Study Guide

Major Barbara Analysis

By George Bernard Shaw

  • Tone

    Lighthearted but Biting

    While a lot of the play's comedic flair comes from Lady Brit's lines, her husband, Andrew Undershaft, is actually at the heart of the moments that signal the play's overall tone. Like the play itself, Undershaft is good natured and humorous, but he doesn't suffer fools gladly. For example, when he, Lady Brit, and Stephen are discussing Stephen's career prospects, he responds to Stephen's overconfident idealism by observing acidly to his wife that Stephen "knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career" (3.127).

    The play often gives us lines like that—they're enjoyable because they're clever and humorous, but they also poke at some apparent hypocrisy or contradiction in a character's views. The cleverness and humor helps soften things, but there's still some biting commentary on society/human nature going on here.

  • Genre


    We're not going to lie—we definitely LOL'd while reading this play. A lot. Sure, it's a pretty cynical take on human nature in many ways, and pretty much everyone ends up compromising their principles in ways that some might find a little horrifying…but it's just such a good-natured, clever take down of orthodoxies and idealism that we couldn't help but get some giggles out of it.

    As we've already mentioned elsewhere, Lady Brit is the catalyst for some of the play's best moments. Take, for example, when Andrew wants to show Lady B the gun cotton shed. As he's about to head in there, the foreman, Bilton, remembers that Undershaft confiscated some matches from Charles, so he stops them:

    BILTON [barring the way]: You can't take anything explosive in here, sir.
    LADY BRITOMART: What do you mean? Are you alluding to me?
    BILTON [unmoved]: No, ma'am. Mr Undershaft has the other gentleman's matches in his pocket.
    LADY BRITOMART [abruptly]: Oh! I beg your pardon. [She goes into the shed].

    After watching Lady B boss people around for the entire play, it's pretty funny to see her acknowledge her reputation by assuming that Bilton is talking about her—and her embarrassment afterwards is pretty funny and even endearing, too.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Yeah, what is up with the title? As we have already said elsewhere, Andrew is the play's true protagonist, since it's his story that really drives the plot…so why is it named after his daughter? Well, as we've already noted in "Character Role Identification," the interplay between Andrew's ideas and Barbara's is at the heart of pretty much everything that happens, and dismantling Barbara's idealism is one of Andrew's big victories—one that brings the whole family (minus Lady B) together and indirectly saves his company, since Dolly is then more or less free to take over the Undershaft works.

    Because Barbara's transition is really at the heart of all this, we guess it only makes sense that she gets the title.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Having abandoned (or at least heavily revised) her principles to align more with her father's, Barbara has apparently regressed to being about five years old, clinging to her mother's skirts and begging for help in picking out a house for her and Dolly to live in together. Lady Brit seems more than a little disgusted by her daughter's behavior:

    LADY BRITOMART [coming from the shed and stopping on the steps, obstructing Sarah, who follows with Lomax. Barbara clutches like a baby at her mother's skirt]: Barbara: when will you learn to be independent and to act and think for yourself? I know as well as possible what that cry of 'Mamma, Mamma,' means. Always running to me!
    SARAH [touching Lady Britomart's ribs with her finger tips and imitating a bicycle horn]: Pip! pip!
    LADY BRITOMART [highly indignant]: How dare you say Pip! pip! to me, Sarah? You are both very naughty children. What do you want, Barbara?
    BARBARA. I want a house in the village to live in with Dolly. [Dragging at the skirt] Come and tell me which one to take.

    It's hard to see the once very commanding "Major" reduced to this childlike behavior. Perhaps the message is that Barbara is ultimately more of a follower than a leader—and now that Undershaft's ideas regarding power and wealth are holding sway, her true nature is revealed? Or maybe she's just placating her mother and making her feel like she's still needed after the ego bashing Lady B got in Act III? It's kind of hard to tell what's going on with this sudden baby-like behavior . . .

    In any case, Undershaft's views have been almost universally adopted among the family, which means that proper order and moral sense are in place…and by choosing a house near the works, Barbara is indicating she's all in.

  • Setting

    London – Lady Brit's House/West Ham/Perivale St. Andrews

    The play takes place during a cold January in London, likely around the same time that it was written in the early 20th century, since the characters talk about 1886 like it was only a few years ago. Major Barbara is trying to drive home the horrors of poverty, and the tensions between the haves and the have-nots, so it makes sense that Shaw set it in the bitter cold—that definitely heightens the stakes of the act set in the West Ham Salvation Army yard, where characters like Rummy, Shirley, and Price are outside freezing their grits off and hoping for food.

