaughter. Bill skulks into the corner.
Barbara enters briskly and addresses herself to Shirley. Bill sits cowed with his back turned to them. Barbara takes Shirley's vital information. He bristles when she asks about his faith. An unperturbed Barbara notes that their Father must have known what He was doing in making Shirley a Secularist. She turns to Bill, noting mockingly that he certainly must not fear God, otherwise how could he have struck a girl?
Bill declares that he wants nothing to do with the Army. Sunnily apologetic and ladylike, Barbara moves to strike his name from their roster. Bill protests this slight; a businesslike Barbara then marks him down as the man who struck Jenny. Bill is near-tears. When he announces that he wants his girl, Mog Habbijam, Barbara informs him that she has joined the Army post in Canningtown and taken up with one of her own converts, Sergeant Todger Fairmille. Bill is crushed. Barbara asks Jenny to have Rummy clear the table. Price informs Barbara that her father has come.
As discussed in the preface, Shaw's portrait of the shelter is fundamentally polemical and pedagogical in intent, aiming to expose of the flaws in the Salvation Army and critique the state of the urban poor. For example, one of the many criticisms of the Army Shaw underlines is that it forces its clientele to pander to the saintliness of its workers. Thus Price and Rummy have woven tales of their degeneracy to satisfy their helpers' Salvationist fantasies. In this sense does the work of the Army have less to do with the condition of the poor than the narcissism of its officers.
In examining the state of poor itself, Shaw offers the audience a trio of shelter clients: Rummy, Price, and Shirley. Against the figure Rummy cuts as a prosaic matron and Price as a "transparent humbug," Shirley appears as what Shaw considers the "honest poor man." This man abhors the rich, values hard work, and weeps at the thought of finally have to take a handout. For Shaw, he functions as another of the play's object lesson. Despite Shirley's honesty, "the misery of the world is due to the fact that the great mass of men act and believe as Peter Shirley acts and believes." As we will see, only the gospel of the millionaire, one that poses wealth as "a point of honor for which I am prepared to kill at the risk of my own life" will redeem the world.
Certainly the most jarring shift from acts I to II is the introduction of class- marked dialect, such as Cockney, in the appearance of the poor. Critics have long lauded the "accuracy" or "realism" of Shavian dialect. Such praise does not consider the significance of this dialect's usage, and it appears to be little more than an exercise in class fetishism that obscures the ways in which Shaw's representation of the poor is itself fetishistic. Note, for example, how Rummy and Price are played affectionately for the audience's entertainment. Though they have long since pawned their winter clothes, the two are "stung into vivacity" by the cold, chattering vivaciously over their poor meal. Occasionally Price even breaks into a step dance.
Another one of the dialect's primary functions here is to set Barbara, the savior, against those who require salvation. Major Barbara figures as savior in the shelter through simultaneous her class and linguistic superiority over those around her. Barbara maintains her composure before all those around her through her impeccable dress and cool, business-like manner, and perfect speech. Note how Shirley revels in revealing her aristocratic background to Bill, invoking her bloodline to cow him. Moreover Barbara's return before the audience is the return of the proper, polished English of the act previous, a voice that stands firmly against Bill's "horribly debased" one. Barbara's dialect, that is, the dialect that masquerades as no dialect at all, marks her as the Cockney's redeemer.
Barbara's superiority to her clients is especially crucial as it would seem their within the Salvation Army conversion might demand their humiliation. Note how the play invites the audience to enjoy Bill's disgrace sadistically—an enjoyment Barbara explicitly avows upon his departure and return in the subsequent scene. Barbara's humiliation of Bill primarily involves forcing him to admit that he is "not a man," since a man could not strike a woman. The progressively developed story of Todger Fairmille completes Bill's emasculation. Note also how Barbara denies him recognition on the Army roster and mordantly remarks that he must have no fear of God. Bill's humiliation leads him nearly to surrender wholehearted to Barbara as his redeemer. Once crushed, he accepts the terms of her gospel. The pain he feels as the anguish of his tortured soul and his debt to God.