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Free Study Guide for Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw-MonkeyNotes
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ACT SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

ACT I

Summary

In the first Act, Lady Britomart, a woman of fifty, is introduced and described. The daughter of the Earl of Stevenage, she has always moved in aristocratic circles; in fact, she does not know anything beyond the upper class society in which she lives. Although she is well read and efficient, she is most known for her sharp tongue. As a mother, she is characterized by scolding and chiding her offspring.

When the play opens, Lady Britomart calls for her son Stephen, who is twenty-five years of age. She wants to discuss an important matter with him. When he comes on stage, she tells him that he is now old enough to take on some of the responsibilities of the family business. During the course of their conversation, it is revealed that Lady Britomart also has two daughters, both of them engaged. She also reveals that she is estranged from her husband, Mr. Undershaft, a wealthy businessman; he owns a munitions factory and has made huge profits by selling guns and canons all over the world. Stephen is ashamed of his father's profession.

Stephen and his sisters do not really know their father, for he has made no effort to stay in contact with them. As a result, Stephen is shocked to learn that his mother has invited his father to come over. The purpose of the visit is to have Mr. Undershaft agree to some kind of permanent income for their daughters after the two young women are married. Even before Andrew Undershaft appears on the scene, Lady Britomart gives a sense of his nature as she talks about the "great Undershaft tradition". Included in this tradition is the fact that the Undershaft munitions factory, worth million of pounds, is not to be inherited by a blood relative of the Undershaft family. Instead, an orphan is to be selected as the heir on the basis of his abilities and trained to take over the huge Undershaft Empire. When Stephen hears this story, he tells his mother that he is not interested in his father's money nor his property, especially not the munitions factory. His mother points out, however, that even if Stephen is not interested in his father's property, he must think about his sisters, who need some kind of income after their marriage.

Lady Britomart calls for her two daughters and their fiancés in order to inform them about their father's arrival. Sarah and Barbara come on stage with their fiancés, Charles and Adolphous respectively. Sarah is described as a slender, bored, and mundane woman, who is always fashionably dressed; she seems to have little purpose in life. Barbara is a much healthier, happier, and more energetic woman, who worries little about her appearance; she is dressed in a Salvation Army uniform. Charles Lomax, Sarah's fiancé, is a frivolous young man who has the irritating habit of plunging into uncontrollable laughter at the most inopportune moments. Adolphous Cusins, who is engaged to Barbara, is a more serious and intellectual man with a sweet voice; according to Shaw, Cusins' sense of humor is intellectual and subtle, mixed with an 'appalling temper.'


The news of Mr. Undershaft's upcoming visit evokes various responses. Barbara looks forward to the arrival of her father, for she sees him as another soul that can be saved. Sarah, on the other hand, is extremely scared to meet with her father. Charles Lomax is so shocked that he can barely speak; he makes inane remarks like "oh I say," which totally annoy Lady Britomart. Cusins is much more intellectual and in control. He tells Lady Britomart that she has his 'unhesitating support' in whatever she wishes to do. He further asserts that all of them should act appropriately for their behavior will be a reflection of the way that lady Britomart has brought them up.

Mr. Andrew Undershaft soon enters. He is an older gentleman with a patient, listening face that exudes great inner strength. He, however, is confused by the number of young people before him. In his initial awkwardness, he mistakes Cusins to be his son and his son to be a stranger. As all of them visit together, Undershaft shows the most interest in Barbara's work at the Salvation Army; previously a pauper, he had been part of the Salvation Army in his youth. Barbara invites him to visit her at the Shelter at West Ham, where she works. In return Mr. Undershaft asks her to come and visit his munitions factory.

Lomax criticizes Undershaft's profession of manufacturing arms. Undershaft, however, defends his work and the necessity of his product; he also explains that he uses his profits to make better weapons rather than making donations to various churches and hospitals in an effort to ease his conscience. The Act ends with Charles and Barbara playing "Onward Christian Soldiers," a well- know hymn sung by the Salvation Army, followed by a short prayer meeting. Lady Britomart does not attend at first, for she had wanted the meeting to follow the Anglican prayer book. Even though the meeting does not follow her request, she finally joins her family, still feeling annoyed that she has been ignored. After the prayer meeting, Lady Britomart again talks to her son Stephen, telling him that she is displeased. She explains that she has faced all the problems of bringing up the children with no help from her husband; she is now upset that they seem to prefer their father to her.

Notes

In Act I, Lady Britomart's basic nature is developed. Totally preoccupied with monetary concerns, she is alienated from the rest of society. She even treats her own children in a harsh, scolding manner. For her, financial security is far more important than principle or relationships. In fact, the only things that seem to govern her life are money and social status. She admits that she is estranged from her husband, Mr. Undershaft, because of financial matters. Then during this act she invites him for a visit in order to convince him to provide a decent income for their daughters, Barbara and Sarah. Through Lady Britomart, Shaw seems to be laughing at the aristocratic families whose personal relations are often based on money alone. He also reveals the true face of this 'polite society', which can be rather crude when it comes to questions of inheritance and property. Lady Britomart is appalled at the idea that the family business will not go to the 'right' heir by birth-her son Stephen; instead, 'by an amoral tradition,' it will go to some orphan who will be selected on his ability to run the Undershaft Empire.

When Lady Britomart announces that her estranged husband is coming for a visit, her children, who have not seen their father in a long time, react in different ways. Stephen judges his father harshly and is not pleased about his visit. Sarah is apprehensive about seeing her father again. Only Barbara seems to be excited about the news; she looks forward to seeing another person whose soul needs to be saved. When Undershaft arrives, he notices that Barbara seems to be the most special of the young people. Not afraid to express herself, she reveals that she is passionate about and committed to her work at the Salvation Army, where she has been promoted to the position of Major. She is a complete contrast to her sister Sarah, who does not seem to have a purpose in life, but much like her father in her commitment to succeeding. Shaw also points out the difference between father and daughter. While Barbara, in true Christian fashion, works to save the souls of sinners, her father seems to have rejected all aspects of traditional Christianity. Ironically, the motto of the Salvation Army, 'Blood and Fire,' can also be applied to Undershaft's munitions factory.

Mr. Undershaft is portrayed as a man of the world who has made his own way and his own fortune. In his youth, his life was governed by poverty, and he had even been a part of the Salvation Army. Now, however, he judges poverty to be a crime and will do whatever is necessary to insure his own success. He is depicted as a representation of realism and capitalism. As the play develops, Mr. Undershaft also becomes a mouthpiece for Shaw's views.

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