    By contrast to the cold semi-misery that we get at the Army shelter, the stage directions describing the town surrounding the Undershaft factory paint a practically idyllic picture:

    It is an almost smokeless town of white walls, roofs of narrow green slates or red tiles, tall trees, domes, campaniles, and slender chimney shafts, beautifully situated and beautiful in itself. The best view of it is obtained from the crest of a slope about half a mile to the east, where the high explosives are dealt with. (Act III)

    The play is more about the characters than the setting, but Shaw does give us enough background to get the lay of the land, economically, weather-wise, and in terms of mood.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Base Camp (3) (Bill Walker's dialogue: Snow Line (8))

    Overall, the prose in Major Barbara is pretty readable and easy to parse—it's not like you'll need to keep a dictionary in hand the entire time or anything like that—and aside from some historical/philosophical references, it's pretty accessible in terms of content. Nothing you guys can't handle here.

    That said, we want to tack on a separate rating/warning about Bill Walker's dialogue, which is written in dialect. It probably wouldn't be the easiest to wade through if you were seeing the play performed—it seems he has an accent so thick you could cut it with a knife—but seeing the dialect written out phonetically is even more tough. So allow yourself extra time and an energy bar for that hike. Other than that, though, it's clear skies and largely flat land.

  • Writing Style

    Witty (and Sometimes Acerbic)

    Shaw's dialogue is incredibly witty and smart. For some good examples, you need look no further than some of the exchanges between Undershaft and Dolly, in which they spar about morality and their own personal philosophies.

    Dolly's speech upon joining his future father-in-law on the "dark side" shows off this playful philosophizing:

    As a teacher of Greek I gave the intellectual man weapons against the common man. I now want to give the common man weapons against the intellectual man. I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyers, the doctors, the priests, the literary men, the professors, the artists, and the politicians, who, once in authority, are more disastrous and tyrannical than all the fools, rascals, and impostors. I want a power simple enough for common men to use, yet strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good or else perish. (408-409)

    Sure, Dolly's discussions of his political views are certainly earnest, but he's also displaying some serious philosophical acrobatics as he describes the turnabout in his views. The play as a whole is pretty interested in showing how the characters (and perhaps the audience) could stand to flip their worldview around, and this speech encapsulates the kind of reversals and challenges it's pushing.

  • Weapons

    Power is a big topic in Major Barbara, and weapons and arms are (unsurprisingly) a big symbol of it. There's a lot of talk about the best way to get power, and what kind should be pursued—is physical dominance the most important? Governmental? Spiritual? Lady Brit just seems to want her family listen to her, whereas Barbara wants the power to save souls. Meanwhile, Barbara's fiancé, Dolly, ends up saying he wants to equip the common man against their tyrannical overlords—sounds…not easy.

    Several of the characters end up believing that Undershaft's weapons factory will help them attain the kind of power they desire. Relax, they're not planning to take up Undershaft's arms and lead an armed rebellion; they just believe that working with Undershaft and/or his employees will give them the power they need to create changes in their personal areas of interest.

    Take Barbara, for instance. Even though she abhors violence and murder, she nevertheless comes to believe that being involved with her father's factory will expand her evangelizing powers, giving her access to a whole new set of converts who would come to the faith from a place of comfort and security, rather than desperation. Put a bit differently, her converts will come to the table from a more empowered place, which means they will come to the faith for the right reasons rather than just because they are hungry or cold.

    Meanwhile, Dolly believes that working for the Undershaft company will allow him to "make power for the world" (404-405). Although Dolly maintains that all power is ultimately "spiritual," he also believes that that kind of mojo is hard to convert into action without the proper opportunities or tools:

    I think all power is spiritual: these cannons will not go off by themselves. I have tried to make spiritual power by teaching Greek. But the world can never be really touched by a dead language and a dead civilization. The people must have power; and the people cannot have Greek. Now the power that is made here can be wielded by all men. (3.407)

    When Barbara suggests that he is simply describing the power to blow innocent people up, Dolly objects, saying that he's merely giving the good the best possible chance of defending themselves against the bad:

    You cannot have power for good without having power for evil too. Even mother's milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes. This power which only tears men's bodies to pieces has never been so horribly abused as the intellectual power, the imaginative power, the poetic, religious power that can enslave men's souls. As a teacher of Greek I gave the intellectual man weapons against the common man. I now want to give the common man weapons against the intellectual man. I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyers, the doctors, the priests, the literary men, the professors, the artists, and the politicians, who, once in authority, are more disastrous and tyrannical than all the fools, rascals, and impostors. I want a power simple enough for common men to use, yet strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good or else perish. (408-409)

    So there you have it: For Dolly (and ultimately Undershaft and his daughter), weapons represent power—and empowerment. It's a controversial view, sure, but Undershaft has the family pretty much convinced by the end of the play.

