As is shown with
the example of Bill Walker’s assault on two women, which Barbara
refuses to punish (but also to forgive), if we treat “bad”
people well they begin respecting themselves and do good. Could this
be simplified into what contemporary psychologists call the “glass
mirror effect”, which states that if we think of somebody as
stupid, he begins acting stupid etc.
Shaw is also not reluctant to admit that morality is a
relative term: “There is only one true morality for every man; but
every man has not the same morality”. When Stephen, the
narrow-minded aristocrat, says “right is right and wrong is wrong”,
he clearly appears to be making a very naïve assumption, especially
in the context of the play.
The relativity of morality is illustrated with the
paradox of the Salvation Army being described as an ugly nest of
hypocrisy, and the armament-factory of “the Prince of Darkness”
being described as a happy and prosperous place. That is Shavian
paradox at work: what everybody expects to be Hell is as beautiful
as Paradise. Undershaft’s welfare town is a small-scale attempt at
socialism, and the direct improvement in the life of the employees
satiates them, which suits Undershaft.
Private enterprise socialism seems to be the
alternative to liberal democracy that Shaw supports, although he
does imply that greater progress will only come through what Otto
von Bismarck called “blood and iron”. Shaw is saying that
liberal democracy only gives an illusion of freedom- the real power
is force, which is why revolution successfully occurred in France
and in Russia. Under liberal democracy, neither the politicians, nor
the people have the power; it is the capitalist giants like
Undershaft who pull the strings, and are “above the law”.
The ultimate battle in “Major Barbara”, therefore,
is that between ideology and power. Power is , of course, the
triumphant winner as is exemplified by the decision of the Professor
of Greek to join Undershaft’s side and succeed him in his
foundling throne. Although he may at first appear to be making a
pact with the devil, Cusins is actually choosing realism over
romance, and practical improvement over impractical theories. Cusins
has realized that he cannot change the world by teaching Greek
philosophy, and so he takes to “gunpowder”. After all,
philosophy may be difficult for people to understand, but power is
the universal language.
“Major Barbara” is a play that gives credit to Shaw’s
statement that “I am and shall always be a revolutionary writer,
because our laws make law impossible...”.The play is truly a
revolutionary one, so much so that it is a delightful read to anyone
who feels himself to be an opponent of the current order of things.
And what greater poetry is there than in the paradox of the way of
life lying through the factory of death?