Monday, November 2, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MAJOR BARBARA” by George Bernard Shaw (first performed 1905; first published 1907)
Like most people who bother to think of him, I have a very mixed attitude towards George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Once upon a time, and especially in his old age when he had become the “Ancient of Days”, the Anglo-Irish playwright (and Nobel Prize-winner of 1925) was regarded as a colossus of literature. But his stock began to fall almost as soon as he died. Does he now feature in many university courses of literature? I do not know – though I do remember that when I was an undergraduate forty years ago, we were pulled unwillingly through one of his more obtuse plays, Man and Superman, in Stage Two English. Presumably even in the 1970s he was still regarded as a giant of theatre to whom undergraduates had to be introduced.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michael Holroyd was still trying to make this case in his three-volume biography of Shaw. I read Holroyd’s triple-decker with pleasure as a compendium of political, social and literary history, but I was not convinced. Holroyd seemed to be trying to revive a corpse.
Of course GBS can’t be dismissed with a one-liner, even if GBS himself dismissed many complex problems with one-liners. Pygmalion and some others of his plays still hold the stage and please audiences, which is the only true measure of a playwright’s durability. Even people who haven’t read him or seen his plays performed have at least heard of him (which is true of most authors of any fame, I guess) and some of his one-liners are still quoted.
I have to admit, too, that I’ve had quite a few encounters with him in my life.
In my days as a high-school English teacher, I at various times got classes to study Saint Joan (a success with the kids – especially the girls) and The Devil’s Disciple (bad choice and not a success). I directed a production of Arms and the Man at one school, and a production of the one-act-er The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet at another. I remember spending many hours, about thirty years ago, following the whole text of Shaw’s flatulent (and very long) late effort Back to Methuselah, when it was given a radio broadcast. I also remember being in Dublin fifteen years ago with my wife and one of our sons, when the fiftieth anniversary of Shaw’s death was being commemorated with a revival of some of his plays. We took the tour of Shaw’s birthplace, saw a very jolly production of Arms and the Man at the Gate Theatre and a surprisingly gutsy production of his early play about prostitution Mrs Warren’s Profession at the Abbey Theatre. To this I could add seeing stage, TV and film productions of many other Shaw plays – from an unexpected revival of Shaw’s heavy-handed comedy You Never Can Tell at Auckland’s late Mercury Theatre to a doleful TV production of Heartbreak House to Dirk Bogarde suffering prettily in a film version of The Doctor’s Dilemma.
I tell you all this just to reassure you that when I make big generalisations about Shaw, I am not speaking from complete ignorance.
But I am still left with the question – why has his stock (with intellectuals, critics, cultural “gatekeepers” – and the general public) fallen so low in the 65 years since he died?
Here are a few of my suggestions.
First, there is the fact that even if he believed he was a disciple of Ibsen, and was breaking away from the old “well-made play”, his plays still have a very old-fashioned style and structure (usually a neat three acts hiding behind the proscenium arch). Exposition. Crisis. Resolution. This was already becoming mouldy decades before he died. He might have lived to 1950, but his dramaturgy was stuck in about 1910.
Second, there is too often a glibness to his plays. Problems are solved with neat one-liners or with set-piece speeches. Shaw can produce interesting and complex characters (Liza Doolittle, with her desire to be a lady, but with her growing realization that Henry Higgins fails to treat her even as a human being). But then he solves their problems with rhetoric rather than character development (Liza Doolittle in the last act neatly tells Higgins where he’s gone wrong and how she wishes to assert herself – it’s not like the ending of the musical version My Fair Lady, folks.). Instead of watching a drama, we often feel we’ve wandered into a debating society where ideas are bandied about rather than human beings explored. And, of course, the best speeches are always given to the characters who are Shaw’s mouthpieces.
Finally, and perhaps most uncomfortably, there are Shaw’s limited and dated ideas. There’s nothing wrong with being a Fabian socialist, but it does become very dodgy when mingled with Nietzschean “Superman” worship. Just as he often wraps up his plots with rhetoric, so does Shaw look to the Big Men, the Napoleons (The Man of Destiny) the Caesars (Caesar and Cleopatra) and the Ubermensch himself (Man and Superman) to solve society’s problems. He has, in effect, swallowed the nonsense about the enlightened despot, the benevolent dictator, and this adds up to a naïve worship of bullies and of raw power itself. (See his play The Apple Cart). Small wonder that in his old age he was one of those who propagandised for Stalin. Add to this his eugenics, and the witticisms seem to be heading down a very dark path indeed.
Yet, forsooth, he was a wit and did have things to say and could be engaging in his work.
