Major Barbara: Theme Analysis
As the trader in arms, Undershaft epitomizes and embodies the influence of capitalism in Western society. Curiously for a play which questions this economic system, Undershaft is the most honest of the characters as he regales others in his views that poverty is the worse crime. This may be seen as a weakness in the play, as he makes millions off the backs of others (as Shirley points out), but it also may be regarded as deeply ironic.
Capitalism is undoubtedly criticised, and yet it is also viewed as ultimately unavoidable. This becomes apparent when Barbara agrees with Cusins’ decision to take on the role of the latest Andrew Undershaft foundling. Through these two characters, it is posited that it is impossible to turn away from capitalism (as represented by Bodger, Undershaft and other millionaires). Instead, we are told that the only practical way to challenge it is from a position that accepts it as inevitable.
Major Barbara and her idealistic evangelism is one of the play’s strongest themes. Although it stops short of ridiculing her idealism, Christianity, and the Salvation Army in particular, is criticized for its dependence on hypocritical thinking. This is most evident at the beginning of Act II when Price and Rummy discuss their false confessions and how necessary they are for their upkeep and for that of the Salvation Army.
There is also a parallel made between Christianity and capitalism when it is pointed out by Undershaft that both require obedience. The good Christian, he argues, makes an excellent employee. He or she would be sober, hard working and accepting of authority (rather than prepared to instigate a revolution).
Class distinctions and snobbery run throughout the play and are ridiculed with the use of satire. Lady Britomart, for example, is depicted as a hypocritical unthinking snob. Her son, Stephen, also believes himself to be deserving of the well-placed position he has at the top of the class hierarchy. It takes his father (who is a working-class foundling) to point out his weaknesses and lack of ability.
It is only by virtue of his position of gentleman that Stephen claims to be best placed to work in politics. Intelligence, knowledge and insight are seen to be lacking, but this is of no concern to him as he has the character of an English gentleman. Although he is a target for ridicule, such beliefs in birthrights have been and still are sufficient requirements for so-called gentleman to be given the power they desire. The class distinctions in English society are questioned and pilloried, therefore, through the depiction of Stephen and his mother.