  • Money & "The Sovereign"

    As the great Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli once sang, money makes the world go around—and boy, is that a hard reality for Barbara Undershaft to swallow.

    Barbara fancies that the Salvation Army is divorced from the violence and greed in the world, devoted only to serving the poor and saving their souls. However, when the Army gets a gigantic donation courtesy of her father and a whisky magnate named Bolger, the organization jumps on the money without a second thought—after all, they'd be in danger of shutting down without it.

    Even though Barbara is initially horrified that the Army could be "bought" like that, she ultimately seems to resign herself to the fact that this is the way the world works; without money and power, you aren't going to get anything done—and then the "bad guys" win.

    So what exactly does money symbolize or represent? Well, it seems tied to power and autonomy, if we're looking at the Salvation Army donations as an example. Even though on one hand the Army is becoming beholden to certain interests (i.e., the arms and alcohol industries) by accepting the donations, they're also getting what they need to continue and further their mission.

    Undershaft himself suggests money's larger symbolic weight when he envisions Barbara taking up his company's "gospel":

    Yes, money and gunpowder; freedom and power; command of life and command of death. (2.273)

    If the items in this list are to be interpreted as parallels, then he's definitely associating money with larger ideas such as freedom and "command of life."

    Also, let's not forget the repeated references to the "sovereign" that Bill initially offers as a donation to the Army. Sure, it's just a currency denomination, but the word also refers to a leader who is powerful and autonomous enough to rule the roost. Perhaps that coin is symbolic of the way money makes you "sovereign," too.

    In any case, money definitely makes Major Barbara's world go around, conferring power and independence on those who accept it . . .

  • The Drum

    Compared to money and weapons, the drum is really a much smaller, goofier symbol in Major Barbara. Dolly came to play the drums at the Army because he wanted to cozy up to Barbara, and it becomes clear pretty quickly that he has zero actual interest in the Army (and probably the drums, too); he's just using both to gain favor with her. So, references to his drum playing are more comic than symbolic of any kind of religious zeal on his part . . .

    Later, when he goes to play the drums at an Army event after Barbara has quit, Shaw's stage directions describe him as "mounting the form in an ecstasy of mischief" (2.423)—that is, getting super jacked up—but, again, without any particular genuine zeal for the cause, and more for comic effect.

    So, you might just think the drum is a symbol of Dolly's own empty enthusiasm or ridiculousness. But when he and Barbara share a truly tender moment late in the play—when Barbara says she has no intention of abandoning Dolly even though he's going to her father's firm—he's so happy that he exclaims "Oh for my drum!" (3.413).

    So, what's the upshot? The drum just seems to be a symbol of Dolly's unbridled enthusiasm and good cheer pretty much regardless of the circumstances—and of his affection for Barbara, too, who probably makes his heart beat just like his drum.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Well, none—it's a play.

    Major Barbara is a play, so there isn't some overarching narrative voice that frames or makes sense of the dialogue for us. That said, Shaw's stage directions do give some character background and do more editorializing than most, as we've already kind of alluded to in "Characterization." Also, given the extreme amount of airtime that Undershaft's ideas get (and the fact that he's clearly the hero of the play), you could kind of argue that his ideas, perspective, and "slant" really end up being the play's as well. But technically, there's no narrator, so no official point-of-view.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis


    When the play opens, we quickly learn that the children of Andrew Undershaft and Lady Britomart have been kept in the dark about some key matters. For example, Stephen, the only son, was apparently unaware that his father's plan to disinherit him from the family business was the reason his parents separated all those years ago. Surprise!

    Also, on a more basic level, the kids haven't seen Andrew for a long time—and they don't know he's on his way over until right before it happens. Then, when Undershaft arrives, hilarity ensues as he tries to figure out which of the people present are actually his children—he mistakes his future sons-in-law for Stephen at first. So, yeah, there's a lot of confusion.

    Undershaft is eager to defend himself against his wife and children's negative perceptions of his profession, challenging their views of morality/immorality and belief that the Undershaft factory does more evil than good. After bantering quite a bit with Barbara, whose enthusiasm for the Salvation Army makes her particularly hostile towards her father's profession, they each agree to visit the other's place of work and get some more clarity . . .


    When Andrew visits Barbara at work, he ends up matching a massive donation to the Army made by a local whiskey distiller, which saves the organization from financial ruin. Most of the Army's employees rejoice, but Barbara is unhappy—in her view, it's wrong and hypocritical that the Army is now in the pocket of companies that make arms and whiskey. Barbara is pretty disillusioned by the revelation that everyone has a price . . .

