… which side was it you said you’re on? …
The audience — myself included — stood and applauded with pleasure at the end of Major Barbara, but the applause was more for the laughter and sheer theatrical delight that came earlier in the play than for the confusing ending. First, toward the end, you think you’re missing something and then you realize it’s not quite making sense. No fault of the performers who were perfect throughout, but Shaw just did not fully resolve this play. But he gives you much to enjoy and think about.
Barbara Undershaft is an idealistic major in the Salvation Army, committed to saving souls while, on the other hand, her rich, estranged father, Andrew Undershaft is the world’s largest manufacturer of weapons for real armies to kill people — bigger than the government, he is the government. Mrs. Undershaft, his wife with whom he’s totally out of touch, is concerned that their two now grown two daughters are about to marry poor men and, since her son’s useless for making money, she invites the great weapons maker over to solicit appropriate fatherly involvement — money.
Andrew Undershaft hasn’t seen his children for so long he can’t tell which is which but he takes a liking to the feisty, idealistic Barbara. Salvation Army Major that she is, she determines to save his soul. They strike a deal: he’ll visit her Salvation Army shelter and in return she’ll visit his munitions establishment. She’ll convert him, she thinks. Only that’s not what happens.
Next day he visits and she learns through the events of the day that, even in the lofty enterprise of feeding the hungry while saving their souls, money talks. In fact, with the shelter faced with the possibility of closing down for lack of resources, it’s essential, even if the donors are manufacturers of the hard liquor that keeps the down-and-outers at the shelter drunk, or of weapons. Her Salvation Army fellow workers go with the flow, glad to be able to continue their work of doing good wherever the money comes from. Barbara’s moral compass, however, doesn’t include compromise of any kind. She is disillusioned. She faces despair.
What’s funny about that?
How can the playwright continue the play which has the tenor of a comedy when he has his heroine lose all that means most to her?
At this point, Shaw pulls Barbara, his strong main character, out of the main action. She merely goes along on the promised family excursion to the weapons factory which, improbably, turns out to be an idyllic workers’ socialist paradise, though one at risk of exploding.
Here, since Barbara’s abdicated, her intelligent but poor Greek scholar fiancé, Adolphus, takes on the job of arguing with — to the extent there’s any disagreement — Andrew Undershaft, as Barbara had done earlier: With specious rationales on all sides, Adolphus is readily persuaded to the point of view of his wealthy father-in-law to be. For those who share Adolphus’ knowledge of Greek literature, it’s as if Antigone stepped away from arguing with Creon and left it up to Ismene. Why does Shaw let the weapons maker off the hook so easily? The upshot of the argument is that Adolphus is co-opted, and what looks like cynicism hastily and fuzzily becomes “realism.” What was that? How did that happen? I wasn’t the only person in the audience trying to figure it out. As Barbara is left to stare wordlessly into space, I wondered if her disillusionment is too tragic for Shaw’s comedy.
The character of Barbara, at the heart of the play, is iconic: she’s strong, willful, intelligent, but with an ideological rigidity that runs smack into reality and lost illusions — and Hannah Cabell captures the determination, vulnerability and charm of the lovely young woman.
Dan Daily plays the weapons manufacturer like a robust, twinkling Santa Claus, as Shaw perversely wrote him — the man who solves problems, brings happiness and makes wishes come true. Huh? That’s right, this is not the devious and culpable weapons manufacturer of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
The cast is all-over excellent and Shaw’s clever turns and wit sparkle. The glossy, black set is dazzling: it doesn’t suggest the venues where the episodes take place — The library of the Undershaft’s home, the Salvation Army shelter, or among the high-explosive sheds of Undershaft’s weapons arsenal — but its stunning irrelevance is in harmony with the absurd humor of improbable events with which Shaw digs himself out of his playwright’s dilemma.
Major Barbara plays at The Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through December 14, 2014.