The Major and the Merchant


My students were neutral to positive when I announced that we were going to read Major Barbara as our next play. After all, we had done Pygmalion earlier and that wasn’t half bad. At least they could understand most of the dialogue, since thankfully, it wasn’t Shakespeare.

Each year my colleague and I try to read the plays included in the Guthrie Theater season with students and then escort a group to the performances. This year it was to be Major Barbara and The Merchant of Venice. My colleague chose the latter and taught lessons on usury and the status of Jews in Elizabethan England. For the Major, I too started out with context, discussing Fabian socialism and the arms race and secret military alliances in the run-up to World War I.

The Cockney character Bill was the students’ favorite. His belligerence was a great relief from the toney drawing room talk of Act I, but even better were their friends’ struggles in delivering lines such as “Wot prawce selvytion nah?”

They even got the meaning of the line: that ‘salvation’ can be bought, be it by a millionaire making a pious donation or a charity offering bread in exchange for conversion. What they didn’t get was what it had to do with those bellringers outside grocery stores.

By the time we got to Act III, I could count on someone slapping down the script, throwing hands in the air, or even in one case, banging his head on the table and moaning, “What’s going on? I don’t get it!” I could commiserate; it was confusing. Shaw targets the many varieties of naivety and hypocrisy, and no one comes out well.

What helped was asking them to find equivalents of some of the characters in our own society. So, for the disinherited son, Stephen Undershaft, whose black and white opinions never prod below the surface of things, they suggested teens who always followed the crowd and people who vote the way their friends do. For the armaments-maker and war loan enterprise, Undershaft and Lazarus, they suggested defense contractors from Krupp to Halliburton. For Mrs. Baines, who accepts donations to the Salvation Army shelter from liquor distillers and weapons manufacturers, they proposed charities and politicians who accept contributions from tobacco companies and universities the do weapons research. For the fired laborer Peter Shirley: any of the unemployed victims of –isms: racism, sexism, ageism. And who might be like the cynical professor Adophus Cusins? Why Jon Stewart of course!

I was pleased they could identify similarities between societies one hundred years apart. That’s what great literature should do: produce timeless human portraits. Only a few students, however, picked up the answer Shaw gives as to what should be done about the sorry state of human affairs. I didn’t belabor the message with the others, since I was dealing with my own conundrum: If Shaw were writing today, considering the carnage of the twentieth century, would he end the play in the same way?

The central conflict in the play is seen as that between the Salvation Army evangelizer Barbara and her father, Andrew Undershaft, the armorer—each trying to convert the other. At the play’s conclusion, Barbara accepts her father’s view that in order to truly convert people’s hearts, you can’t just give poor people some bread. They only ‘convert’ then because they have no alternative. For true conversion, people must first have their basic needs met. Then if they accept God into their lives, it is a genuine transformation. Barbara decides to spend her extraordinary energy proselytizing the happy workers in her father’s factories. This is interpreted as accepting a dash of realism to season her idealistic enthusiasm.

A second conflict is seen as the one between Undershaft and Adophus Cusins. Barbara, after all is a raving idealist; give her the option and she’ll choose the brighter view. Her fiancé Cusins is a cynic. He admits he’s a collector of religions, and his attachment to the Salvation Army is as hollow as the drum he beats in its marching band. He has joined the Army to win Barbara—whom he doesn’t even accept that he loves. He just ‘has to have her.’ However, he does balk at actually making and selling weapons. So, to get him to take over the firm, Undershaft has to convince Cusins that he is serving a higher end. In doing so, he makes the Marxist argument: for the goals of the common people to drive the economy, the common people must have weapons to force the intellectuals, the politicians and industrialists to listen to them. Sure there will be some bloodshed, but that’s to be expected on the way to the new utopia, when the common man will be in charge.

Sound familiar? It seems to me that Undershaft/Shaw’s panacea has caused horrendous bloodshed, as junta after junta claims to stand for the common man, and destroys those holding power as well as millions of common citizens. Count them: from the Stalinists to today’s ethnic cleaners. Guns breed more guns.

So then it was time to actually see the Guthrie performances of the Merchant and the Major. Although I hadn’t read Merchant in many years, since a colleague had taught the play, I came away unsettled. I recalled her recounting how two of her students had tears in their eyes at the end of the courtroom scene, wailing, “How could Shakespeare have done that?”

After seeing Major Barbara performed, I realized there was a very interesting connection between the two plays. In The Merchant, we thrill to Portia’s great claim: “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown…But mercy is above this scept’red sway…It is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. (Portia at IV, i) Yet what happens soon after? She strips Shylock of everything he values; and to top it off, he is forced to convert to Christianity. Apparently mercy should only rain on one’s own kind.

In my reading of Major Barbara, Undershaft attacks the hypocrisy he detects everywhere: in his son, in the Salvation Army, in politicians. However, to win Barbara and Cusins over to Undershaft and Lazarus, Ltd., he makes arguments that Cusins rightly calls ‘Machiavellian,’ painting scenarios that he must know are humbug, or as the character Lomax says, “Tosh!” And Cusins, though undoubtedly realizing this, accepts the deal. He will make weapons, sell them to anyone who has the money just as Undershaft demands, saying that in so doing he will make possible the triumph of the common man, for whom he supposedly stands. Undershaft may not be a hypocrite underneath; he makes whatever arguments will win the day. But Cusins surely is, and Barbara remains a somewhat naïve idealist. At the end she calls, “Mamma! I want Mamma.”

No one ends up very heroic in Major Barbara, and to modern sensibilities, no one does in The Merchant either. Me—I’ll take the mamma, Lady Britomart, who says her piece and then washes her hands of the deal, deciding to focus on what she knows: the linen.

Those twentieth century British literary greats, Shaw and Orwell, both died in 1950 – Orwell at 46 and Shaw at 94. Did they ever meet and debate? I would have liked to have been there: Animal Farm versus Major Barbara.