The first George Bernard Shaw play I read was “Pygmalion,” which is his most famous and possibly most accessible work and I was completely enchanted. Shaw has a gift for smuggling in all sorts of didactic points into a delightful story. In “Pygmalion,” he deals with class, feminism, language and how language is symbolic of class, but also a social barrier that is artificial and can be demolished with just a little education,
In teaching Eliza, who is just a poor flower girl, to act like a lady and in bamboozling everyone at the ball into accepting her as a lady, Professor Higgins exposes the entire system as a fraud. However, Higgins is not solely a force for good. He is a superior arrogant, insensitive, childish bully, and he treats Eliza as though she were a flower girl, though he justifies this by saying that he treats all people as flower girls. In the end, Eliza walks away and denies him the right to treat her like his creation. Shaw makes it quite clear in his postscript to the play (which he wrote to quash romantic ideas about Higgins and Eliza) that they remain friends, but Eliza must leave because she is too strong a person to put up with being treated less than a full human, with feelings and will of her own.
Higgins has a dual role, then. He is both villain and hero. This tendency to put several attributes together, both positive and negative, is brilliantly done, but can be very confusing. In the next play I read by Shaw, “Major Barbara” – performed in 1905 – Shaw wrote what has been called one of his most political plays. It is about poverty, religion and recompense for crimes, war and even morality. Shaw packs a lot of ideas into three acts.
The play opens with Lady Britomart worrying about the future financial situations of her children, and so summons her husband, Andrew Undershaft. They have been separated for many years, because of his immoral attitudes towards life (though he was generally moral in action, and she did like him, but she said she wouldn’t have the attitudes in the house). When Undershaft comes, he barely remembers how many children he has. There is Stephen, who is somewhat in awe of his mother, Sarah, who is engaged to a man who will be a millionaire in ten years, and Barbara, who is a Major in the Salvation Army and is engaged to a professor of Greek (who joined the Salvation Army so he could be with Barbara).
Andrew Undershaft is incredibly wealthy as the owner of a munitions plant. He sells guns and cannons to anyone, no matter the moral question, just as long as they can pay. When he meets his children, he has very little use for Stephen and Sarah, but he and Barbara like each other. She works at a shelter in West Ham, London, and he is quite interested in her work. He notes that the motto of the Salvation Army might be his motto: Blood and Fire, though his blood and fire is quite different from hers. He is a secularist and she is religious and they both want to convert the other to their way of thinking. He agrees to come to her shelter if she will come to his cannon works.
Andrew Undershaft represents both tempter and sage in this play. He deliberately sets out to win Barbara to his way of thinking and he does this by undermining her faith in the Salvation Army. She is a dedicated saver of souls and she firmly believes one cannot buy one’s salvation. When a young man hits one of the Salvation Army workers, he tries to soothe his conscience by first getting beat up (but the man he chooses won’t oblige him) and then by paying her. But Barbara refuses to accept any of these this in substitution for actual reformation.
The shelter is in need of money, however, to stay open. When Undershaft learns of this, he offers to provide the funds, but Barbara won’t accept his money, either. She feels his money is tainted because of how he earns it and also because she refuses to accept anything less than Undershaft’s soul. But Undershaft destroys her faith in the Salvation Army when he again offers to give a large sum of money and is accepted by the Salvation Army commissioner. It seems to her that the army is endorsing the view that you can buy salvation by giving money, like buying indulgences.
Undershaft does offer an alternative faith to Barbara, however; now that he has shattered her illusions in organized religion. He offers her the creed of wealth. He believes that it is poverty that is a crime and the worst one of all. To be wealthy is to allow yourself the opportunity to have virtues, the “graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.” He believes that organizations like the Salvation Army are reinforcing the idea that because there is forgiveness for crimes, there is no need to really change. And also, because they are giving bread and teaching virtue, they are reinforcing the idea that it is okay to be poor, when poverty is the worst crime of all.
What Undershaft believes is that at all costs you must not be poor. This sounds rather like an advocation of greedy capitalism, which is ironic since Shaw was a socialist. However, I believe that he deliberately went out of his way to make Undershaft’s work and creed somewhat obnoxious in order to make a point. He gave him a distasteful job, so he could illustrate that even making cannons, Undershaft is more moral than the most virtuous poor man because the poor man is still participating, willfully, in the greatest evil of all. For Undershaft, man doesn’t need salvation; he needs money, he needs not to be poor. Undershaft’s weapons of war also furthers a theme Shaw is pursuing in the play, regarding making war on crime and poverty. The Salvation Army uses a similar metaphor of going to war.
I am not sure if Barbara exactly accepts his philosophy, though Adolphus, her fiancé, essentially lays aside his moral repugnance against war when he accepts Undershaft’s proposal to make him his heir to the munitions factory. Barbara still wants to save souls (though I cannot figure out what she means by salvation – spiritual, physical? – and salvation from what?), but she is now going to work on people who are not hungry, the many happy, well-fed workers at her father’s factory.
In fact, it is not at all clear to me how much of Undershaft’s philosophy we are to accept. Like Higgins, I am not sure he embodies right all the time. There is something rather devilish in how he sets out to destroy Barbara’s faith and surely Shaw does not mean that the cure for poverty is people trying to get wealth like Undershaft did, by whatever means necessary. Undershaft makes a virtue of getting money, which is something that Barbara has no interest in. She has not accepted her father’s belief in money so much as agreed to its necessity.