Major Barbara

Would that everyone in the world were as amiably self-aware as the characters in a play by George Bernard Shaw! Or at least our adversaries. Of this much reconciliation would come. Andrew Undershaft (the majestic Ted van Griethuysen), weapons dealer who is described by one character as “the Prince of Darkness,” returns to his petit-aristocratic family in Wilton Crescent with its hothouse niceties:

UNDERSHAFT. …consider for a moment. Here I am, a manufacturer of mutilation and murder. I find myself in a specially amiable humor just now because, this morning, down at the foundry, we blew twenty-seven dummy soldiers into fragments with a gun which formerly destroyed only thirteen.

Who can quarrel with this argument? Perhaps only his daughter, the titular Barbara (the plucky proto-suffragette Vivienne Benesch) of this play from 1905, who has volunteered in the Salvation Army and risen to the rank of major. Will Barbara—disillusioned by the moral compromises that even her Army must make to remain viable—and her betrothed, former Greek professor Adophus Cusins (played with giddy fervor and wild hair by Karl Kenzler), assume the legacy of the family arms business? Well, this is a comedy, after all.

Director Ethan McSweeny keeps the proceedings fizzing along quickly and delivers a running time for the evening less than three hours. We particularly liked the scrim-projected titles that establish scenes reproducing morsels of Shaw’s stage directions—considered by many to be the best part of the plays. A tossed-off bit about a cushion turns into a running gag for Lady Britomart (Undershaft’s wife and Barbara’s mother) (Wildean Helen Carey) and her son Stephen (Tom Story, in fine squeaky, feckless fettle). McSweeny’s players keep their physicality in Edwardian-era check until the final scene at Undershaft’s munitions plant, when most of the explosions are emotional. Barbara and Adolphus have a good closing scene twirling about a Germanic-looking monument topped with an Iron Cross, and Undershaft comes positively undone in this speech:

UNDERSHAFT. Ought, ought, ought, ought, ought! Are you going to spend your life saying ought, like the rest of our moralists? Turn your oughts into shalls, man. Come and make explosives with me. Whatever can blow men up can blow society up. The history of the world is the history of those who had courage enough to embrace this truth. Have you the courage to embrace it, Barbara?

Also noteworthy are the sets by James Noone, from the highly polished steamship of the Wilton Crescent library to the gunpowder sheds of Undershaft’s factory. The red and black color scheme for the sheds is evocative of events later to come in the century, and the decision to leave their sheetrock walls (anachronistic? no matter) untaped and unpainted is inspired.

  • Major Barbara, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Ethan McSweeny, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington