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  • Undershaft as Platonic / Euripidean / Shavian Life Force
  • Charles A. Carpenter (bio)
Sidney P. Albert . Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in "Major Barbara". Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. 305 pages. $74.95.

In the latest of his many brief, lucid forewords in the Florida Bernard Shaw series, this one introducing Sidney P. Albert's volume Shaw, Plato, and Euripides: Classical Currents in "Major Barbara," Richard F. Dietrich states that Major Barbara, though one of Shaw's richest and most controversial plays "in meaning," has never before been written about "from this specific angle with this degree of historical/philosophical contextualizing, and [End Page 177] rarely has the general area of philosophical discourse been graced by such clarity of writing." Such extraordinary praise is fully deserved. The book is a remarkable product of long-term accumulated scholarship, embodying as it does Albert's erudition in the fields of philosophy, classics, and drama that he began amassing in the 1930s, sharpened into a focus on Shaw and Major Barbara in the 1960s, and completed only in early 2012. Also remarkably, the book is not at all what some might expect, an arrangement of Albert's dozen published essays on the broad subject, but rather an integral, sustained argument from start to finish. The forty-two-page Part 1, "Plato's Republic," incorporates several observations from his nine-page article with the same title that appeared in the SHAW 25 (2005); otherwise, the Appendix (reprinted to give those who need a firmer background), "Bernard Shaw: The Artist as Philosopher" (1959), is the only significant duplication of his previous output.

The focus in Part 2 falls directly upon the close kinship that Major Barbara and Euripides' Bacchae share. I use the term "kinship" to differentiate the book's methodology from studies of adaptations and sources; Albert's measured terms such as "currents," "parallels," "congruence," and "correspondence" convey his dominant mode. Two chapters probe deeply into Acts I and II of Shaw's play; the next do the same for the first and second scenes of Act III. Albert announces that his principal goal throughout is to give much closer scrutiny than has previously been given to Major Barbara as a "possible modern counterpart" of the Bacchae (6). In the process, he gives the entire play closer scrutiny than it has ever had before. Albert focuses repeatedly on the character of Andrew Undershaft for his affinities with the classical concept of the daimon, or divine power, and with the figure of Dionysus, the embodiment of "wild, surging potency in nature" (58). Along with many other aspects of the play that he considers, he pursues this analysis at great length and impressive detail from pages 53 to 220, bolstered by notes from pages 250 to 281.

Near the end of Part 1, Albert reaches his conclusion about the relation between Perivale St. Andrews and Plato's Republic: "As Cusins prepares to assume the name and power of Andrew Undershaft and to be joined in matrimony with Barbara, wisdom, power, and glory meet in a symbolic unity prefiguring the kingdom come: Shaw's republic" (51). This is one of three trinities in the play involving the central trio of characters that Albert perceives as analogous to ones in Plato's kingdom. The first derives from the kind of political society pictured there, and he treats it only briefly: Undershaft corresponds to "the productive class of craftsmen, merchants, and traders"; Barbara is linked to "the auxiliary military class"; and Cusins is "properly associated with the class of rulers and counselors" (23). The second trinity reflects Plato's "psychology of the tripartite soul": Undershaft [End Page 178] exhibits "the dominant drives of appetite and will"; Cusins represents intelligent reasoning; and Barbara "symbolizes the passionate, 'spirited,' or feeling element, whose impulses of righteous and honorable indignation, anger, and ambition side with reason against appetite" (24). The third trinity is that of "cardinal virtues." Cusins symbolizes wisdom, Barbara courage—especially moral courage; Undershaft embodies a complex virtue termed sophrosyne or temperance, "which in the Republic means self-control or self-mastery" (26). Albert later describes the same general concept as "a Shavian trinity in which surrogates for state, church, and...


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