Study Guide

Major Barbara War/Violence

By George Bernard Shaw

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You see, Stephen, your father must be fabulously wealthy, because there is always a war going on somewhere. (1.39)

In the first Act, Lady Brit gets right to the point and acquaints us with her central dilemma: she needs money, and her estranged hubby has plenty of it because he makes weapons (the demand for which is always pretty high, she says). Mankind's violent tendencies and the moral quandaries involved in feeding those tendencies are pretty frequent topics in the play.

It is not only the cannons, but the war loans that Lazarus arranges under cover of giving credit for the cannons. You know, Stephen, it's perfectly scandalous. Those two men, Andrew Undershaft and Lazarus, positively have Europe under their thumbs. That is why your father is able to behave as he does. He is above the law. Do you think Bismarck or Gladstone or Disraeli could have openly defied every social and moral obligation all their lives as your father has? They simply wouldn't have dared. I asked Gladstone to take it up. I asked The Times to take it up. I asked the Lord Chamberlain to take it up. But it was just like asking them to declare war on the Sultan. They wouldn't. They said they couldn't touch him. I believe they were afraid. (1.41)

Lady Brit goes on to outline just how powerful Undershaft and his partner, Lazarus, are in England (and the world) because they make weapons. If Lady Brit is to be believed, some pretty big-deal English politicians were cowed by the power of these men and refused to go after Undershaft for having "openly defied every social and moral obligation all their lives."

LOMAX [leniently]: Well, the more destructive war becomes, the sooner it will be abolished, eh?
UNDERSHAFT: Not at all. The more destructive war becomes the more fascinating we find it. No, Mr Lomax, I am obliged to you for making the usual excuse for my trade; but I am not ashamed of it. I am not one of those men who keep their morals and their business in watertight compartments. All the spare money my trade rivals spend on hospitals, cathedrals and other receptacles for conscience money, I devote to experiments and researches in improved methods of destroying life and property. I have always done so; and I always shall. Therefore your Christmas card moralities of peace on earth and goodwill among men are of no use to me. Your Christianity, which enjoins you to resist not evil, and to turn the other cheek, would make me a bankrupt. My morality—my religion—must have a place for cannons and torpedoes in it. (1.212-213)

Undershaft doesn't seem to be an especially violent man, but what sets him apart from his family is that he absolutely believes that violence will exist regardless of what he does . . . So, according to his view, he might as well not end up bankrupt from idealism.

Yes: you like an old man to hit, don't you, when you've finished with the women. I ain't seen you hit a young one yet. (2.65)

War violence isn't the only kind of aggression that gets a lot of airtime in the play—there's also a lot of talk of violence among the poor (and a lot of talk about violence against women).

BILL [with compressed aggravation]: If you was maw gel and took the word aht o me mahth lawk thet, Aw'd give you sathink you'd feel urtin, Aw would. [To Adolphus] You tike maw tip, maie. Stop er jawr; or you'll doy afoah your tawn. [With intense expression] Wore aht: thets wot you'll be: wore aht. (2.214)

Ah, the irony—Undershaft is kind of the face of war and violence to his family, but people like Bill (whom Barbara treats with total gentleness and understanding) are actually much more violent. Here, he's arguing that Dolly should basically beat Barbara early and often to make sure Dolly doesn't die young of frustration . . . yeah, he's really not a nice guy.

UNDERSHAFT: The two things are—
CUSINS: Baptism and—
UNDERSHAFT: No. Money and gunpowder. (2.227-229)

Chatting with Dolly, Undershaft is defining the two things that are necessary for salvation. Given his profession and extreme emphasis on the importance of wealth, his choices aren't really that surprising...

JENNY: Who was kneeling on your head?
BILL: Todger was. E was pryin for me: pryin camfortable wiv me as a cawpet. Sow was Mog. Sao was the aol bloomin meetin. Mog she sez "Ow Lawd brike is stabborn sperrit; but down't urt is dear art." Thet was wot she said. "Down't urt is dear art"! An er blowk--thirteen stun four!--kneelin wiv all is wight on me. Fanny, ain't it? (2.349-350)

Apparently, religion can hurt just as much as straight out violence, if Bill's account here can be believed. He had gone looking for Todger Fairmile, his ex's new boyfriend, to fight with him and get punched, which would somehow make him "even" with Jenny for hitting her. However, instead, when Bill spit in his face, Todger apparently decided to combine physical violence with his recent discovery of religion, kneeling on Bill while also praying for him. Because sure, that makes sense?

Not lawkly. Aw'd give her anather as soon as look at er. Let her ev the lawr o me as she threatened! She ain't forgiven me: not mach. Wot Aw dan to er is not on me mawnd—wot she [indicating Barbara] mawt call on me conscience—no more than stickin a pig. It's this Christian gime o yours that Aw wown't ev plyed agen me: this bloomin forgivin an neggin an jawrin that mikes a menn thet sore that iz lawf's a burdn to im. Aw wown't ev it, Aw tell you; sao tike your manney and stop thraowin your silly beshed fice hap agen me. (2.363)

Well, Bill says he'd happily hit Rummy again and wants Jenny to get her "silly beshed fice" away from him, so he sounds really sorry…not. He's basically just trying to get the Army to accept a sovereign (and stop trying to convert him) in compensation for what he did to Jenny, sounding more annoyed and indignant than genuinely sorry.

MRS. BAINES [taking the cheque]: The longer I live the more proof I see that there is an Infinite Goodness that turns everything to the work of salvation sooner or later. Who would have thought that any good could have come out of war and drink? And yet their profits are brought today to the feet of salvation to do its blessed work. [She is affected to tears] (2.424)

Hmm . . . is she looking on the bright side, or rationalizing her decision to accept money from people whose principles run counter to her own? That is the question of the moment when Mrs. Baines enthusiastically takes money from Bodger and Andrew to save the Army.

UNDERSHAFT [with a touch of brutality] The government of your country! I am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus. Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays us. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn't. (3.129)

Here Undershaft asserts what Lady Brit was saying at the beginning: the fact that they are arms dealers makes Andrew and Lazarus so powerful that basically they have as much or more power than the government—in fact, they not only fill existing needs with their weapons, but they can also actually dictate when wars happen. Yowza.

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