Premiering in 1905, George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara
follows a privileged and idealistic young woman serving in the Salvation Army, who is disillusioned by how her wealthy father treats impoverished Londoners. A commercial success, screenwriters adapted the play into a 1940s movie. An Irish playwright, political activist, and critic, Shaw won the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature. He held contentious political views, and he detested organized religion. Some critics claim that, aside from Shakespeare, Shaw is the most significant dramatist who wrote in the English language.
The first act takes place in a house owned by Lady Britomart, a middle-aged woman with a sharp temper and narrow-minded views. Not afraid to speak her mind, she assumes that she is always right. Her son, twenty-five-year-old Stephen, is her long-suffering companion.
As the play opens, Lady Britomart calls Stephen into her drawing room for a family meeting. Sick of managing the family’s financial affairs, she thinks Stephen should take over, believing a man should be the head of the family, and Stephen must learn some responsibility. Stephen doesn’t want to take over. He knows that his mother is more than capable of managing things herself and that, if he takes over, he will endure constant criticism and micromanagement.
Lady Britomart explains that Stephen’s sisters need husbands. Unlikely to secure rich partners, Stephen’s job is to ensure his sisters receive enough money to support them each year. Stephen doesn’t know where to start. Lady Britomart tells him to ask his father, Andrew Undershaft, for advice.
Stephen doesn’t like Andrew much, because he disinherited Stephen from the family business. It is the Undershaft family tradition to adopt a poor orphan child and give him or her everything. Lady Britomart detests Andrew, too, but she knows that he will give his daughters money if they need it. Reluctantly, Stephen agrees to see Andrew.
Meanwhile, Stephen’s sisters, Barbara and Sarah, arrive. Sarah is very conservative and quiet. Barbara, however, is boisterous and idealistic. She serves in the Salvation Army and she passionately defends poor people. She doesn’t like Andrew much, either. Andrew runs a munitions factory. He makes weapons for war and conquest. Barbara thinks that he is hypocritical because he says that he defends poor people, but wars only benefit the rich.
The doorbell rings. Lady Britomart announces that she invited Andrew over for tea. This gives Stephen an opportunity to speak with him. Andrew doesn’t even recognize his family at first. He doesn’t know that Stephen is his son, because he hasn’t seen him in years. Barbara chastises Andrew, saying she finds it difficult to share a room with him.
Andrew wants to resolve things with Barbara. He wants to understand why Barbara dedicates her life to poor people. He says that, if she promises to visit him at the factory, he will visit the Salvation Army base she works from. Barbara agrees just so Andrew will stop talking to her. Meanwhile, Stephen flounders because he doesn’t know how to ask Andrew for help.
The second act takes place in a Salvation Army shelter in West Ham, London. A man complains about the meal he has been served because it is plain and small. He knows he will be hungry again soon. Other people wander in from the street, looking for a meal. They don’t need the Salvation Army, but they pretend they do because they love the female workers. They con women like Barbara into feeding them.
Barbara shows Andrew the shelter. She explains that they are running low on funds. Andrew says he will donate money if she admits she needs his help. Before Barbara answers, an Army commissioner says that a whiskey distiller wants to help. The commissioner explains that, if both Andrew and the distiller donate money, they can save the shelter from financial ruin.
Barbara raises ethical questions. She says that the distiller promotes alcoholism. This is against Army values. The commissioner doesn’t care because they need the money. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from. Andrew warns Barbara that she must stop taking things so seriously. Unsurprisingly, Barbara has no intention of taking Andrew’s advice. She is not interested in visiting his weapons factory, either.
The final act begins back at Lady Britomart’s mansion. Barbara sits quietly in the corner, reading a book. She isn’t wearing her Salvation Army uniform. Sarah’s fiancé, Lomax, questions her, and she explains that she quit. She cannot work for a hypocritical organization anymore.
Meanwhile, Andrew appears. Stephen still hasn’t asked him about financial support. Lady Britomart sees that Stephen is hopeless. She decides to ask Andrew herself. He promises to look after his daughters. Andrew gives Barbara’s fiancé the family business. It is unclear what Stephen’s future is. Barbara thinks her fiancé is ridiculous for accepting this position, and she returns to the Salvation Army.