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Major Barbara

George Bernard Shaw

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Undershaft identifies "money and gunpowder" as necessary to salvation. What does he mean?

Replacing the sacraments of the established church, Undershaft scandalously identifies "money and gunpowder" the means of salvation in his conversation with Cusins in Act II. These sacraments are the lynchpins of what he somewhat glibly terms the religion of the millionaire and what Lady Britomart more critically denounces as his "religion of wrongness." For Undershaft, the world is not in God's power but in the power of the military industrialist. Those who control the means to blow up armies can blow up society and direct its reorganization with their capital. With money and gunpowder, Undershaft is a superman who participates in the power that truly reigns over Europe. He proclaims his ability to bend the world to his will and make history itself.

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 rests fundamentally 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 demonstration of his authority over the Salvation Army, a purchase that reveals how all work of salvation is indeed contingent on those who hold the money and gunpowder.

What is the significance of the name of Undershaft's partner, Lazarus?

The name of Undershaft's partner, Lazarus, is an ironic reference to the biblical parable of the rich and poor. In the Bible, Lazarus (Luke XVI) is a beggar who lies suffering and neglected at a rich man's gate. Upon both their deaths, the rich man, parching in hell, vainly pleads that Lazarus, now happy in heaven, be permitted to give him a cooling drink. This parable would console the poor in their immediate suffering. While they may suffer in this world at the hands of the wealthy, the tables will be turned in the afterlife. The poor are virtuous and the rich decidedly wicked. As Shaw notes in the preface, figures such as Peter Shirley subscribe to this dogma over and against the gospel Undershaft brings on the scene.

The irony is that for Undershaft and the Lazarus of the play, poverty is less a virtue than a crime committed against the welfare of society. Moreover, for them the rich man figures as savior rather than sinner. Only the millionaire can rescue men from poverty and redeem their miserable lives.

At the end of the play, Barbara tells Cusins that she has no social class. What does she mean?

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. For example, as the child of a foundling, Barbara transcends Cusins' "middle-class morality" in her ability to move beyond his received notions of good and evil.

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 the authority she wields in her aristocratic heritage, a class background that marks her polished speech and professional manner.

Suggested Essay Topics

Consider Cusins's possession by the spirit of Dionysus-Undershaft in Act II. What is the "ecstasy of mischief" to which he refers? Why does it consume him?

Consider the use of dialect in the scenes at the Salvation Army shelter. How is dialect related to the play's class dynamics?

Discuss Shaw's character portraits in the stage notes. Consider in particular their tone and use of paradox. You may want to choose two or three characters for comparison.

Discuss the setting of Perivale St. Andrew. Consider the use of space, the props, the set itself, choreography in this space, and onward.

Analyze the use of music and musical instruments in the play. Situate your example within the play's plot structure. Possible topics of discussion include Cusins' drum, the march from the shelter, or Lomax's concertina.

Early in the play, Undershaft declares that the Salvation Army's motto—"Blood and Fire"—could as easily serve as his own. How so? How might his use of the motto differ from the Army's? Also consider the ways in which Undershaft considers the Army's work as being in harmony with his interests.

Consider the subplot involving Undershaft, Lady Britomart, and Stephen? Why does Undershaft insist that his heir must be a foundling? Why does Lady Britomart protest her son's dispossession? How does Stephen respond?

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