Major Barbara at first appears like a rather innocuous play, nothing that would inspire the economist Beatrice Webb to call it a “dance of devils” and “the triumph of the unmoral purpose”: Her children all grown up, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Carol Schultz) finds herself in a precarious position: her husband, the weapons manufacturer Sir Andrew (Dan Daily), left long ago, but now it seems as if the family will need him once again. Her son and lapdog, Stephen (Alec Shaw), has no prospects. Her daughter Sarah (Becky Baumwoll) is engaged to the ridiculous Charles Lomax (Cary Donaldson), who will not receive his inheritance for some years. And her daughter Barbara (Hannah Cabell) has not only found herself the fiancée of Adolphus Cusins (Richard Gallagher), a poor professor of Greek, but she has joined the Salvation Army (becoming a Major), ensuring that the two will never have any money of their own. Enter Andrew, who is willing to finance his children but who insists on continuing the company tradition of leaving the business to a foundling who will be adopted and renamed Andrew Undershaft.
What distinguishes Major Barbara from Shaw’s more Wildean You Never Can Tell is Sir Andrew, who turns out to be quite possibly the most amiable mass murderer ever composed for the stage. He is an agent of death who joyfully declares his powerlessness before capitalism, whose motto is “Unashamed” and who insists on principle that a gun-maker must sell arms to “all men who offer an honest price for them.” His vision of humanity is chillingly convincing: he informs us that he never has to give orders to his workers, who refer to him as “Dandy Andy”—he only chats occasionally with them about their families—because they freely participate in this system. “The only thing Jones won’t stand,” he says of the typical employee, “is any rebellion from the man under him, or any assertion of social equality between the wife of the man with four shillings a week less than himself and Mrs. Jones.” His factory and the town that surrounds it, which contains schools, libraries, a ballroom, a banqueting chamber, and a nursing home, bears an eerie similarity to a socialist utopia. It is a shining, bleached, inviting hell. Compared to Sir Andrew, Barbara’s work of “converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other” seems like an easy, exploitative failure.
The Pearl does an excellent job with Major Barbara, which may have evoked such strong reactions in people like Webb because it does not ever satisfactorily resolve the issues it raises—in fact, it goes through the motions of dramatic resolutions in the manner of a more lightweight comedy (there is a secret foundling, for example, among the male suitors), but Sir Andrew nevertheless remains on top, and a suitable alternative to his worldview is never offered. Mr. Daily is fabulous here, waddling around like a slightly awkward, slightly oblivious penguin, while Sir Andrew all the while has a savvier hold on the action than everyone else onstage. His impeccable manners and his slight social bumbling, of course, make him all the more terrifying. Ms. Cabell is good, too, even if Barbara, ostensibly the protagonist of the play, is always eclipsed by her father. Ms. Schulz’s wonderful, Lady Bracknell-like Britomart provides some of the play’s wittier moments, and Mr. Donaldson’s cackling “Cholly” is a nice illustration of how people like Sir Andrew can continue to work without resistance. His concerns are entirely with the appearance of respectability, with language that settles unpleasant realities: “There may be a certain amount of tosh about the Salvation Army,” he admits, “but still you can’t deny that it’s religion; and you can’t go against religion, can you? At least unless you’re downright immoral, don’t you know.”
I often have trouble with Shaw’s moralizing and clunky, overlong writing, but Major Barbara is a sharp and challenging work, one whose complexities are wonderfully realized when staged by a first-rate company like the Pearl Theatre.