    Happy Ending

    Things take a sunnier turn, however, when Barbara and the rest of her family go to visit the Undershaft factory. The whole family is pretty impressed with the workers, the town, and the factory itself. Barbara's fiancé, Dolly, banters and bonds with his future father-in-law throughout the play and ends up agreeing to take over the family business. He's afraid that Barbara will be upset, but she's actually come around to the view that she can still be part of the Army and work to save souls without rejecting the family trade. In fact, because the factory will give her the opportunity to save some non-desperate folks, she apparently has come to believe her dad's business is doing a good thing for the world. And with that 180, the play closes.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Inherited Finances—the Ties that Bind

    Lady Britomart comes from a noble family, but she doesn't have much of her own money to dispense to her children—which is unfortunate, since it means she has to depend on her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft.

    Her daughters are about to get married to men who aren't likely to be able to support them in the immediate future, so she's gotten in touch with Andrew in the hopes of squeezing him for some more cash.

    The play opens with her powwowing with her son, Stephen, about the family's financial difficulties, and she basically bullies him into advising her to ask Andrew for help—which is fortunate, since she had already invited Andrew over that night. They also discuss the fact that Andrew plans to cut Stephen out as the heir to the family business per a family tradition of passing control of the firm to a foundling. The tradition is what caused the breach between Undershaft and Lady Brit in the first place.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Getting the Undershaft

    When Andrew Undershaft arrives and sees his children for the first time in years and years, it's a little awkward—he can't seem to remember who is who, or even how many children he actually has—but soon Sarah and Barbara (and their fiancés) are pretty well charmed. Barbara and Andrew banter back and forth about their very different professions—Barbara's job is to save souls and feed the poor, while Undershaft's is to make weapons—and they make a deal to go see each other's workplaces. Despite the fact that they have quite different conceptions of morality and right/wrong, Barbara and her father seem open to learning about the "other side." We'll see how that goes . . .

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    Major Disappointment

    When Act 2 picks up at the Salvation Army, we get a quick glimpse of Barbara in her element, enthusiastically feeding the hungry/poor, recruiting, and converting (or at least attempting to convert) visitors to the Army. However, Barbara's idealism and enthusiasm take a big hit when Mrs. Baines, the Army commissioner, opts to take a huge donation from a whisky kingpin and—yes, you probably guessed it already—Barbara's father. Barbara had been maintaining that the Army couldn't be bought—the only thing it was interested in was helping others achieve salvation—but Mrs. Baines gleefully accepts the money, as they desperately needed it. Baines is elated, but Barbara is devastated.

    Falling Action

    Field Trip to the Gun Cotton Shack

    When we pick up the next day, Barbara is at home, having quit the Salvation Army, and she definitely seems bummed out. Various members of the family start trickling in. Lady Brit gets Andrew to promise that he will keep providing adequate salaries for the girls for the indefinite future. Then, Andrew, Lady Brit, and Stephen discuss Stephen's career prospects. The discussion gets a bit heated; it seems that Stephen remains the one lone wolf among Andrew's children who isn't charmed by him. Once all the children and their fiancés have arrived at Lady Brit's house, they go as a group to see Andrew Undershaft's factory

    Resolution (Denouement)

    All's Well That Ends With Gunpowder

    Once they all see the factory, everyone is mighty impressed, albeit for different reasons. Lady Brit suggests that if Andrew won't leave the company to Stephen, he might consider Adolphus. Undershaft initially dismisses the suggestion, since Dolly isn't a foundling, but then Dolly reveals he is, actually, since his parents' marriage wasn't legal in England. So, Dolly and Undershaft haggle about salary, and then Dolly agrees to take on the job. Much to Dolly's surprise, Barbara is supportive; she thinks that the factory and its workers will be a very fertile recruiting ground for her efforts for the Salvation Army, which she plans to rejoin.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Dionysus (2.240, 2.255-256, 2.432, 3.29, 3.242-243)
    • Euripides (Undershaft's nickname for Dolly)
    • Niccolò Machiavelli (Dolly's nickname for Undershaft)
    • William Morris (3.228, 3.230)
    • Plato (3.366-368)
    • Plato, Republic (3.411)

    Historical References

    • 1886 Trafalgar Square Demonstrations/Riots (2.375)
    • Otto Von Bismarck (1.41)
    • Benjamin Disraeli (1.41)
    • King George III (3.293)
    • William Gladstone (1.41)
    • Napoleon (3.293)
    • Thomas Paine (2.483)

    Pop Culture References

    • Donizetti, Gaetano (2.430)