BOOK REVIEW OF THE WEEK: Bernard Shaw: Major Barbara
Read Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara”, and you will be surprised as to how easily you will be convinced that poverty is “the worst of our crimes”, that the Church is the instrument of capitalism, and that real progress can only be achieved by the power of gunpowder. With the strategy of Shavian paradox (where the hero is really the villain and vice versa) Shaw makes an excellent case for private enterprise socialism , and is very convincing in asserting that “the end justifies the means”.
The central conflict of the play is that between the extremist ideas of Andrew Undershaft , the armaments giant, and the ideas of his aristocratic relatives, representing the ideals of society. Undershaft’s devilish power and wit make the outcome inevitable, and at the end everyone recognizes the fusion of money with morality.
One of Shaw’s most powerful statements in “Major Barbara”, and one that echoes throughout the play is that “the greatest of our evils and the worst of our crimes is poverty”. Thus, he attacks the Christian belief that “blessed are the poor”, and dismisses it as a sham to keep the poor, poor and weak. In this original and “unashamed” way, Shaw is saying that the Church and the state should eliminate poverty as if it were a crime instead of praising it as a virtue.
In this realistic and pragmatic manner, he voices his beliefs through Undershaft who sees no romance in poverty and suffering. Undershaft firmly states that only those who have never experienced poverty and suffering can see romance in it. He preaches that for improvement to come, we must “persecute” poverty and not idealize it: “We three must stand together above the common people: how else can we help their children climb up beside us?”
By presenting poverty and misery as “crimes”, Shaw is making a general comment that the underdog and the coward should not be presented as heroes by writers. Both Barbara and Undershaft, the two most central characters in the play, are energetic and drawn to power. Undershaft’s choice between poverty and wealth is a choice between action and cowardice. “To be wealthy, says Undershaft, is with me a point of honor for which I am prepared to kill at the risk of my own life”. Undershaft’s “ religion” recognizes in money the first need, and in poverty the vilest sin of man and society. He is characteristically “unashamed” to admit that “Money is the most important thing in the world”.
Therefore, Shaw presents the Christian faith as a device to keep the poor suppressed. This is because the Church has become part of the establishment, and has abandoned its true duty, which is to support a radical revolution against the existing capitalist order. After all, the Christian Church( just like the Salvation Army in the play) is financed by the rich who are allowed to pay their “conscience money” and get their absolution. As Undershaft states: “all religious organizations exist by selling themselves to the rich”.
As Shaw suggests in his Preface, Christianity was used by the white race to control and enslave the black race; conversion was the perfect way to control their minds. Similarly, it is hinted in the play that the Salvation Army was a way of preventing revolution. As a Salvationist confesses: “there would have been rioting in London but for us”. What Mrs. Baines, the Salvationist sees as “window breaking”, the poor worker sees as revolution.
By questioning the Christian philosophy (in which the English legal system has its origins) Shaw is questioning the whole system of justice and law. Particularly, Shaw attacks the vindictive nature of justice, and says that we should deal with crime as we deal with illness: try to put it right but not punish it.