A very major Barbara

the play:

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw

first performed 1905  Act 1


LADY BRITOMART: I don’t know how Barbara will take it. Ever since they made her a major in the Salvation Army she has developed a propensity to have her own way and order people about which quite cows me sometimes. It's not ladylike: I'm sure I don’t know where she picked it up. Anyhow, Barbara shan’t bully me; but still it's just as well that your father should be here before she has time to refuse to meet him or make a fuss. Don’t look nervous, Stephen; it will only encourage Barbara to make difficulties. I am nervous enough, goodness knows; but I don’t shew it.

Sarah and Barbara come in with their respective young men, Charles Lomax and Adolphus Cusins. Sarah is slender, bored, and mundane. Barbara is robuster, jollier, much more energetic. Sarah is fashionably dressed: Barbara is in Salvation Army uniform… Cusins is a spectacled student, slight, thin haired, and sweet voiced… his sense of humor is intellectual and subtle, and is complicated by an appalling temper… By the operation of some instinct which is not merciful enough to blind him with the illusions of love, he is obstinately bent on marrying Barbara.

observations: Very helpfully, George Bernard Shaw is always prepared to tell us what to think. The typically detailed stage directions (the one above has been shortened considerably) are only the half of it – there is a 14 000-word preface to this play, an essay explaining Shaw’s beliefs on relevant matters. He never needed persuading to write such explanations, but in this particular case he was specificially unhappy that some critics had misunderstood his thinking on the issues therein. While the trappings of the play are very much of their time, these issues are fascinating and very modern: what is the morality of arms manufacture? The Salvation Army performs good works: should they take money from anyone, or be fussy about the donors? What are the causes and effects of poverty? Barbara is disappointed in the SA’s decisions, and ends the play ‘fashionably dressed’ in what she calls a ‘vulgar and silly dress’ – but still trying to do good works. As a funny and relevant play (there is also some discussion of women's issues), Major Barbara could bear being revived more often.

For a very major Barbara on her birthday.

Links up with: the good and bad of religion feature
here and here in their different ways, uniforms are discussed here.

The picture is from the State Library of
New South Wales.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. my namesake.....? Hopefully I'm robust and jolly enough to live up to it!


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