Friday, August 16, 2013

Shaw’s Major Barbara at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

“Major Barbara”, currently showing at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, is not a must-see performance. However it has some very good performances, and, despite being over 100 years old, many still relevant themes.

In a moment of almost childlike Marxist didacticism, Paul McGann, playing the splendidly saturnine arms manufacturer Mr Undershaft, tells the audience that European governments do his bidding. Written less than 10 years before World War 1, the play’s author, Irishman George Bernard Shaw, is celebrated for his apparent power of prophecy.

Yet GBS’ more telling, and more pertinent observations for today's audience, concerns liberals self-righteously raging at the world’s many inequities. Undershaft, a man born of East End poverty who married into an Earl’s family, is the play’s only morally uncompromised character. GBS enjoys giving him many of the play’s wittiest and most perceptive lines. Undershaft’s morality is based on a gospel of material salvation that only money can bring. Socialists of the time scared this businessman by also preaching material solutions to soulless drudgery. However his daughter, “Major” Barbara, played by Claire Dunn, is rather less threatening. She sees the Salvation Army as the surest solution to want: bread and treacle in exchange for a (declared) devotion to God.

The least satisfying part of the play is Barbara’s naive, soul-searching, purity amidst more worldly compromises. At times hammy in actualisation, the difficulties of her role are only compounded. Sadly, but inevitably, it is Barbara’s declamations that end the play. Her “realism” has led her to embrace the pragmatic (or cynical) Adolpus, her fiancé, in his apparently reluctant decision to agree to run (and one day inherit) Undershaft’s business. Her reasoning is that she can then focus on converting less materially-needy souls at his factory. This version of changing the system from within smacks of the same simple-minded wisdom that Lady Britomart (Barbara’s mother, wonderfully played by Eleanor Methven)  elsewhere dismisses as typifying the insights of The Times newspaper.

The most witty, incisive, and electric dialogue is that between Undershaft and Adolphus in the second act. The former, ironically perhaps, often carries the audience in his deployment of well-informed cynicism against the almost puritan pleadings of his soon to be son in law whose version of changing the system from within leads him to imagine that he can make the arms trade more moral. The final line of the play is Undershaft saying to Adolphus, a man of normally more leisurely hours, that he will see him at the factory at 6 am.

Undershaft’s signature claim that only a willingness to kill can change anything, whereas voting only changes the names of cabinet members, suggests a utilitarian use for arms. Eleven years after this play was written, WB Yeats observed that in Ireland a terrible beauty had been born. In Egypt a willingness to kill, or more likely be killed, is convulsing that country, although the most likely outcome is regressive.

This is an antidote, perhaps, to Undershaft’s contempt for the naïve parliamentarianism expressed by his son, Stephen. Either way, “Major Barbara” speaks straightforwardly and often entertainingly to many complex and still contemporary issues.

3 comments:

Dubai Nikolai said...

A friend wrote this:

Bravo! Studied this for 'A' Level 44 years ago (!) but have never seen it performed. Saw a play at the Royal Court a few years back which reminded me strongly of it but can't for the life of me remember what it was. Not memorable anyway.

Nature Strikes Back said...

not bad....

Nature Strikes Back said...
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