Review: Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw

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October 20, 2011 by christedrick

“What are your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement?” This was the question posed recently to a small group of friends gathered in an aspiring actor’s apartment just north of Harlem, NYC. We went around the room, clockwise, giving cautious opinions on the topic as we sipped from our Amstel Light. The responses were measured, and in line with recent media talking points. Statements such as, “they have no unified message,” to “someone needs to go to jail, anyone.”

It wasn’t long however before the conversation took on a more heated tone and unguarded opinions were intensely overlapping each other at an increasingly rapid rate. Now things were getting interesting. “The Federal Reserve should be abolished” and “what Wall Street did wasn’t illegal” were remarks leading the charge. At one point someone mentioned collusion being involved between the government and the banks and I found myself quoting a play I had read just a few days earlier. In fact, I found myself quoting the play quite often on this particular evening.

Written in 1905 by George Bernard Shaw, “Major Barbara” had been recommended for being rather pertinent to the tug-of-war of ideals taking place in our country today, from Occupy Wall Street protests to Tea Party rallies. The play, set in London, confronts moral hazards associated with economic strife. A conflict of principles takes place between Major Barbara, so named for her work with the Salvation Army, and her estranged father Andrew Undershaft, a successful owner of a munitions factory specializing in the production of war cannons. Undershaft’s moral convictions, or lack thereof, are resolute, stern, and in many cases shocking. His candid, unabashed talk is laced with pompous tendencies and carries an air of righteousness. Major Barbara on the other hand is a confident woman seeking to save the souls of those in poverty and convert them to upstanding citizens supported by God.

Father and daughter challenge each other to a battle of moral authentication. Major Barbara tells Undershaft that should he spend one day with her at the Salvation Army he would find himself giving up cannon production in response to the effects he will witness. In turn, Undershaft requests Major Barbara to visit his munitions factory where he wages she’ll give up her career with the Salvation Army in response to a more realistic look at the ways of the world. And so the challenge is set in motion.

During Undershaft’s visit to the Salvation Army he witnesses Major Barbara’s interactions with those in poverty as she works towards converting them to goodness. As would be expected, money and its effects on society is a common theme between those involved at the charitable center. However, it’s when Major Barbara’s Superior enters the scene that the play’s conflict comes into full view. The Salvation Army is confronted by serious financial troubles and is seeking donations to assist it in furthering its mission. The head of the charity has accepted a donation from the town’s whiskey distiller, which needs to be matched in order to become valid. Who agrees to kick in the additional sum? None other than Mr. Undershaft himself. Major Barbara objects to the Salvation Army accepting dirty money from those individuals running immoral businesses, the very same companies providing the afflictions facing the members of society she serves daily. She finds that her work is now compromised and quits her job immediately.

The following day Barbara upholds her end of the challenge and visits her father’s munitions factory, which is essentially its own walled-in city. In awe of the clean streets, restaurants, shops and libraries, here Barbara finds a business profiting from war and thereby the death of many people, while simultaneously providing comfortable lives for so many working-class families. She is confronted with the reality of the power of money and those best positioned to expedite positive social change on a large scale. In the end, it is her conclusion that to save the souls of the well-off employees at her father’s factory would be more beneficial to societal betterment, and the eradication of poverty, than the work she had been performing at the Salvation Army.

It was this conclusion that I offered up to the debaters discussing the Occupy Wall Street Movement. This is not our Arab Spring, this is not a fight for basic human rights and dignities on par with many of the societies in the Middle East. As faulty as our government may be at the present moment, we live in a democracy where mobilization of the people by the people can achieve the desired results, and it can do so without violence. It is for this very reason that Major Barbara lends us timely and pertinent advice: Would we not have better results working within the system we have rather than dismissing it completely? What will provide the maximum social betterment? What will work?

Let us not scream for the Federal Reserve to be abolished or the banking system to be dismantled, instead let us demand the Jobs Bill is passed, and the tax code be overhauled sans loopholes. Instead of rallying around the dismissal of student loans, let us demand the cost of education be lowered. Instead of demanding oil companies stop drilling, let us fight for natural gas fracking procedures to be better regulated and studied. Let us not decry the wealthy for “hoarding money,” instead let us demand their previous tax cuts be rolled back. Lets take advantage of our collective anger and create a Declaration of Desires designed to maximize both social betterment and government change. By understanding that we are all compromised, that there isn’t a clean dollar in anyone’s pocket, and that the world has rotated too many times to return to as simple a state as we would likely prefer, we can work towards results with broader effect. Is it not the more moral of goals in which the greatest number of people are positively affected? Major Barbara wasn’t “defeated” by her father, on the contrary, her principles remained steadfast and intact. No, Major Barbara simply grew up. It’s time for our goals to mature as well. It’s time to get things done.

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