Which – to sighs of impatience from you for having to wait so long – at last brings me to Major Barbara. This was another of those plays that I once taught, with some profit, to high-school kids. It is also a play I have seen a number of times in performance – again, a good production at Auckland’s long-gone Mercury Theatre and a number of viewings of Gabriel Pascal’s old film version.
Why do I pick Major Barbara?
Because for me it is the epitome of the best and the worst of Shaw. I do not think that, for polemical wit, Shaw ever wrote a better scene than Act Two of Major Barbara (the Salvation Army Shelter scene). And I do not think that a Shaw play ever ended with such a deadly clunk as Act Three of Major Barbara. In this one play, Shaw shows his strengths as a dramatist, and then kills it all with debating society cleverness.
To orient you.
Act One is a bland piece of exposition. In her drawing room Lady Britomart Undershaft, long estranged from her husband the millionaire arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft, explains to her son Stephen the family fortunes. She needs money to marry off her two daughters and she can get it only by asking the husband whom she has not seen for years. Of one of her daughters, Sarah, and her inane fiancé Charles, I shall say nothing more. They are basically in the play to provide comic relief with their inanities, just as the pompous Stephen is. However the other daughter, Barbara, is the heart of the piece. Barbara has taken it into her head to join the Salvation Army and is engaged to an improvident young Professor of Greek, Adolphus Cusins. (A big laugh for the London audience of 1905 – Cusins was very obviously modelled on Shaw’s friend the classicist Gilbert Murray, who offered Shaw suggestions on how the play should develop. The joke is quite a dead one now.) After the preliminaries, the play gets going only when Andrew Undershaft enters. He at once forms a strong bond with Barbara. They have the same hearty wit and strong will and firmness of opinions, even if their opinions differ. Undershaft listens respectfully to what Barbara has to say about the Salvation Army, but suggests he, as an industrialist millionaire, has a better way to save men’s souls. So the play’s central debate is set up. Will money and power do more than religion and charity for the good of humanity? Undershaft agrees to visit Barbara’s place of work so long as she will visit his place of work. We breathe a sigh of relief as the act ends. It has all been somewhat mechanical, as such lengthy expositions always are, but it has been necessary and at least we know we are going somewhere.
So to Act Two, which I persist in believing is the best piece of theatre Shaw ever wrote. It is a horrible, cold winter morning at the West Ham Salvation Army Shelter. The scene opens with two Cockney wretches, Snobby Price and Rummy Mitchens. They are discussing how (in order to get a feed) they have only pretended to be great sinners, so that the Salvation lasses can have the pleasant illusion that they have “saved” them. Shaw is at once suggesting that charity given by religious organizations is always a sham for the recipient. An enthusiastic, young Salvation Army lass, Jenny Hill, enters with a poor, broken-down old workman, Peter Shirley, who is miserable about having to accept charity. So, says Shaw, people are degraded by receiving charity.
So far, so amusing. But it hots up when a young Cockney thug called Bill Walker comes bursting in. He wants to claim back his girlfriend and give her the thrashing of her life because she has dared to run away from him and hide out with the Salvation Army. In his anger, he punches and hurts the first Salvationist he sees – Jenny Hill. Enter, calmly and imperiously, Major Barbara. The way she handles Bill Walker is Shaw at his best. By dealing with Bill Walker in a brisk, professional fashion, Barbara totally deflates him. Better still, she starts his conscience nagging at him by making him realise that he has done wrong in his violence. We admire Barbara. She has great psychological insight. She has a great way with words. She is an impressive figure. In this encounter, she is a role any real actress would crave to act. Yet there is a subtle irony undercutting Barbara’s handling of Bill Walker. In a way, we are aware there is something immensely unfair about it. After all, Barbara is a very well-bred, well-educated and articulate young woman, protected by her status as an earl’s grand-daughter, while Bill is a poor, inarticulate thug. This is a contest of unequals. As Barbara packs off Bill to find his girlfriend in another Salvation Army shelter, we almost feel sorry for him.
Andrew Undershaft and Adolphus Cusins have entered while Barbara is dealing with Bill, and Undershaft has had the opportunity to see her at work. Cusins is in Salvation Army uniform. In an amusing aside Undershaft exposes Cusins’ Salvationism as a sham. Cusins has joined up only because he is in love with Barbara and has a vague idea of the Salvation Army as a joyful, Dionysian religion, unlike the gloomy evangelical churches. More to the point, Undershaft begins a serious debate with Barbara. Says Undershaft, the Salvation Army is all very well, but it merely produces the type of dependent, submissive people whom factory owners such as he like to direct and exploit. Besides, it works by bribing people with charity and the promise of heaven. Says Barbara, the Salvation Army works selflessly to help the poor and it does save souls. Says Undershaft, the Salvation Army can be bought by powerful people with money. Says Barbara, the Salvation Army is not for sale.
