Exposes the True “Soul” of Shaw’s drama

By Iride Aparicio

Photos by: Pak  Han

 RETCHEN HALL  as Major Barbara,  under the Salvation Army Crest
GRETCHEN HALL  as Major Barbara,  under the Salvation Army Crest: The Cross meaning, the cross of Christ. The “S” the Salvation from sin through  Jesus. The two swords, the Spiritual Warfare. The Dots,  the truth of the Gospels. The rays, surrounding the seal, the fire of the Holy Spirit and the  words  “Blood and Fire” meaning the Blood which was shed by Jesus for our sins and the Fire of the Holy Spirit.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Great dramas  have  a “soul.” In MAJOR BARBARA, the essence of its “soul”  is composed  by the philosophical  “concepts”  that GEORGE BERNARD SHAW ( l856-l950), its playwright, ingeniously revealed in his dialogue.  The “Soul” of  MAJOR BARBARA the drama, is what the actors represent on the stage, and what the audience keeps embedded in their minds after they leave the theatre.  

A prolific playwright, SHAW, was a merciless critic of moral and intellectual hypocrisy. He believed so strongly in criticism that he assured us in writing that “To save itself from Stagnation and putrefaction, civilization cannot progress without criticism.”

A writer with a piercing mind,  he wrote his plays with wit and humor, yet his purpose was to teach his audience, to make it feel  uncomfortable, and specially, to try to shake up the complacent attitudes towards life held by the English people of his time.  “The English do not know what to think,” he wrote in an essay “until they are coached laboriously for years in the proper opinions.”

Written in  1905, as a play, MAJOR BARBARA may be described as a “Fire storm” of language. The work is wordy, and full of philosophical ideas, Some of them, represented by individual characters. So, in her demeanor, Lady Britomart, represents the English Aristocracy. Barbara is the combination of religion faith, and idealism. Cousins, who calls himself “a collector of religion experiences,” the Greek philosopher. Stephen Undershaf, the average man who assumes that he knows what is right and what is wrong. Charles Lomax, is the will-be millionaire who when he inherits his fortune at age 35, will discover that he can’t buy  with his money the intelligence he lacks. Bill Walker, impersonates the  poverty of soul and body.  Mrs Baines, like Barbara, religion faith, but she is a realist,  and Andrew Undershaft is capitalism impersonated, yet combined with, a sharp mind that contains traits from the  other characters.

Andrew Undershaft is also the character that contributes most to the “Soul” of MAJOR BARBARA, because many of  SHAW’s messages, are expressed in his dialogue and in his actions. Yet his role is the drama is not clear. To some critics, Undershaft is considered “the antagonist,” of the play, because of  his radical ideas. To others, he is “the protagonist” because he moves the action of the drama. Yet if we look at MAJOR BARBARA from the point of view of his factory’s workers, and  those derelicts who depended on the help of the Salvation Army, to feed themselves, Undershaft  may be  “The hero” who gave them ”salvation.”     

MAJOR BARBARA  the play,  takes place inside a world of “Live-in Windows”, as set designer DAN OSTLING, describes his basic set for the drama,  It consist of a mass of metal rectangles in the shapes of windows and doors overlapping each other around the set, that changes, with the addition of props and furniture, to:  “Lady Britomart Undershaft’s Library”, to “The hall of the Salvation Army Shelter”  and to “The Armory” by adding bombs hanging over the  set.

The action of the play starts with Lady Britomart Undershaft (KANDIS CHAPPELL) telling  Stephen (STAFFORD PERRY) her son, that she is concerned for his sisters,  because Sarah, (ELYSE PRICE)  who is engaged to Charles Lomax (TYRELL CREWS) won’t have any money until Charles turns 35 and receives his inheritance, and Barbara (GRETCHEN HALL) had joined the Salvation Army and now is engaged to Adolphus Cusins (NICHOLAS PELCZAR) a teacher of Greek who won’t be able to support her. She adds that today she has asked her husband,  ANDREW UNDERSHAFT, (DEAN PAUL GIBSON) who had made millions building cannons and arms, and had not seen his children since they were born, to come and discuss the matter with her.

How the family react to the visit of Andrew and how Andrew reacts to “meeting his family”, constitutes the first act, which was well acted, and perhaps a little over acted by PERRY.

With Lady Britomart telling Stephen: “You were 24 last June. You have been at Harrow and Cambridge, You have been to India and Japan. You must know a lot of things now; unless you wasted your time most scandalous. The play starts as a comedy, but with Stephen saying that he had never opened a newspaper without seeing the name Undershaft written on it because of the building of  the Undershaft torpedo, or the Undershaft quick firers, or the Undershaft submarines, and now the aerial battleship, the story turns serious giving the audience an idea of who Andrew Undershaft is and what he builds in his “Den of death.”

Later in the act, Undershaft himself, reveals  his philosophy  to Lomax saying: “I am not ashamed of it. I am not one of those men who keep their morals and their business in water tight compartments. All the spare money my trade rivals spend on hospitals, cathedrals  and other receptacles for conscience money, I devote to experiments and researches in improving methods of destroying life and property. I have always done so and I always shall. Therefore, your Christmas cards  moralities of peace on earth and good will towards men are no use to me. My morality – my religion,  must have a place for cannons and torpedoes in it.”

But it is on the second act, at the shelter of the Salvation Army, where SHAW distills most of his philosophy, by presenting us characters such as Rummy Mitchens (VALERIE PLANCHE) Snobby Price (DAN CLEGG) Jenny Hill (NEMUNA CEESAY) , Peter Shirley (DAN HIATT), and Bill Walker (BRIAN RIVERA) who supplement the drama. Little vignettes, such as Walker hitting Jenny, giving money when repented, and Major Barbara refusing his money explaining to him that “salvation is not to be bought.” 

