Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Major Barbara


I’ve not seen a lot of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, just Saint Joan on the stage, Pygmalion (1938) with Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard, and of course My Fair Lady on stage and screen, if that counts. Here is Hiller again in the title role, this time opposite Rex Harrison. It left me a bit confused, and I guess that can be a good thing, if the confusion is food for thought.

Major Barbara is a fanatical officer in the Salvation Army. She is so pure that she is opposed to taking ₤50,000 from an arms merchant and a distiller, feeling it is tainted, even as the Army struggles to bring in shillings. Yet the gun maker is her father, whose money has paid for her privileged upbringing. She still lives at home, immune to the problems of the people she is trying to help. When the General accepts the money she quits, disillusioned.

But it’s not a simple story of a capitalist buying off a bunch of do-gooders, salving his conscience. He believes he is doing good, and of course he is, in the sense of providing a lot of jobs. So many questions are raised. Can money be tainted? I don’t think so, at least not in the literal sense. But if it comes with strings, as it so often does … that question isn’t addressed. Then it gets really weird. Papa takes Barbara on a tour of his gigantic factory complex. The scenes of industrial might are like Republican pornography. Oh, yes, yes, pour that molten metal! Roll that white-hot ingot into my forge, darling! Pound those rivets into that sheet metal! The foundries are hot and unpleasant, sure, but work is getting done here, money is being made in huge quantities, and the workers seem happy. Very happy, in fact. Later we tour the housing daddy has built for his workers, and it’s like an Aryan summer camp. Clean, pleasant buildings, sprawling lawns, gardens, schools … cradle to grave security provided by the capitalist, who has absolutely no reason to do any of this, as the workers are so easily replaced.. I said it was confusing, even more so when you know that Shaw was an ardent socialist. Could this be what he envisions a workers’ paradise would look like? Had he never seen the actual sorts of housing that exists in real company towns? Had be never visited a coal mining town? It’s all extremely goofy, and in the end Barbara embraces capitalism as ardently as she once embraced Jesus. Is there some irony here I missed? You can’t even blame it on a bad re-write of the play, since Shaw wrote the script. All I can conclude is that, when it came to politics, Shaw was seriously fucked up.

I have to mention Robert Morley, who is very good as the father. And a word about the Salvation Army. Christians usually give me a pain in the backside, specially if they proselytize. The Army is an exception. I respect them for the good work they do in disaster relief. They are always there, handing out soup and blankets and whatever people need, no questions asked. And on a personal level, they fed me many a time when I was on the road as an irresponsible, penniless hippie. All I ever had to do was bow my head while the prayer was said, and then chow down. I’ve never forgotten that.