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Major Barbara

shaw army undershaft salvation

a play by Bernard Shaw, performed in 1905, published in 1907. This portrays a wager and a moral conflict between Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army, and her father Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy and powerful manufacturer of armaments. Each undertakes to give up his or her calling if the other's work proves sufficiently impressive. On a visit to the East End shelter where she works, he undermines her belief in the Army by exposing the extent to which it is dependent on the economic system which creates the poverty it helps to relieve. Barbara then visits her father's arms factory with her conventional mother and brother, Lady Britomart and Stephen Britomart, and her fiancé, a Professor of Greek named Adolphus Cusins. All are impressed by the model community Undershaft has created, and Cusins agrees to enter (and eventually inherit) his business after allowing himself to be convinced that arms, war, and violence have the power to change the social system the Salvation Army is perpetuating. Barbara consents to become part of this arrangement, in what Shaw suggests is a synthesis of the spiritual and the practical, religion and the promise of political change. Undershaft, at first a Mephistophelean tempter and capitalist villain, has by now been transformed into an exemplary embodiment of the evolutionary appetite and the ‘life force’. Shaw subtitled the play ‘a discussion in three acts’ in wry acknowledgement of the increasingly common accusation that he was more interested in debating ideas than in dramatizing action; but frequent revivals attest to its humour, tension, and other theatrical strengths.

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