A few minutes latter, however, we see Barbara devastated when she witnesses General Baines (JENNIFER CLEMENT) from the Salvation Army, who had  previously accepted a check from a wine distiller, accept  another check from her father to avoid the closing of the Salvation Army's shelters.

It is is at this moment, that SHAW exposes the “soul” of the drama. It is at this moment that we the audience, like Barbara, need to search our own consciences to try to find if this was right (for us) or if this was wrong.  At the end, we may rationalize that Mrs. Baines, like Barbara, wants to save souls. That like Barbara, she is also a religious woman, but unlike Barbara, who is a young dreamer, Baines is older and more practical. She knows that The Salvation Army cannot save souls until the shelters remain open. Taking the money from the Devil, is the only way that they can continue to do God’s work.

L-R JENNIFER CLEMENT as Mrs. Baines GRETCHEN HALL as Major Barbara and DEAN PAUL GIBSON as Andre Undershaft.
L-R JENNIFER CLEMENT as Mrs. Baines GRETCHEN HALL as Major Barbara and DEAN PAUL GIBSON as Andre Undershaft.

Act III  is catalytic for each one of the characters in the drama.  It is here that Stephen (PERRY) learns that because of “tradition,” the Undershaft Cannon Enterprise cannot go to him but must go to a foundling; and that, by  another “law” imposed by a previous Undershaft, this foundling must be a person who has not been trained by the system to win scholarships, like a race horse, or crammed with “second hand” ideas, or a man who was drilled and disciplined in docility and lamed for life. The conditions do not bother Stephen. He tells his father that he is  not interested in running his cannon factory and that he is not fit for business.

Continue with the changes, Barbara (HALL) is no longer dressed in uniform and when Charles (CREWS) tries to console her by talking about the Army, he is silenced by Lady Britomart (CHAPPELL) who tells him to speak of something “suited to his mental capacity.” Cusins (PELEZAR) the voice of reason and the Greek scholar, enters the room drunk. He explains that spent the whole night drinking with  Andrew Undershaft (GIBSON) who he now calls “The Prince of Darkness.”   and that Undershaft convinced him that all his life he had been doing “improper things” for the “proper reasons.”

And it is in this act we get to see “the den of death” the devastation factory where the weapons are created.  And in spite of all the bombs hanging from the roof over the actors' heads, the only devastation we observe in the devastation of Barbara. (HALL). She tells her father that the day before, when she was about to convert Bill Walker, and felt that she had his soul in her hand, he gave a check to the Salvation Army, and when the Army took it, Bill went back to drunkenness. She blames his father from taking a human soul from her, and turning it into the soul of a wolf.

Calmly, Undershaft replies.  “Can you strike a man to the heart and leave to mark on him?

To our own surprise, there is plenty of life in the "den fo death." Workers are working, children are playing, or going to school, people are eating in the different cafeterias. There are even houses for the worker, and even churches including one called William Morris with words in mosaics letters ten feet tall high around the dome saying: NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH TO BE ANOTHER’s MAN MASTER. And even many religious people, because all who live and work there know that an explosion, can kill them in a second.

Barbara continues explaining her feelings to her father:  “I stood on the rock I thought eternal, and without a word, of warning, it reeled and crumbled under me.  In a moment, with a stroke of your pen in a check book, I stood alone, and the heavens were empty.”

He replies: “What we do here when we spend years of work and thought and thousands of Pounds of solid cash on a new gun or an aereal battleship and turns out wrong?  Scrap it, scrap it without wasting another hour, or another Pound on it.  You have make for yourself something you call a morality of religion. If it does not fit the facts, scrape it, and get one that does fit. That is what is wrong with the world. It scraps its absolute steam engines, but won’t scrap it old prejudices, its old moralist is old political institutions, its old religion.”

At the end, he convinces her that it had been his money that had saved her for what he call the “seven deadly sins:” food, clothing, firing, rent taxes. Respectability and children. "Nothing but money can lift those millstones" he says His physical support for all these years, was that allowed her to live comfortable life, to become Major Barbara.

At the end of the act, the foundling is found, and all the problems of the play are  resolved.  But after the curtain goes down and we leave the theatre, we continue  pondering on what we saw and what we heard on the stage that night. The magnificent acting, specially those confrontations of GIBSON as Undershaft,  who kills people with weapons and rebuilds them with money, and Barbara (HALL) who fights the poverty that kills people who lack money and rebuilds them with the promise of salvation, has revealed to us for the first time, the  “soul” of MAJOR BARBARA.

L-r GRETCHEN HALL, as Barbara NICHOLAS PELCZAR, as cusins STAFFORD PERRY,as Stephen, KANDIS CHAPPELL, as Lady Britomart TYRELL CREWS as Charles Lomax  AND ELYSE PRICE,as Sarah.
 L-r GRETCHEN HALL, as Barbara NICHOLAS PELCZAR, as cusins STAFFORD PERRY,as Stephen, KANDIS CHAPPELL, as Lady Britomart TYRELL CREWS as Charles Lomax  AND ELYSE PRICE,as Sarah.

MAJOR BARBARA, the co-production of  of A.C.T. in association with THEATRE CALGARY, is masterfully directed by DENNIS GARNHUM.

For Tickets one can call at 1-415-749-2228 or order them online at www.act-sf.org.