Major Barbara: Act 2 Part 1
Act II begins in the yard of the West Ham shelter of the Salvation Army on a cold January morning. A man and woman, who are ‘much down on their luck’, are eating at a table. The man is young and unemployed and is described as ‘sharp enough to be capable of anything in reason except honesty or altruistic considerations of any kind’. The woman looks 60, but is probably 45 and is a ‘commonplace old bundle of poverty’. We are told that if they were rich they would be ‘numb and miserable’, but instead the cold stings them into vivacity.
He tells her he is a painter and she is sceptical and asks why he is not working. He gives her four reasons: he is intelligent and is able to see through the capitalists and they do not like this; an intelligent being needs his due share of happiness, so he drinks when he gets the chance; he stands by his class and leaves half his job for his fellow workers; finally, he does as the capitalists do and pinches what he can get his hands on. He argues, ‘in a proper state of society I am sober, industrious and honest: in Rome, so to speak, I do as the Romans do.’
She asks his name and he tells her he is called Bronterre O’Brien Price and is usually called Snobby Price for short. Her name is Mrs Rummy Mitchens (short for Romola). He deduces that she is a respectable married woman ‘pretending to be a bad ‘un’ so the Salvation Army will help her. She agrees that this is true and asks what else she can do other than starve. She highlights how confessing to sins she has not committed helps the Salvation Army raise money and she likes to give the ‘lasses’ a bit of credit. He also knows what ‘they’ are like and will tell them how he ‘blasphemed and gambled and wopped my poor old mother’. Rummy is shocked by this, but he tells her he did not really do this as his mother used to hit him. He is going to confess to the lie that she taught him prayers, though, and he would get drunk and hit her. Rummy says it is unfair for women as the men’s lies are as big as the women’s, but the men can announce theirs at meetings. The women have to whisper their ‘confessions’ to one lady at a time.
A Salvation Army ‘lass’ of 18, called Jenny Hill, comes in the yard gate with Peter Shirley, who is described as ‘a half-hardened, half worn-out elderly man, weak with hunger’. She hurries to fetch him food and Price tells him to ‘buck up’. Shirley informs him he is only 46 and is as good as he ever was; he just needs threepennorth of hair dye to cover his gray hair. He has worked since he was 13 and feels he has now been thrown into the gutter for a younger man. Jenny brings him food and he begins to cry like a child. He looks at it ravenously, but does not touch it and says he has never taken anything (charity) before. Jenny encourages him by saying the Lord sent it and adds that the Lord was not above taking bread from his friends. She tells him he can pay them back when he finds a job if he so wishes. With this, he starts eating.
A man named Bill Walker appears and he looks at Jenny malevolently. She retreats, but he intercepts her and accuses her of taking away his girl. He tells her to fetch her and will start on her (Jenny) if she does not. He then pushes her towards the shelter and she falls. Price tells him to go easy and Walker stands over him threateningly and asks him to put up his hands. Rummy runs over and scolds him and Walker swings his hand in her face. Jenny reprimands him and he pulls her hair violently. She screams and asks the others to fetch Major Barbara; Walker punches Jenny in the face and tells Shirley to eat his food.
Shirley stands up to him and threatens him in return. He also calls him a young whelp and asks if he is not satisfied with taking work from his elders and so comes here to bully others. He then asks if he would dare hit his son-in-law’s brother, Todger Fairmile (who can box and wrestle), and Walker subsides at this. However, when Shirley sits back down, Walker taunts him by calling him a beggar. Shirley bursts into tears and tells him it will happen to him one day. As Bill goes to enter the shelter to get ‘his girl’, Shirley warns him the major is the granddaughter of the Earl of Stevenage. This information checks Walker and makes him uneasy and he sits down when Barbara comes over.
The conversation between Price and Rummy at the beginning of Act II offers a criticism of the Salvation Army’s practice of using so-called confessions to extract donations from the public. The help this organization gives to those who have been thwarted by capitalism is made evident, but it is also seen to be worthy of reproach for hypocrisy. By depending on such confessions, the money raised may be seen to be tainted by lies. The willingness to believe the likes of Price and Rummy may also be seen to highlight the class divide between staff and recipients at the Salvation Army as well as demonstrating the naivety of characters such as Jenny Hill. The preference for looking to the individual for mistakes they have made, rather than criticizing capitalism, also suggests a short-sighted approach that is inherent in many charitable groups.