- The Time of Major Barbara
In “The Time of Major Barbara” (Notes and Documents, Theatre Survey 23, no. 1 [May 1982]: 110–11), Bernard F. Dukore wondered why Bernard Shaw chose to have his play take place in January 1906 rather than in 1905, the year in which it was written and first performed. He advanced some conjectures for this decision and welcomed “a quotation from the playwright that would settle the matter” (111). The question Dukore raised hardly strikes me as a matter of great moment, and I seriously doubt whether Shaw ever made such a desiderated explanation. Nevertheless, what he had to say prompts a number of observations that I trust are germane.
To the question, “Why 1906 rather than 1905?” one might well respond, why not? The reasons for selecting 1906 are clearly more compelling than those for the year before. The time of composition may have some bearing on the dating of a contemporary play, but it need not be decisive. The time of stage production may be more significant, but in this instance, as Dukore reported, it spanned the two years, so other considerations were bound to be pivotal.
Shaw began writing Major Barbara late in March 1905, finished it in Derry, Ireland, on 8 September, returned to London at the end of that month, and after reading it to Gilbert Murray and Granville Barker on 1 October, undertook a revision that was not completed until 15 October.1 Evidently he was writing it for a planned production in November because late in September—after the original version was written—he expressed uncertainty as to whether he would have a prompt copy by November in view of the need for cutting that lay before him. As it turned out, he did prepare a [End Page 17] prompt copy in time, and the drama opened on schedule on 28 November. Still, some measure of doubt about the possible production date may have been in the playwright’s mind in the immediately preceding months.
As Dukore points out, in the manuscript and original prompt copy of 1905, as well as in the first published edition of the play in 1907, only the month of January is given as the time, with no mention of year.2 It is in the theater programs of the initial production that the time is specified as January 1906. Once Shaw selected January as the month for his play, 1906 became inevitable as the year to insert in the program. January 1905 would have made no sense.
Why the author preferred the month of January for his setting is another question. Here my surmise differs from that of Dukore: January is mid-winter, the middle of the three winter months, a time when cold weather has already been experienced and more is in store. It also marks the beginning of a new year. From the production standpoint, a January date for the play would keep it contemporary throughout 1906; setting it any time in 1905 would not, relegating it to the past virtually from its opening. That would hardly do for a drama that is prospective in outlook, not retrospective.
Pertinent to our consideration too are several points about the consecutive series of engagements at the Court Theatre. The first six matinee performances, presented on successive Tuesdays and Fridays, were stretched out over three weeks. The first, on 28 November, was the only one in that month; the final one took place in mid-December on the 15th. Thus five-sixths of the matinee run occurred in December, barely squeezed into the end-of-year schedule at the Court. Interestingly enough, the play was not licensed by the Lord Chamberlain until 9 December. It is also noteworthy that the “January 1906” entry in the program during the November-December performances elicited not a single comment from the numerous reviewers of the new Shavian drama: 1905 was rapidly waning, and the new year was imminent.
With but a two-week hiatus for the Christmas season, this Major Barbara production resumed on 1 January for six weeks, “promoted” to the evening bill in accordance with Court Theatre repertory custom (as...