Major Barbara: When Relevancy Shifts

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw

This week, I listened to a podcast of LA Theatre Works’ production of Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw. It was well-performed, with actors such as Roger Rees, Hamish Linklater, and Kate Burton in primary roles. Especially impressive was Kirsten Potter in the role of Barbara, an actress that was previously unfamiliar to me. Judging from a quick online search, it seems she specializes in voice acting, and it certainly shows. Her execution of the words was so vividly expressive, I had a fully realized image of her character in my mind without having any idea what Ms. Potter actually looks like.

My first time reading the script of Major Barbara was a few years ago when it came up in an early season of the HBO series, Girls. It tells the story of the Undershaft family, focusing on its idealistic daughter Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army who works tirelessly at one of its shelters. Her estranged father, Andrew, is an armaments dealer, a profession that disgusts Barbara. The two are reunited after many years, and when her shelter accepts a sizeable donation from Andrew, Barbara is disgusted that they would take money that wasn’t morally pure. Ultimately, she decides that spreading the message of salvation is more important than taking umbrage with the resources that fund the cause. She returns to her work helping the hungry and impoverished, resolving to the fact that it is partially enabled by her father’s bank account.

Shaw's Major Barbara
From the 1941 film, via MoMA website

LATW’s production was first broadcasted on the radio in May of 2009. At the end, there’s a short interview with accomplished theatre director Ethan McSweeny. When asked a question about how the play remains relevant today, McSweeny responds:

“I think, you know, thank goodness I don’t think there’s anything relevant about the play anymore. Because we don’t have a military industrial complex whose fortunes depend upon man’s seemingly infinite capacity to destroy his fellow man. And we don’t live in times where the business interests of the few triumph over the good of the many, or the one, and drive nations to wars on its behalf. I feel it’s wonderful that this play has been condemned to irrelevancy.”

It struck me that this interview took place almost exactly eight years ago. Made today, this statement would most certainly be countered with a string of arguments to the contrary. In fact, news about investigations into these very concerns is featured in the political sections of thousands of publications on a daily basis. And that’s just the United States. The conversations that George Bernard Shaw brings up in this play have been very relevant on the global landscape for the entirety of the last century since the play debuted in 1905. Writing styles change, topicality ebbs and flows, but condemning this play to irrelevancy was a bit, if not entirely, premature.

The themes of socially charged plays slip in and out of relevancy, at least within our particular community bubbles, and that’s part of the reason that the language of theatre is an essential part of our cultural landscape. With each new production, the same script, characters, scenes, and plot points, resonate with new meaning. Geography and a slew of other variables play a factor, too. In the case of Major Barbara, the change in national conversation within a few short years has made the theme of corporate interference with the good of the people poignant to Americans once again. So as we study stage plays, both young and old, it’s important to remember that the meaning and relevancy are no more static than our own feelings and beliefs.

Primary Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash