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
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.