- Machiavelli, the Shark, and the Tinpot Tragedienne1
Chiefly because Shaw makes the three main characters of Major Barbara articulate their views so eloquently and forcefully, analyses of the play and productions of it often take these characters at their own valuation, which conveys their strength. Instead, I want to explore their qualities that may be unadmirable or unpalatable. Doing so should lead us to reassess them and the implications of their views, thereby arriving at a fuller understanding of this complex work. My title derives from terms in the play.
In Act II, when Barbara complains that she would rather spend her time converting people than begging for money for the Salvation Army, Undershaft pretends to comfort her: "Genuine unselfishness is capable of anything, my dear." Missing his "profound irony," she agrees, whereupon he "looks sardonically at Cusins," who calls him "Mephistopheles! Machiavelli!"2 In performance, the names need not have a single motivation. Cusins might call Undershaft the devil, then in a breath-pause recognize that another name is more appropriate and theatrically top it with "Machiavelli," which suits Undershaft better, since he is crafty and tricky, not evil, and he is subverting a religious organization, not God. Cusins uses this name four more times, and later, familiarly, "Mac." Undershaft is as cunning and duplicitious as the sobriquet implies. With appropriate emphasis on these qualities, audiences might less easily swallow Undershaft's doctrines, but rather perceive that he is using unscrupulous stratagems to win Barbara and Cusins to his views. I do not mean that the actor should play him as a villain, which he is not, but that the actor should stress his Machiavellianism. With a focus on his machinations, audiences might be less inclined to consider him the author's spokesman, which they often still do.3
In Act III, Scene 2, after Cusins betters him at his own game, business, by negotiating a higher salary for himself, Undershaft calls him "a shark of the first order." So he is. An actor can find passages to demonstrate, [End Page 59] before this, that Cusins is a man on the lookout for the main chance, one whom Gilbert Murray, the model for Cusins, called "unprincipled."4 Audiences might see Cusins's actions and words as ploys to further his own interests.
Barbara's response to Undershaft's "purchase" of the Salvation Army is marked by disillusionment and heartbreak. In the same scene, he rebukes her for exaggerating her "little tinpot tragedy." His reprimand suggests that she is a naïve do-gooder. By showing that she is indeed such a person, an actress could interest us in watching how she copes when reality destroys her naïveté.
In the opening scene, Lady Britomart expresses disappointment in Barbara. Since Lady Britomart is comically rigid and opinionated, we tend to be skeptical of her spin. The actress can help mitigate this reaction. Lady Britomart understands her daughter. Instead of embarking on a path that would fulfill her brilliant promise and outshine her siblings, says she, Barbara joined the Salvation Army, discharged her maid, and determined to live on one pound per week. She conveys two aspects of Barbara: an unrealized potential and a vocational choice that makes her what I called a "naïve do-gooder." However, Barbara does more than spend a few hours a week in community service. The Salvation Army is the focus of her life. While she wants to help the poor, not become poor, she thinks that sacking her maid and living on a pound a week (while residing in a mansion, where she eats breakfast and dinner) will help her understand the privations of slum dwellers. The play dramatizes her naïveté in believing that the Salvation Army is the best way to help them. Lady Britomart's disappointment has a reasonable basis.
In Act II, Undershaft admits his affection for Barbara, whom he had not seen since she was a baby. We may chart the growth of this affection from the family scene in Act I. Stephen, the only one of the young people with whom he does not shake hands, is reserved. Sarah prompts her father when...