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The main theme discussed in the play is the benefit of tempering idealism with some reality and realism with some idealism. Pure idealists often do not accomplish anything, for their time is occupied with unrealistic dreams; pure realists are so concerned with the world as it exists that they cannot dream of a way to make things better. In the play, Barbara's idealism is tempered with reality without destroying her dreams. She finds a new, more realistic way to channel her energies into helping others.
One of the minor themes of the play is a criticism of some religious and charitable institutions, like the Salvation Army. Shaw makes the audience (and reader) question the real purpose of such organizations, especially the ones that strive to 'save the souls' of the poor. In the play, Shaw reveals how the Salvation Army takes impoverished people and makes them dream of heaven and spiritual matters, thus diverting their attention from their poverty. Instead of fighting for their rights, they are taught to pray to God for forgiveness. This, according to the playwright, prevents revolution or any kind of workers' struggle, as the converted people are no longer angry or dissatisfied with their conditions. At the same time, the rich industrialists continue to exploit them, making huge profits from their labor.
Another minor theme of the play is the difficulty of changing any governmental system. Shaw argues that when people vote, they only change the names of the elected officials; the policies seem to always remain the same. He believes that government can only be significantly changed if old orders are destroyed with the help of weapons.
Although Major Barbara addresses several serious and controversial socio-political issues, the mood throughout the play is basically light-hearted and sparkles with Shaw's wit and play on words. The mood changes to serious and sad only in the second act, when Barbara's idealism about the Salvation Army is shattered. The serious mood, however, lasts only for a short while. In the third and final act, dialogues are once again light and witty, sometimes bordering on hilarity.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
George Bernard Shaw was a dramatist, critic, and essayist of Irish descent. He is considered to be one of the major literary figures of the early part of the twentieth century, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. Part of the realistic school of writing, Shaw disliked the romantic and sentimental Victorian style and content of the late nineteenth century. He believed that theatre should be dominated by realism and should express opinions on social and political issues.
Shaw was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856. Considerably younger than her husband, Shaw's mother, Lucinda Elizabeth, was the daughter of an Irish landowner. Shaw's father, George Carr Shaw, was the son of a failed Dublin stockbroker; he was also a weak and ineffectual man, given to drowning his sorrow in alcohol. Before the author was born, his own father had retired from his work as a civil servant and had become a corn merchant, which proved an unsuccessful venture. As a result, much of Shaw's childhood was plagued by his family's financial concerns.
Although they lived in Ireland, the Shaws were Protestants, and George Bernard was baptized in the Church of England; however, the boy was never very religious and did not enjoy attending church. He also did not enjoy his formal education, even though he attended several different schools. He started at the Wesleyan Connexional School and ended his fifteenth year at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School.
For the most part, Shaw's childhood was unhappy. By the time he was fifteen, his parents' marriage had broken up. His mother deserted her husband and went off to England to live with her two daughters. Shaw left school to support himself, working as a clerk and cashier for a firm of land agents for nearly four and a half years. During this period, Shaw read voraciously and often frequented the theatre. He was especially interested in Shakespearean plays. Shaw also had a love of music, for his father played the trombone, and his mother was an excellent singer.
In 1876, Shaw's sister Agnes died from consumption at the age of nineteen. Torn by her early death, Shaw left Ireland and joined his mother and his sister Lucy in London. His intention was to immediately become a musician or a painter; however, Shaw, an acutely shy young man, did not adjust well to the liberal London atmosphere and could not find a place in the arts community there. To support himself, he undertook a variety of odd jobs, including writing a series of articles as a music critic. From November 1876 to July 1878, Shaw wrote his articles under the pseudonym of Lee and published them in a weekly paper called The Hornet. After working for two years at the Edison and Bell Telephone Company, he left in 1880 to establish himself as a writer. As he began his writing career, Shaw was financially dependent on his mother. When his articles were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and magazines, he decided to become a novelist. Although his first novel was rejected by all the publishers, Shaw continued to write, producing four more novels between 1880 and 1883; he was also unable to find a publisher for any of them. Finally, in 1886, Shaw published his first novel, Cashel Byron's Profession, which was a popular success. A year later, in 1887, he published An Unsocial Socialist. His career as a novelist then came to an end.
During the early years of his stay in London, Shaw became interested in socialism. By 1882, he considered himself a Socialist, and he joined the Fabian Society in 1884, serving on their Executive Committee for many years. In 1884, Shaw also attended a lecture delivered by Henry George, who proposed that national revenue should be collected by a single tax on land rather than by numerous taxes on various things. This lecture proved to be a turning point in Shaw's life, shaping his future political thought.
Shaw finally obtained regular work as a journalist with the help of William Archer. From 1888 to 1890, he wrote as a music critic, under the name of "Corno di Bassetto," for The Star, the evening paper of London. Shaw also served as a drama critic for The Saturday Review for several years. His insightful articles on theater are collected in Our Theatre in the Nineties, published in three volumes in 1932.
