Study Guide

Major Barbara

By George Bernard Shaw

Major Barbara Introduction

If you're in need of some belly laughs, Major Barbara will not disappoint—Lady Britomart and her one-liners alone make this 1907 play by George Bernard Shaw a howler and a half (and the other characters aren't too shabby, either).

The sheer number of giggles the play induces is pretty impressive, especially when you consider the subject matter. The premise is that a family's financial difficulties have forced the matriarch, Lady Brit, to get in touch with her estranged arms-dealer husband (whom she thinks is really immoral) and ask him for money. This involves inviting him to the family home for the first time in a good long while—he hasn't seen the kids since they were babies. Talk about a deadbeat dad.

Financial problems? Family arguments about morals and values? That probably sounds pretty boring, at best (and unpleasant/uncomfortable, at worst), but fear not—the family drama and massive disagreements about what constitutes right and wrong lead to plenty of hilarity, and some great, humorous dialogue among all the family members.

That doesn't mean the play skirts important issues, though—it actually uses the humor to cut deep into really important topics, such as faith, religion, class, and morality. The humor is used to illuminate certain contradictions and hypocrisies in the way people think about such things, which gets the audience thinking harder about those issues as well. All while laughing. Seriously, it's good stuff—and hey, we're not super surprised, given that Shaw was a Nobel prize-winning author. They don't just hand that award out to anyone, you know.

What is Major Barbara About and Why Should I Care?

Wherever you stand on the issue, it's hard to deny that weapons are at the center of a lot of debates and controversies in the modern-day USA. Even beyond the level of national security, there's lots of talk among civilian types about how to deal with guns and violence. Some people think restricting access to weapons is the way to go, while others argue that access to arms is absolutely crucial to making sure that the good guys have as much of a chance in a fight as the bad ones.

It is far beyond our Shmoopy purview to dig too far into that debate, but we just wanted to point out that the same kind of tension is actually at play in Major Barbara. Andrew Undershaft firmly believes that it's his duty to make arms as freely available as possible without restricting or making judgment calls about who should get what and when they should get it—even if that means selling to his country's enemies. It's not too surprising that not everyone agrees with his…egalitarian…approach to arms trading, and that's where a lot of the family tensions come from.

Don't get us wrong—we're certainly not arguing that the socialist, Irish-born Shaw would have fit in easily to a party or platform in our own modern U.S. political system. The point is that Shaw used his writing to push people out of their comfort zone, get them thinking about certain issues, shed idealism, and challenge hypocrisies. And that's something that political animals of all stripes might find useful, don't you think?

Major Barbara Resources

Websites

Just in Case You Aren't Sure How to Interpret Major Barbara...
. . . Shaw wrote out a long preface to help you/other critics along.

Project Gutenberg to the Rescue
If the text-based version is too heavy for you, perhaps you'll enjoy the online version.

My Fair Dolly
Rex Harrison (from My Fair Lady) plays Dolly in the 1941 film version.

Movie or TV Productions

Major Barbara on TV
There was also a TV movie version of your new favorite play.

Articles and Interviews

A Major Barbara That's About . . . Barbara?
One recent production decided to make the play a bit more about its title character.

If Film's More Your Bag
Check out TCM's article about the film version.

Video

George Bernard Shaw Paying Tribute to Albert Einstein
Because why not?

Major Barbara is on Hulu. The 1941 Film, That is.
Yes, for real.

Audio

Snippets From a Radio Show Called "Talks for Sixth Formers" featuring George Bernard Shaw
Based on just this one play, we bet he has a lot to say about any number of things.

Images

The Author Himself
We probably wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley . . . he looks pretty fierce…and check out that beard.

In Case You Wondered Why Kissing Over A Drum Would Require Practice . . .
Check out this image from director Laura Johnson's production of the play.