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"Major Barbara" Makes Your Moral Compass Spin

By: Mark Blankenship
Date: Nov 05, 2014


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George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara may spin your moral compass until you don't know where you're standing anymore. 

On one hand, it seems impossible to argue with the title character, a Salvation Army worker who's dedicated to helping the poorest people in London. Barbara is so upright, in fact, that she leaves the Army when her superior accepts donations from a whiskey distiller and an arms manufacturer. How can you fault a character who works so hard to remain unsullied?

On the other hand, that arms manufacturer is her father, Andrew Undershaft. An obscenely wealthy man who gives his employees a good salary and a nice place to live, he laughs at the "Christmas card moralities" of people who say that war and violence have no place in a decent society. Naturally, this puts him at philosophical odds with his daughter, and they spend most of the play trying to convert each other's positions.

And because this is Shaw, it's easy to root for them both. Both Barbara and Undershaft are vital people with wit and charm to match their staunch ideas, and both of them articulate their worldviews with such lively eloquence that you want to cheer everything they say, if only to celebrate their perspicacity.

But what does it mean to see both sides of an argument that pits war against peace, commerce against religion? What does it say about our own philosophies? Our own morality? 

Shaw never answers those questions, of course. His genius lies in entertaining us so thoroughly as he makes us ask them. And the size of his achievement places a serious challenge before any theatre company that wants to bring Major Barbara to the stage. Just ask the stars of the current Off-Broadway revival, which is presented by the Pearl Theatre Company and Gingold Theatrical Group. To make the script work, these actors have to master both the minds and hearts of their characters.

The minds may be most apparent, since everyone delivers such adroit speeches. "You really have to be methodical in your thought process as you craft these words," says Hannah Cabell, who plays Barbara. "Some of the thoughts are so multi-layered, and as an actor, I have to take the time to explore each of those layers. I have to resist my own strong impulse to jump to a very quick delivery [of the lines], so that audiences can really hear all the tiny details in those arguments."

Dan Daily, who plays Undershaft, adds that the play even demands physical changes in how he performs. "To say these lines well, you have to alter how you breathe," he explains. "We in America typically do not express ourselves this way, so you have to learn how to re-breathe so that the ideas all sound supported. Because in real life people very rarely run out of breath when they're speaking to you, unless they're running from a fire."

Notice, though, that he likens his performance to the way someone speaks in real life. Shaw's characters are preternaturally insightful, but they're not just mouthpieces for rhetoric. Underneath the debate, they're always driven by conflicts and desires. "Even though it seems very elevated, it is very human," Daily says. "It's just the kind of humanity that's far more sophisticated and specific than we tend to be."

For Cabell, capturing Barbara's humanity has required as much work as mastering her lines. "At the beginning of the process, I had a hard time connecting to Barbara's proselytizing," she says. "But working on the play, I've learned that it's based in Barbara's love of the common people. She honestly just wants to help, as opposed to boosting numbers [of recruits] for the Salvation Army. I was able to really hook into that."

Meanwhile, Daily, who has been a member of the Pearl's resident acting company since 1998, has found a fresh connection to the script, even though this is the fourth production of Major Barbara in his career. 

"What's new to me this time is how Undershaft discovers connections to his family," he says. "What Barbara and Undershaft are to each other at the end is up for the audience to decide, but there's no question he feels a very passionate attachment to her. This time---a little older in my life, with grown children of my own---the personal attachment that he feels almost immediately to all of his children is new and a bit overwhelming."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Richard Termine
Mark Blankenship