Shaw’s Comedy: Millionaire or Missionary?
by Alice Cheng & Barry David Horwitz
Can a highly competitive, profit-oriented country also practice altriusm and empathy? Why do we have extreme inequality: rich and poor, wealth and poverty? Does money mean that millionaires get to play God to those in poverty? Since 1905, George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” has been asking these questions of arms manufacturing, altruism, and religion, meaningfully. Now in post-election U.S., we must go to Shaw for the building blocks of new old answers.
Director Elizabeth Kruse’s production of “Major Barbara” at The Pear Theater highlights the moral struggles of Barbara Undershaft (a dreamy Briana Mitchell). As a Salvation Army Major, Barbara becomes a religious and altruistic leader in industrial Britain, who realizes that saving souls can be a complex business. Barbara’s Salvation Army Commisioner, Mrs. Baines (a droll Monica Capuccini), accepts money for their good works from Barbara’s millionaire father, Andrew Undershaft (an inscrutable Todd Wright). But Andrew’s money comes from the manufacturing of Weapons of Mass Destruction! He is a munitions-making Papa! The daughter’s moral compass unravels. She rejects his blood money, the arms manufacting profits, as tainted money. She would reject the Koch Brothers’ money, too. She would reject the money poured into our elections and our war profits, too.
Barbara’s father, a strangely attractive antagonist, represents the industrial capitalist, the science-driven Alpha male–the billionaire we love to hate! Wright comes into his own later in the comedy, when he finds his superior stance. Andrew proclaims, “I am a millionaire; that is my religion.” Andrew Undershaft, the industrial tycoon, claims that arms production brings jobs and security. Undershaft even rejects his own son, Stephen (Michael Saenz), an emasculated product of upper class coddling. Undershaft, the comic, contradictory captain of industry and war, looks elsewhere for his capitalist successor. And his funny, stuck-up, estranged wife, Lady Britomart (Monica Capuccini), representing the British Empire, gets royally pissed off.
Barbara’s suitor, Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (Bryan Moriarty), a Greek scholar and“collector of religions,” succumbs to Barbara’s charms. Cusins, the straight-A techie intellectual, has vast confidence in himself. Yet we see that Cusins has also lost his way, and we feel a familiar twinge of uncertainty in his pursuit of the physical and the spiritual. Cusins is comically obsessed, like Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” Where is the musical of “Major Barbara,” I wonder?
Adolphus sells his soul to the Devil Undershaft for power, in a brilliant final act at Undershaft’s Factory of Death and City of Life. The job comes with a warning: “The more destructive war becomes, the more we admire it,” as he burns through to Adolphus’ ambitious heart.
The simple set and versatile cast of “Major Barbara” light up the stage and our hearts with the Drumpfean dispute: profit vs. jobs, profit vs. humanity. The cold, gleaming metal of a huge black canon engulfs the stage and the bickering Undershaft family. Each character blends into a haunting symphony of Death vs. Hope.
Do you find salvation in the sweet face and shimmering eyes of Major Barbara, who braves the cold in her black bonnet and cape to bring “Blood and Fire” to the workers, a veritable Elizabeth Warren? Or, do you identify with the bellowing Undershaft/Drumpf, whose business both ‘kills and saves’ us? Blood and Fire.
“Major Barbara” provides fodder for discussion in every era. We see the beauty and flaws of each character, who serve as beacons and warnings. Barbara and Adolphus can be our new American heroes–Elizabeth and Bernie? They may not have all the right answers, but they are asking the right questions.
“Major Barbara” by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Elizabeth Kruse Craig, by Pear Theatre, Mountain View, California, through Sunday, November 20, 2016. Info: thepear.org.
Cast: Monica Cappuccini, Michael Saenz, Nicolae Muntean, Briana Mitchell, Becca Gilbert, Michael Weiland, Bryan Moriarty, Todd Wright, and Vanessa Alvarez