Whereupon two things happen.
A crestfallen Bill Walker comes back, having been thumped and defeated by his former girlfriend’s new man. Bill offers to pay a few pence for the damage he has done. Barbara virtuously rejects his money. The Salvation Army is not to be bought, she says. Besides, she wants his soul, not his money.
Enter a Salvation Army commissioner, Mrs Baines. For lack of funds, there had been the threat that Salvation Army shelters will have to close down. But, rejoices Mrs Baines, a millionaire has generously offered a large cheque on the proviso that somebody else matches it. Barbara is horrified to discover that the millionaire in question is a whisky distiller – in her view, exactly the type of person who causes many of the social ills that the Salvation Army has to clean up. At once Andrew Undershaft, the armaments millionaire, sits down and writes the matching cheque. Mrs Baines accepts it thankfully and she marches off (with Cusins in tow beating a big drum) to a great Salvation Army meeting to celebrate.
Now Barbara is devastated. The Salvation Army can be bought after all. Worse, it can be bought by those who promote drink and war. In the play’s climax Barbara, in tears, takes off her Salvationist badge and pins it to her father, saying that he has, after all, paid for it. Remembering how his modest offering was refused, while the millionaire’s money was gratefully accepted, Bill Walker sneers sarcastically “What price salvation now?” With these words ringing in Barbara’s ear, the curtain falls.
This is an invigorating act. Of course it is polemical. Neatly, Shaw has argued that charities run by religious organizations are at best the fabled ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff. They might help some individuals but they don’t, he says, really deal with the essential problem of why there is poverty in the first place. Worse, by doling out charity while accepting donations from the rich and powerful, they really help to perpetuate the injustices of society, even if this is not their intention. Implicitly, they are part of the status quo. For those who share such views, this is the whole point of the play – a diatribe against both religion and charity. (It is no accident that Major Barbara was much admired by a Marxist like Bertolt Brecht and seems to have been part of the inspiration for Brecht’s own Salvation Army lass play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards).
I can swallow these simplifications, however, because they are put across with such wit and real dramatic flair in Act Two. The act does have some of the verbal jousting of a debate (Barbara and Undershaft; Undershaft and Cusins), but it is also buoyed by its real and raucous humour, its contrasts of colourful wretches, even if they are Shavian personifications of ideas, and especially by its conclusion, which leaves its protagonist with a real problem.
So we sit up expectantly wondering how it will all end.
At which point Act Three begins and it all goes horribly wrong.
I will not try your patience with a detailed synopsis. Suffice it to say that the first half of Act Three has the whole Undershaft family gathered together in the drawing room we saw in the opening act. The matter of the Undershaft inheritance (which I haven’t discussed here) is worked out, with Shaw finding a very silly contrivance – dependent on a very dated joke – to make Adolphus Cusins eligible to inherit Andrew Undershaft’s business. In this act, Andrew Undershaft takes to lecturing on his philosophy of life. The manufacture of advanced armaments is acceptable because the more horrible war becomes, the more people will strive to abolish it. (Over a century later, we may insert a hollow laugh at this point.) Heavy industry provides jobs, and therefore does more than charity does to help the poor. Cusins, who has given away the pretence of being a Salvationist, accepts all this enthusiastically. So to the concluding scene where the ensemble visit Undershaft’s armaments factory, with model workers’ village attached. Running about looking at it (with us having to suspend our disbelief that Barbara has never considered her father’s place of work before), Barbara and Cusins are both overwhelmed by the truth of Andrew Undershaft’s philosophy. Here is the embodiment of Undershaft’s ideas. Happy workers, regular work, the dignity of labour, a model for the rational organisation of society and hence no need for doled-out charity. Barbara has been downcast since her confidence in the Salvation Army was shattered. But now her spirits rise. She will “re-join the colours”, and see how many souls she can save in an environment where people are not degraded by being dependent on charity. She will join Cusins in running Undershaft’s factory. “I have got rid of the bribe of charity. I have got rid of the bribe of heaven,” she says. “Let God’s work be done for its own sake.”
