Culture Shock: George Bernard Shaw’s sympathy for the devil

The writer used his play Major Barbara to try to work out his feelings about poverty and power, capitalism and injustice. He couldn’t stop himself getting tangled up dramatically, but the result at the Abbey Theatre is a richly enjoyable production

At the Abbey: Eleanor Methven (Lady Britomart), Gerard Byrne (Morrison), Marty Rea (Adolphus Cusins), Clare Dunne (Barbara), Liz Fitzgibbon (Sarah) and Aonghus Óg McAnally (Charles Lomax) in Annabelle Comyn’s production of Major Barbara. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

At the Abbey: Eleanor Methven (Lady Britomart), Gerard Byrne (Morrison), Marty Rea (Adolphus Cusins), Clare Dunne (Barbara), Liz Fitzgibbon (Sarah) and Aonghus Óg McAnally (Charles Lomax) in Annabelle Comyn’s production of Major Barbara. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh


In the last act of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, an exasperated Lady Britomart snaps at her estranged husband, the arms tycoon Undershaft, “Stop making speeches, Andrew. This is not the place for them.” Undershaft, momentarily crestfallen, replies, “My dear: I have no other way of conveying my ideas.” The exchange is, of course, an in-joke. She is speaking for the audience, wearied by so many brilliant but relentless expostulations. Undershaft’s reply is Shaw’s own. His theatre is primarily a means of conveying his ideas. Those ideas are of the kind that can be communicated only in speech, not in the images, gestures, actions or juxtapositions that make theatre theatrical.

But if Shaw’s plays are not especially theatrical, they are highly dramatic. Every Shaw play has essentially two characters. One of them is Shaw. And so is the other. Shaw comes to a play with his own deepest feelings: his hatred of poverty, injustice and violence and his belief in a rational socialism as the eventual cure for these ills. And then he creates another, parallel Shaw to argue with himself, a devil’s advocate for capitalism and power and violence. This is nowhere more obviously the case than in Major Barbara. Its fascination is that the devil’s advocate wins his case. An alternative title would be Sympathy for the Devil.

Given that Alfred Nobel shared much with Undershaft, it seems apt that Shaw both rejected and accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature. Undershaft – amoral, manipulative, defiantly shameless – both repels and speaks for Shaw. He is Satan, Nietzsche’s Superman and Karl Marx’s arch-capitalist rolled into one. The problem with Major Barbara is also what makes it most interesting: Shaw goes so far in making his paradoxical case for Undershaft that he can’t find his way back. Shaw’s socialist comrade Beatrice Webb objected, rightly, that the play ends “in an intellectual and moral morass”. But that is the price we pay for its liveliness. Shaw can’t master the devil he has conjured in Undershaft. If he could, the play would make more sense and be much duller.

The greatest pleasure of Annabelle Comyn’s richly enjoyable production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin is the supreme confidence of Paul McGann’s Undershaft. It is very easy to overplay Undershaft, to make him domineering and demonstrative. McGann realises that the devil is most effective as a seducer. He brings to Undershaft the physical stillness of absolute self-assurance and a voice instinct with dreamy lyricism.

There is a delicious line near the end of the first act when Undershaft’s sense of himself as master of the universe is wittily revealed. He does a deal with his daughter Barbara, strongly played by Clare Dunne, whom he wants to seduce over to his dark side: he will visit her Salvation Army shelter if she in turns visits his factory town. She tells him he will find the shelter “at the sign of the cross. Ask anybody in Canning Town.” He tells her she will find the factory “at the sign of the sword. Ask anybody in Europe.” McGann delivers the line with a light lilt that conveys a consciousness of immense power.

But McGann is also utterly convincing in expressing Undershaft’s ruthlessness. Shaw falls in love with Undershaft because the mogul cuts through pretension. He is Shaw’s own evil twin: he describes the world as it is, not as criticism (as GBS would) but simply as fact. And those descriptions are still riveting, because they are still true. The biggest laugh of the night may come on Undershaft’s lines in praise of alcohol: “It enables parliament to do things at 11 at night that no sane person would do at 11 in the morning.”

But the most rapt attention is given to his description of the future political career of his humbugging son Stephen, who has the misfortune to drivel on about “the government of my country”: “The government of your country! I am the government of your country . . . When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military. And in return you shall have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman.” Is there any better summary of the reality we still inhabit?

Shaw is so mesmerised by this devil’s infinitely seductive honesty that he has no idea how to disentangle himself from it. He makes a pretty basic dramatic mistake in splitting the opposition to Undershaft between Barbara and her would-be husband Adolphus (played with a lovely fluency by Marty Rea): instead of doubling its force, this halves it. Both accept Undershaft’s Faustian bargain and accept his offer of power. But neither can articulate what it is they want to do with that power. Adolphus witters about making “war on war”, a phrase that creepily prefigures the justification of the first Word War as a war to end all wars. Barbara ends the play as an infantile babbler. We have no idea whether she is childishly deluded or a mystic visionary, and Comyn rather hedges her bets. There is perhaps little else she can do, for the pleasure of the play, which she so amply explores, is not in where Shaw’s argument with himself ends up. It is merely in the struggle itself.

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