William Archer suggested to Shaw that they collaborate in writing a play. Although the effort was begun, it was never completed. However, their frequent discussions on Ibsen resulted in Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891); it was the first book published in English on the playwright. The significance of the book lies in the fact that Shaw's attention was turned to drama. He soon began to write plays that explored the serious issues and concerns of the common people, creating dramas of "ideas".
Shaw's first effort at a play was to complete the one begun by Archer and him in 1885; called Widowers' Houses, it was originally performed in London in December of 1892 at the Royalty Theatre. A savage attack on slum landlordism, it was considered too radical for its time and met with no success. In 1893, he wrote Mrs. Warren's Profession, a play about prostitution; it was denied performance by the Examiner of Plays, who considered it immoral. The Philanderer was also written in 1893, but not produced until 1905. Shaw's next play, Arms and the Man, (1894) was a bitter attack on the romanticism of war and met with great popularity. This success was followed by Candida (1897), The Devil's Disciple (1897), The Man of Destiny (1897), Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), You Never Can Tell (1899), and Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1900). John Bulls' Other Island (1904), which tackled the Irish-English conflict, was very popular. How He Lied to Her Husband (1904) was an anti- romantic treatment of the familiar triangular situation of husband, wife, and lover. These early plays of Shaw were not well received, for the British society who attended the theater found most of them to be offensive. Shaw remained unaffected by his cold reception, for he believed that drama belonged to only two categories: the frivolous and the serious. He named serious drama as a Problem Play and believed that "only in the Problem Play is there any real drama."
Shaw's golden period as a dramatist was from 1905-1925, the time in which he wrote his best and most popular plays, many of them well-received by British society. Shaw's first great play was Man and Superman (1905), a comedy about two battling lovers. Shaw's next play Major Barbara (1905) dealt with the tragi-comic irony of the conflict between real life and the romantic imagination. The Doctor's Dilemma (1906) contained an expose against the medical profession. Getting Married (1908) was a single conversation about marriage. The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet (1909), a one-act religious tract in dramatic form, was censored for blasphemy. Misalliance (1910) contained a long debate about the relationship between parents and children. Fanny's First Play (1911) was a "pot - boiler". Androcles and the Lion (1911-1912) depicted Shaw's belief that a religious foundation is essential for human existence. The famous Pygmalion followed in 1913.
Shaw contributed four of his most serious and intellectual plays to the new theatre movement of the 1920s: Heartbreak House (1920) condemned the leisure of Europeans before the war; Back to Methuselah (1922) was an anti-Darwinian drama on Creative Evolution; Saint Joan (1923) chronicled the life and death of the famous French maid; and The Apple Cart (1929) criticized both democracy and royalty. Shaw's last plays include Too True to be Good (1932), The Millionairess (1936) and In Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939).
Shaw's social, political and religious opinions can often be found in the Prefaces to his plays, which were collected into a single volume in 1934. He also wrote several intellectual and provocative works, like Common Sense about the War (1914), How to Settle the Irish Question (1917), The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), and Everybody's Political What's What (1944).
Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, which he first refused and later accepted. He died in 1950, at the age of ninety-five. At the time of his death, Shaw was one of the best known and most respected dramatists in the world.
Shaw's plays were most significantly influenced by two factors: 1) his belief that writing should be realistic, portraying society as it is, an influence based on his admiration for Henrik Ibsen; and 2) his disapproval of capitalism, which came largely from his involvement in the Socialist movement; so striking is the socialist influence in his plays that some critics have called Shaw a propagandist. Shaw also believed that drama ought to entertain; as a result, his plays are filled with wit, humor, irony, and plays on words.
Major Barbara clearly shows both influences. It was considered a Problem Play, for it realistically dealt with social issues related to Shaw's contemporary British society. In the play, Shaw draws into question the validity of religious and charitable organizations, such as the Salvation Army; he also ridicules the superficial family ties of the rich where nothing is sacred except money. Finally, the play has a Socialist leaning, for it questions capitalism, especially the exploitation of the worker by large industrialists. The play owes its origins to Shaw's personal experience, for he often observed the girls of the Salvation Army conducting meetings and judged them to be hypocritical.
Major Barbara was written in 1905. At this time, Europe was divided into two hostile camps: those favoring war and those opposed to it. War between Russia and Japan had already broken out. Secret military alliances between other countries were causing a volatile situation, and Britain was preparing itself by becoming armed to the hilt. In the play, Mr. Undershaft has appropriately made his fortune from the munitions industry, for he owns a factory that manufactures guns, canons, and submarines.
In England, the common laborer was also being badly exploited, due to the industrialization process. Horrible working conditions, low wages, and large-scale layoffs were the order of the day. As a result labor movements and worker unrest were widespread. This background is seen in the play, as the exploited and laid-off workers come into the Salvation Army Shelter.