Major Barbara, perhaps the most significant work of literature to focus on a character from the Salvation Army, appeared in the West End in 1905, soon enough after the conclusion of the Boer War that the taste undoubtedly remained in the collective British mouth. By the time the film, featuring a young Rex Harrison, hit the screen, the Western world had passed through one devastating war and had entered into another. And now, nearly seventy years later, the themes of war, industry, religion, and class that Shaw explored in the play seem just as relevant even if the characters speak with what seems archaic diction.
Were I feeling defensive as a Christian literary critic, I might point out that Shaw sets up his characters’ fragile and fictitious faiths in a most self-serving manner. Shaw’s mouthpieces, like Plato’s, tend to win their arguments. It’s relatively easy when you get to write both sides of the argument. Still, Shaw’s problems with religion–or maybe more accurately, the religious–are reasonable and realistic if not universal. The Christian reader might squirm at Shaw’s depiction of the Salvation Army, its adherents, and those it seeks to aid, but perhaps most because Shaw captures many realistic aspects of their psychology.
When Undershaft, Major Barbara’s arms-producer father, hears his son’s self-righteous assertion of his birthright as an Englishman, the knowledge of right and wrong, he unleashes a delicious attack that any person of faith would be wise to consider.
Oh, that’s everybody’s birthright. Look at poor little Jenny Hill, the Salvation lassie! she would think you were laughing at her if you asked her to stand up in the street and teach grammar or geography or mathematics or even drawingroom dancing; but it never occurs to her to doubt that she can teach morals and religion. You are all alike, you respectable people. You can’t tell me the bursting strain of a ten-inch gun, which is a very simple matter; but you all think you can tell me the bursting strain of a man under temptation. You daren’t handle high explosives; but you’re all ready to handle honesty and truth and justice and the whole duty of man, and kill one another at that game. What a country! what a world!
Is Barbara Undershaft truly a woman of faith, someone who has encountered Christ and dedicated herself to spreading the Gospel for the rest of her life? Does she turn from the Salvation Army out of genuine moral scruples, unwilling to participate in an organization that will take money from distillers and arms dealers? Or is she simply convincing herself of those scruples in order to move her center of operation from the unpleasantness of the East End docks to the far more pleasant environs of the Undershaft munitions works?
Perhaps more than its questions about governance or faith or conversion or the interplay between war and industry, Major Barbara raises intriguing questions about motivation. How can we truly know ourselves and why we do what we do? Is every act of charity and self-denial actually a cloaked act of greed and self-interest, designed to advance the actor’s own interests, even if only in his or her own self-perception?
As much as I detest Shaw’s antipathy toward Christianity, his socialism, his embrace of eugenics, and his long-time feud with Chesterton, I have to admire the insight that he provides to the human mind.