What is so bad about Act Three? For one thing, it is so unconvincing in terms of characterisation. Having been a strong-willed, intelligent, witty and forthright young woman in the first two acts, Barbara suddenly becomes a mere puppet waiting to submit to her father’s superior reasoning, and with nary a solid argument to oppose him. This gives us time to reflect on how shallow her earlier enthusiasm must have been in the first place. For another, it is all conveyed in talk, talk, talk – or rather lecture, lecture, lecture from Andrew Undershaft, especially when he presents his “gospel” to his family. At one point, Shaw attempts to counter this obvious criticism with a weak joke where Lady Britomart rebukes her husband for his speechmaking. But this doesn’t cancel the objection. The dreaded Shavian debating-society rhetoric goes to work and the play falls down dead as mutton. And so much is simply unresolved – at least in terms of the clash of ideas that we were promised. As a whole, Major Barbara is a great build-up to a big let-down.
Quite apart from the dull thud it all makes as drama, let’s also note the stupidity of so many of Shaw’s ideas. The perverse defence of the armaments business is sheer impertinence. Once again, Shaw’s supposed plan to dignify labour and raise the proletariat from the degradation of charity depends upon the largesse of a Big Man – Undershaft. It is not democracy that Shaw is really promoting. It is paternalism. So once again roll on Nietszche and the Superman.
Above all, though, the attack on charity is based on the assumption that somehow society can be organised in such a way that charity will become unnecessary. This might have seemed a reasonable assumption in 1905 when the “welfare state” was just beginning to be organised. But over a century later, with the vagaries of economic organisation in the Western world, and especially with the rise of neo-liberalism in the last forty years, it rings as hollow as Shaw’s witticisms about the armaments trade. I am left with the impression of a play, which gives ammunition only to supercilious people who mock charity because they wish to belittle those who actually get their hands dirty in helping the poor. “We’re not like those silly religious people who give out piecemeal charity. We’ve got a far better plan to improve the world. Meanwhile we can sit on our hands and do nothing as we await the revolution…. Or the Big Man who will solve all our problems….”
So, having told you what I verily believe is the best scene Shaw ever wrote, I say farewell to GBS. What a witty man. What a great talent for farce and one-liners. What engaging caricatures. And what tedious speechmaking. What facetious debating society rhetoric. What inability to resolve the big issues he deals with. And what a congeries of foolish, half-baked ideas.
Major Barbara gives you the essence of Shaw.
Cinematic Footnote: Though I have read this play many times, and though I have seen a good stage production of it, whenever I think of Major Barbara, I think of Wendy Hiller in the eponymous role in Gabriel Pascal’s 1941 film version. Pascal was the Hungarian chap whose whole film career was based on the fact that he had managed to persuade old GBS to let him have the film rights to his plays. Pascal scored a palpable hit with his excellent production, directed by Anthony Asquith, of Pygmalion in 1938 (Wendy Hiller as Liza Doolittle; Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins). He did pretty well with his film of Major Barbara three years later. But the rest of his film-producing career was a bit of a train wreck, including the disastrously expensive flop Caesar and Cleopatra in 1945 and a silly and amateurish film of Androcles and the Lion a few years later.
I watched Major Barbara once again (on Youtube) ahead of writing this notice. Wendy Hiller is beautiful in her brisk, hearty English way and in her tearful despair at the end of the Salvation Army shelter scene. Rex Harrison does a pretty good turn as the ironic Adolphus Cusins (very similar to Leslie Howard’s playing of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion). Robert Newton rolls his eyes and chews the scenery as the thuggish Bill Walker. And there is interesting casting in the minor roles – a particularly greasy and sardonic Emlyn Williams as Snobby Price; a very young Deborah Kerr as Jenny Hill; a bossy Sybil Thorndike as Mrs Baines. Most surprising casting is Robert Morley as Andrew Undershaft. He was already Mr Pomposity. But he was only 32 when the film was made, so he had to be hidden under bushy grey beard and hair to appear convincingly as the father of an actress who was only three years younger then he was.
The film wisely “opens things up” a bit. There’s a long opening section (not in the play) where Cusins first meets and courts Barbara. We actually see Bill Walker being beaten up by his rival in love rather than merely hearing about it. There’s a big Salvation Army celebration staged in the Albert Hall. Just as wisely, most of Undershaft’s speechifying is cut from Act Three. What is substituted, however, is just as bad – a long, long sequence of Barbara and Cusins gawking enthusiastically at Undershaft’s factory and model town, which must have seemed ultra-modern in 1941 but now looks positively primitive (apart from being obviously models and painted glass shots). For all the cinematisation, the last part of the film is just as much of a let-down as the last third of the play, leaving us with unresolved questions and with the impression that Barbara and Cusins are merely opportunistic children after all.
That most of Act Two is left just as Shaw wrote it is testimony to the fact that this is the only part of the play that’s worth a damn.