Play Review: Major Barbara

Play Review: Major BarbaraMajor Barbara by George Bernard Shaw
Published by Barnes & Noble Classics on February 11, 2004
Genres: Humor
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
two-stars

Hailed as "a Tolstoy with jokes" by one critic, George Bernard Shaw was the most significant British playwright since the seventeenth century. Pygmalion persists as his best-loved play, one made into both a classic film—which won Shaw an Academy Award for best screenplay—and the perennially popular musical My Fair Lady.

Pygmalion follows the adventures of phonetics professor Henry Higgins as he attempts to transform cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a refined lady. The scene in which Eliza appears in high society with the correct accent but no notion of polite conversation is considered one of the funniest in English drama. Like most of Shaw’s work, Pygmalionwins over audiences with wit, a taut morality, and an innate understanding of human relationships.

This volume also includes Major Barbara, which attacks both capitalism and charitable organizations, The Doctor’s Dilemma, a keen-eyed examination of medical morals and malpractice, and Heartbreak House, which exposes the spiritual bankruptcy of the generation responsible for the bloodshed of World War I.

This is one weird play. None of the characters seem like real people and they are all obnoxious. The main theme is an interesting one: an argument betwixt right and wrong. Shaw points out that all money for organizations like the Salvation Army comes from the war-makers and booze-makers. What meaning does salvation have in this context? Also, how much does a salvation borne of starvation fed mean? It actually occurs to me that the dynamic between charity/morality and between industry/immorality is somewhat reminiscent of The Fountainhead.

George Bernard Shaw has a fairly recognizable style. The most noticeable aspect is his scene setup. He describes the scene down to every last detail. Where Shakespeare plays have exceedingly brief notes, Shaw goes on for a page or two any time there is a location change. I really have trouble imagining how the scene change in the middle of the third act would be accomplished, since two very precise sets would need to be made.

The other thing about Shaw that I noticed is that he is much like Wilde, only perhaps not so funny. Both Wilde and Shaw were born Irishman. Shaw moved to England as a young boy. Still, you can see his judgment of the English in his writing, which is why the characters are so irritating. Like Wilde, the humor in the story comes from the mocking of the English, particularly the upper crust.

Best line, which comes after Undershaft tells Barbara that he saved her from the seven deadly sins:
“Yes, the deadly seven. [Counting on his fingers.] Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children.”

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