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Major Barbara

George Bernard Shaw

Act III: Part Three

Act III: Part Two

Act III: Part Four

Summary

Barbara comes up with a sudden insight. Undershaft dismisses all the "morality mongering," and asks her to tell Cusins what power really means. Barbara confesses that up until yesterday she believed herself in the power of God, but her father revealed that she was in the power of Bodger and Undershaft.

Undershaft urges her to "scrap" a morality and religion that no longer as she would scrap old machinery. Barbara demands that he justify himself. "Cleanliness and respectability do not need justification," retorts her father. He has saved his people's—and family's—souls by providing for them and saved them from the worst of crimes, poverty. Work, food, shelter, and clothing save, he states, not the Bible.

Undershaft recalls his young as a poor east ender who one day pledged to a sacred commandment—"Thou shalt starve ere I starve"—and became "free and great." He chose to play the thief or murderer rather than the pauper or slave. Dangerous before he had his "will," he has become as a self-made millionaire a "useful, beneficent, kindly person." Rather than unscrupulously make virtues out of poverty and starvation, Undershaft understands them as the worst crimes. One should not preach at them but kill them.

Undershaft explains that killing is the "final test of conviction, the only lever strong enough to overturn a social system, the only way of saying Must." Democracy is but an illusion and only violence inaugurates the new. Undershaft has no patience with the moralist's "ought"—man must turn his "oughts" into "shalls." The history of the world is the history of those who courageously embrace this truth.

Britomart forbids Barbara to listen to her father and announces that the family is leaving. Barbara tells her it does no good to leave the wicked and Britomart counters that it shows one's "disapprobation." When Lomax moves to Undershaft's defense, Britomart pointedly notes that he only flatters him for his allowance. She condemns group, petulantly declaring her conscience is clear.

Undershaft demands that Cusins make his decision. He argues that Cusins overvalues Barbara, that his righteousness is patronizing, that his pity is the "scavenger of misery." As Plato says, society cannot be saved until the Professors of Greek make gunpowder or vice versa. Undershaft wants nothing of Cusins' impertinent gospel of love. Instead, he wants his obedience and respect on the pain of death. Undershaft loves only his best friend—that is, the "bravest enemy," or the man who keeps him "up to the mark." Cusins agrees.

Analysis

The dialogue here is the play's final articulation of the "Gospel of Saint Andrew"—again, the doctrine that would promise man's salvation. Undershaft appears as social engineer, urging Barbara to scrap her system of morality and religion as one might with antiquated machinery. Note, however, that Undershaft does not scrap Barbara's system of beliefs—one organized around notions of sin, salvation, crime, punishment—but he substitutes its terms. For Undershaft, the worst crimes are no longer the seven deadly sins but poverty. The gospel does not save, but work, food, shelter, and clothing allow salvation to occur. At one level then, a materialist religion replaces an idealist one.

We should not, however, conflate Undershaft's gospel with a call, Marxist or otherwise, for the liberation of the masses, a call issued "for the love of the people." Here, the impoverished appear as the filthy, uncivilized, and diseased- ridden masses. The living and working conditions of the poor in turn of the century London notwithstanding, the specter of Undershaft's poor assume the proportions of paranoid fantasy. They commit the "crime of poverty" on the socius itself; they are criminals who "they kill the happiness of society."

Having conjured this image of the poor, Undershaft does not need to defend the gospel, saying that, "Cleanliness and respectability do not need justification." We hear echoes of the "common sense" rhetoric of the social engineer evoked earlier, a rhetoric that presents Undershaft's gospel as self-evident, all-too- obvious. Here, Undershaft's impassioned appeal to hygiene makes the more sinister implications of his "smokeless town of white walls" clear. Undershaft's violent calls for the "killing" of poverty as a social poison can only rather disconcertingly evoke the extermination of a poisonous poor people, the perpetrators of a crime against the commonweal. In other words, one cannot but wonder if in calling for the death of poverty, Undershaft calls for the elimination of poor people as well.

Undershaft's philosophy also organizes itself around a notion the great man's "will." This will comes into being through the agonistic struggle between men. Agonism (Late Latin agonista competitor, from Greek agonists, from agOnizesthai to contend, from agOn) refers to aggressive or defensive social interaction.

As Undershaft proclaims, a sacred commandment—"Thou shalt starve ere I starve"—sets him on the path to greatness. Through a murderous struggle with others, Undershaft realizes his will and desire. His "bravest enemy" is his best friend, a rival who keeps him "up to the mark." Over and against Christian ideals of human brotherhood, the recognition Undershaft demands from his neighbor is not love but obedience and respect, a bending to his will. Again, the struggle he stages with others is decidedly violent, and those who do not submit to his desire must die.

Such killing in the name of the will does restrict itself to those who stand in the way of the great man's desire, but extant social structures, institutions, and ways of thinking as well. Killing is the means by which the moralist's "ought" becomes a "shall"; it is the "only way of saying Must." Only the murderous command can inaugurate the "new" that necessarily follows according to the will of the great man. Until he achieves his will, he is menace to civilization. Upon its realization, he becomes its benefactor, thus the great man makes history.

Those who cannot bring themselves to the task of murder, or that which makes will into action, remain impotent. Undershaft mocks his ex-wife after she expresses her disapproval of the crowd. The aristocratic Britomart does not act against those she considers wicked, but simply turns away from them, content to express her disapprobation and cast them out of her social circle. She remains subject to history instead of acting as one of its progenitors.

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