Major Barbara at the National

Major Barbara is among my least favourite Shaw plays. A few years back I taught it to an A-level class; I felt that it had flashes of brilliance, and some very good characterisation (The class enjoyed Lady Britomart hugely, I remember.) But many of the paradoxes seemed willed and often mechanical, and the treatment of the arms trade seemed irresponsible (Beatrice Webb described the play as “gambling with people’s emotions”).

So I went to see Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National Theatre with more curiosity than expectation. Last year St Joan had been a triumph in the Olivier Theatre. Could Major Barbara in all its wordiness work there?

The answer is yes. The production is superb, showing that Shaw can come across better on the stage than on the page. Hytner has made some judicious cuts, but more than that, has offset the play’s verbosity by developing the subtexts, the pressure behind the words. This is a production full of powerful silences, and the wordiness is revealed as the surface above more powerful depths.

The production’s great asset is Simon Russell Beale. He is a superb actor, whatever he does. I remember his Hamlet in the Olivier, speaking the soliloquies stock-still in the centre of the huge stage, speaking familiar lines with apparent simplicity, but revealing things one had never heard before. His Edgar in an RSC Lear was an equal revelation. His Widmerpool in the TV Dance to the Music of Time was perfect. His George in Stoppard’s Jumpers was almost as good as Michael Hordern’s – and that is true praise.

As Undershaft, Beale is the spirit of capitalism (a system that Shaw hated, yet admired). A ruthless presence, with an unsettling, rasping voice, Undershaft tells the truth. In the Salvation Army shelter, he destroys his daughter’s illusions calmly by using his money to buy approval from her superiors; Beale shows us an Undershaft mildly amused by what he is doing, and without any mercy. He proves his point as forcefully as the iron laws of economics do.

Undershaft is given so many terrific one-liners that the temptation must be to play him as a wit. As I remember, Robert Morley does this in the 1941 film , making his Undershaft self-satisfied. Beale’s is not. He is not glib. The epigrams do not roll off his tongue; he has to search for them, and they come out as the fruit of hard experience. We are constantly aware of his rough beginnings – he is a man who has had to fight against sentimentality (his own and that of others) to get where he is. Poverty has taught him the truth of the basic capitalist principle; making money is what matters. When you have money you can do the good and nice things – and he is a model employer, looking after all his workers’ needs in a garden city that is a model for the welfare state – without money you are nothing. Poverty is a crime. When Beale enunciates these principles, they do not come across as clever paradoxes, but as lived experience.

Hytner’s production makes the play live. The comic cockneys of the Salvation Army shelter become real people that you can care about, and Bill Waker, the violent one, is truly dangerous. When Barbara talks him out of his violent mood, a scene that is none too believable on the page works terrifically as theatre.

The problem – for me – came in the last act. This takes place in Undershaft’s arms factory – a superb set, with rank upon rank of shells. There is a crucial exchange between Undershaft and Adolphus Cusins, the idealistic professor of Greek, in which Undershaft persuades the idealist to become his successor at the factory. He convincingly explains how arms dealers are the true rulers of the world, and one can see why Cusins is attracted by the offer – but the play seems to be saying that there can be a triumphant world-improving alliance between capitalism and an idealism that has lost its illusions. In this ending, the play’s wordiness triumphs over the reality of the emotional situation, I can’t help feeling, and even a production as good as this can’t quite make it convincing.

The ending seems to me to be a paradox too far, but it was probably Shaw’s reason for writing the whole piece. He based the character of Cusins on Gilbert Murray, whose translations of Euripides were presented at the Royal Court in the same seasons as Shaw’s plays. Shaw’s working title for the play was Murray’s Mother-in-Law, which suggests that the Salvationist Barbara was not so important in the early stages of the writing.

Murray was a pacifist, and Shaw obviously wanted to ally his intellectual energy with the practical energy of capitalism, but the alliance seems to stay firmly in the realm of ideas. Except that in real life, Murray abandoned his pacifism during the Great War; his pamphlets arguing the case for Britain’s involvement, aimed at an American audience, were among the most successful of those issued with the assistance of Wellington House, the government’s propaganda department. This is one of the things that is ignored in Fram, another play currently in the National Theatre’s repertory. (I haven’t seen Fram onstage, but have read Tony Harrison’s script.) Fram is an odd play, a ramshackle rhyming extravaganza that yokes together Nansen’s polar expeditions, his later refugee work for the League of Nations, and Murray’s versions of Euripides. Murray is used to present the case for literary pacifism, which is to simplify him, but you can see why Harrison couldn’t make the character very complex. He has to stand for Art, as against Politics and Charity as ways of saving the world. Like Major Barbara, Fram is a play of debate, but I doubt whether even a first-rate production could save this one from sinking under its own wordiness.

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