Major Barbara ought not to work. The romance is unromantic. The heroine is unfeminine. And the story is a vehicle for a lecture. In so many ways, this criticism goes, the play lacks sex appeal. And yet, it succeeded and continues succeeding today. The reason is simple: the lecture Shaw delivers is really a discussion. He makes his point very clear, but he does so by showing the opposing points at their best. Call it debate, call it steel-manning your opponent, call it an intellectual Turing test. It is Shaw’s genius to dramatise ideas.
Now, he knows a play must have character and drama. He is not Plato. If you think his characters are flat, or his stories insipid, you are wrong. But he makes his characters vital by giving them real thoughts, by properly showing us what it is that they think. This is how the first actress who played Barbara, Annie Russell, described Shaw at rehearsal.
In rehearsing his play Bernard Shaw was curiously detached from his characters. He gave each, in turn, the center of the stage to deliver their special message, and often gave particular prominence to ideas utterly contrary to his own. This impartiality in advancing and emphasizing entirely opposite views is, I think, in a way responsible for the confusion in many minds concerning George Bernard Shaw's own mental position. Even the protagonist in Major Barbara contends for ideas to which his author is opposed. I have seen the audience rock with laughter at his humorous sallies on the power of alcoholic stimulant, and yet he abhors drink and has been a teetotaller for many years.
Shaw understood what many people of ideas do not. People must be enchanted into paying attention. This is what George Eliot said in The Natural History of German Life: ideas alone will be ignored, they must be presented in a story. As Shaw put it:
Any man who had wooed a woman can never take as much trouble to make himself charming as an author does. If I want to push into their minds ideas of which they are intensely recalcitrant - which they entirely want to disbelieve - I have to put forward supernatural powers of fascination. I have first to get them amused by a story and to keep up a fire of repartee. I have to be poetic; I have to be romantic, and lead them on to swallow my doctrine.
Except, of course, the real genius of Shaw is that you don’t have to swallow his doctrine. He wants you to believe that society is imperfectly organised and it ought to be reorganised along socialist principles. You do not have to believe, as Shaw did, that one person can only be rich by making another one poor. The value of this play is to make you realise that all parts of society are connected. How will Barbara best serve God and save souls—in the Salvation Army or by making cannons with her arms manufacturer father? Will Cusins do more good for the poor as a Professor of Greek or by “making war on war”? Shaw forces you not to pick his side but to pick a side. (I say Shaw, but it was also Shaw’s wife, Charlotte.)
So many people who are searching for meaning in their work today would benefit from Shaw’s dramatisation of the idea that there is no such thing as a morally pure life. The best thing you can do is to be useful in a good cause. We must take the faustian bargain: sometimes you must make cannons to find meaning.
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I haven't read anything by Shaw but I really love that picture--I've been noticing a lot of interesting author photos lately across Substacks. They're somehow more interesting than photos of regular people, although I can't pinpont why.
"If I want to push into their minds ideas of which they are intensely recalcitrant - which they entirely want to disbelieve - I have to put forward supernatural powers of fascination." Brilliant.