Major Barbara: Essay Q&A
1. Examine the relationship between Stephen and his mother, Lady Britomart.
Major Barbara begins with just Stephen and his mother on stage as they discuss the necessity for his father to give the children more financial help. The stage directions and dialogue make it apparent that Lady Britomart dominates Stephen through commands and complaints. By ordering him to pass a cushion, or to stop reading, or to stop being ‘childish’ she demonstrates her control and his weakness.
There are aspects of this relationship which are humorous, of course, and their relationship may be interpreted as light relief in contrast to the stronger themes of capitalism and religion. The depictions of her controlling behavior may also be interpreted as a means to criticize the ruling classes through satire. He is in her thrall until his father appears and this may be understand as diminishing the supposed strength and independence of the aristocracy.
2. Consider the use of humor in the play.
With the use of satire and irony, Major Barbara deflates the power of the ruling classes (which is seen in the relationship between Lady Britomart and Stephen) as well as questioning the sincerity of religious groups such as the Salvation Army.
Humour is used, then, not only for the purposes of entertainment, but also to criticize aspects of contemporary society. It deflates the power behind the ruling class with the use of ridicule and diminishment. It also questions the influence of capitalism and Christianity, which are the two main ideologies that underpin the West.
3. Analyze Barbara’s idealism as a major in the Salvation Army.
When the audience first encounter Barbara, she is a sincere believer in the faith of Christianity and in her ability to improve lives. She is characteristically jolly and robust and enjoys being evangelical in her search for souls to save.
As a major, she is part of the Army’s hierarchy and this symbolizes her commitment to her role. She prefers to turn away from the world in her idealism and it is convincing that she sees donations from her father and Bodger as blood money. She fails to see that it is only with the help of this money that she has been able to be raised in a poverty-free lifestyle and so is able to become a major. Her resignation expresses her desire to be free from what she sees as ill-earned money.
It is with the influence of her father that she comes to believe that one cannot turn one’s back on capitalism (as personified by her father and Bodger) and so becomes less idealistic and more pragmatic. Considering the play is influenced by socialist tendencies it is perhaps surprising, however, that this eponymous heroine critiques neither her faith nor her father’s view of the world. In this instance, the play may be regarded as falling short in its questioning of capitalism.
4. Compare and contrast the criticisms of religion and capitalism.
Christianity and capitalism are used as strong themes and are enacted by Major Barbara and Undershaft respectively. Both of these characters are initially driven by their dominant ideologies, but it is Undershaft’s that is seen to prevail by the end of the play. Although Barbara takes up her colors once more at this time, and so rejoins the Salvation Army, it is evident that capitalism is seen as too powerful to overcome.
There are only limited criticisms of both of these themes, but there is a telling sequence that demonstrates the connection between them. In Act II, Cusins attempts to tell Undershaft about all the good works the Salvation Army performs. Undershaft responds by countering how useful these works are in maintaining a stable, honest workforce. Although this point is pushed no further, it is clear that the play is making direct links between the obedient believer and the obedient worker. Both Christianity and capitalism are seen to thrive by keeping the masses in thrall to their needs.
5. Consider the ending of the play.
With Barbara rejoining the Salvation Army and Cusins agreeing to take over the Undershaft cannon business, it appears that both Christianity and capitalism are inevitable forces in this contemporary view of society. Although both claim to be able to use the business for their own ends, Cusins appears to be doomed to be absorbed by capitalism just as Undershaft points out. Cusins and Barbara remain idealistic in that they will be able to use religion and economics to their own advantage, as though they will remain uncontaminated by the need for profit to maintain the business.
Because of this, the ending makes no claims to realism as their decision to face capitalism in this way makes no apparent sense. It is clearly a doomed idea to anyone but the two characters. This may be regarded as an inherent weakness in the play; however, it may also be seen as plausible as Christianity and capitalism have already been seen to feed off each other in Act II especially.