Major Masterpiece or Minor Shaw?

Live theater can be — and perhaps should be — an indicator of the state of culture. Much can be surmised from a look at the new plays getting professionally produced on Broadway and the “old chestnuts” that are being revived there.

The question to ask is: “Why is this play being staged at this time?”

Even more to the point, theater, like all the fine arts, should be an instrument of the transformation and enrichment of culture. Pope John Paul II underscored this in his recent Letter to Artists (1999). “I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music,” he wrote. “I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.”

Nonetheless, sometimes the artistic entrance into the heart of the mystery of God and man is less than fortuitous. George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara is a case in point. Plainly put, it is a vexing play. It concerns a millionaire munitions maker in early 20th-century England who wields his formidable wealth, status and paternity like the weapons he manufactures in order to dissuade his daughter from pursuing a religious vocation (with the Salvation Army). The tragedy of the play isn't simply that Barbara experiences a crisis of faith, but — even worse — the betrayal of her father.

In effect, the play is one lengthy, elaborate polemic. But exposure to such polemics is beneficial for developing the “shrewdness of the serpent” we need to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew10:5-16). Pope John Paul II has charged the Church to undertake a “new evangelization” that “calls for a clearly conceived, serious and well-organized effort to evangelize culture” (Ecclesia in America, No. 70). We can't evangelize culture in a strategic, serious and well-organized way unless we know what we're up against. Major Barbara shows us.

‘The decay of society is praised by artists as the decay of a corpse is praised by worms.’

George Bernard Shaw

In the first act, Lady Britomart, Undershaft's estranged wife, upbraids her zealous daughter, saying: “Really, Barbara, you go on as if religion were a pleasant subject. Do have some sense of propriety.” Undershaft makes matters worse: “That is what is wrong with the world at present. It scraps its obsolete steam engines and dynamos, but it won't scrap its old prejudices and its old moralities and its old religions. … In morals and religion and politics it is working at a loss that brings it nearer bankruptcy every year. Don't persist in that folly. If your old religion broke down yesterday, get a newer and a better one for tomorrow.”

At another point, Undershaft addresses his son Stephen, an earnestly virtuous young man portrayed as a buffoon.

Undershaft says: “Well come! Is there anything you know or care for?” Stephen replies: “I know the difference between right and wrong.” At that retort, the audience howled with derisive laughter as if the suggestion of possessing moral rectitude were the most absurdly preposterous notion ever proposed. Nihilism is the order of the day that the new evangelization must counteract with the splendor of the truth.

In terms of production values, the Roundabout Theatre's new staging of Shaw' classic is a masterpiece. It's hard to take your eyes off John Lee Beaty's meticulous, realistic sets so graced with intricacy, color and detail. Jane Greenwood's costumes are equally sumptuous and satisfying.

What's more, one might wonder if Shaw wrote Major Barbara for this particular cast. The performances across the board are superb. Shaw described the play's antagonist, Andrew Undershaft, as “diabolically subtle, gentle, self-possessed, powerful, stupendous, as well as amusing and interesting. There are the makings of ten Hamlets and six Othellos in his mere leavings.”

In writing to the British actor Louis Calvert, who originated the role in 1905, Shaw warned: “Learning it will half kill you; but you can retire the next day as preeminent and unapproachable.”

Unfortunately, Calvert managed to miss the mark, for the day after the play's opening, Shaw wrote: “I see with disgust that the papers all say that your Undershaft was a magnificent piece of acting and Major Barbara a rottenly undramatic play, instead of pointing out that Major B is a masterpiece and that you are the most infamous amateur that ever disgraced the boards.”

Happily , David Warner's portrayal of Undershaft in the current Broadway production is nothing short of masterful and would make the playwright proud.

All of this is the fruit of Daniel Sullivan's eloquent, intelligent direction. Rarely does Shaw receive such first-rate Broadway restaging, and it is worth seeing for that reason alone.

To be sure, people in love with the Gospel will find the tone of Major Barbara decidedly cynical and snide. All the same, it's hard to gainsay Shaw's incontestable command of the English language and his brilliant wit. Relativists could easily be taken in. But those who listen with the ears of faith come away with ammunition far more powerful than the kind that Andrew Undershaft makes.

Major Barbara is provocative and ponderous. This superb production will rile you up and get you thinking — and it may leave you exasperated. But, like a good parable, you don't come away apathetic or undecided about the issues at hand.

Major Barbara isn't a play to agree with. Rather, it is a work of art to appreciate in order to reexamine and reorder one's own religious and moral convictions.

Dominican Father Cameron is editor of the liturgical prayer monthly Magnificat.