|The Power of Barbara
In the play, “Major Barbara,” Undershaft quotes Plato by saying, “society cannot be saved until either the Professors of Greek take to making gunpowder, or else the makers of gunpowder become Professors of Greek.” (Act III). Besides being incredibly daring by quoting Plato in front of an actual Greek professor, Undershaft makes a point of what is actually the true power in this world. He argues that it is not God, or the soul saving Salvation Army, who has an influence in this world. Rather, it is war and money that have the most control over our lives. Greed and destruction are the true “virtues” in this world that can trump any Bible quote Major Barbara can spit out on demand, according to Undershaft’s viewpoint. Although it may seem contradictory to use death to save lives or greed to end poverty, he argues that real charity is dependent on so many other factors. For example, the Salvation Army would not have been able to stay afloat if it were not for the extravagant (and compromising) donations. Barbara’s power was saving souls, and helping people escape the evils of this world and the next. Without the funding from evil corporations making methods of destruction, though, Barbara has no power. In the end, Undershaft is the one who can manipulate people the most. When it comes down to the fundamentals, money is what controls people the most. Whether the person is being saved from evil, or if they are shot to death, it is under the persuasion of money. The holder of money, Undershaft, is who ultimately gets the most say about people. Essentially, Undershaft is the Professor of Greek who took to making gunpowder in order to save society.
What is most compelling in this argument are the motivations of whoever is in power. The reason why it is so difficult to accept the fact that Undershaft has the most influence over people, as opposed to the virtuous and loving Barbara, is that his character funds both good and evil. Neither the good nor the bad can exist without his existence. Undershaft never seems to favor one side or the other at any point, but believes that both are needed for the world to live in harmony. He never really has a motivation for his actions, he is merely the catalyst for what happens to the rest of society. Barbara, on the other hand, has a strong enthusiasm for the power of good. In relation to the quote by Plato, however, Undershaft is technically helping society. He is promoting the survival of his people, although the means to the ends may not be as altruistic as the selfless giving by the Salvation Army. Cusins makes an argument, however, which suggests that Undershaft is the neutral source of all power. He says that, “you cannot have power for good without having power for evil too. Even mother's milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes.” (Act III). The mother’s milk in this instance would be Undershaft’s money. In this statement, Cusins is pointing out that the one in power has no real control over good and evil. Money, which is the machine that produces power, is where good and evil comes from. However, one cannot exist without the other. Barbara is not the one actually spreading goodness, it is actually the money that also can create evil. Cusins continues to provide an example of this need for both good and evil to be present in the same plane of existence. He says,
“This power which only tears men's bodies to pieces has never been so horribly abused as the intellectual power, the imaginative power, the poetic, religious power that can enslave men's souls. As a teacher of Greek I gave the intellectual man weapons against the common man. I now want to give the common man weapons against the intellectual man. I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyer, the doctor, the priest, the literary man, the professor, the artist, and the politician, who, once in authority, are the most dangerous, disastrous, and tyrannical of all the fools, rascals, and impostors. I want a democratic power strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good or else perish.” (Act III)
Like Undershaft and Barbara, Cusins gives us evidence that he is also a source of power. Undershaft controls people through money, Barbara can manipulate people through religion, and Cusins has the ability to give power to other people through intellect. He, like Undershaft’s money, has the ability to create good and evil. Lawyers, doctors, priests, artists, professors, and polititicians have the most power in determining if there is good or evil in the world. These people have the influence to help their community, but on the other hand, they also have the ability to create the most destruction. Cusins teaches these people to think, thus having an intellectual advantage to the common man. If the common man cannot match their reason, then they have no say in their own well-being. What he explains, too, is that he has the ability to create a democracy of intellect by teaching the common man the same philosophies as the ones with power.
Although Undershaft may have the most influence over good and evil, Cusins and Barbara have the tools to create good. Cusins has the ability to form a democracy between those in power and the common man, which will inevitably promote justice and goodness. Through Barbara’s selflessness, she allows others to learn how to live with the wealth of goodness and peace. Undershaft might have been the “mother’s milk” that nourished both Cusins and Barbara, but that does not mean that their power is less important. Every character is essential to create a better society, and despite what Undershaft says, she is an essential puzzle piece to what makes a better society. Good and evil cannot be left solely to the main source. He merely gives the tools to make good and evil, Barbara and Cusins are the people who use them. At the end of the play, Barbara should not have given up her position as the Salvation Army major. She should have realized that her part in society is important to the flow of good and evil.
Barbara transforms into a new character by the play after she discovers her place in the power structure. She realizes that her place in the Salvation Army was a source of a small joy, as she thought she had to the power to turn people toward God. That happiness wore off, however, when she had to depend on the monetary donations of others to keep functioning. By the end of the play, her strong character diminishes as she cries, “I want Mamma.” After Undershaft enlightens her, she becomes a powerless and dependent child. She has no clue that her role as Major Barbara is what actually helps humanity. Money alone cannot actually save lives, someone needs to be using it. While Undershaft’s argument is fascinating, and in many ways true, it is very theoretical. In the end, Undershaft should have never started this discussion in the first place. By proving his point that he is the source of all power, he is disrupting the proper course of society. Every character in this play is indulging in their basic human desire to be power-mongering. Everyone wants to think that they are doing the best, and they are the single most important gear in the clock. But it doesn’t work like that, there is no one important piece. Undershaft is incredibly influential, but his money cannot serve the specific duties that Major Barbara provides. The way society runs might be disturbing and paradoxical, however it cannot function if everyone gives up. There could have been a way where Barbara didn’t need to alter her character in order to justify her actions. She did not have to feel like a hypocrite taking her father’s money. She could have addressed the problem with her way of life, and be just as selfless as she was before. When Undershaft quotes Plato, “society cannot be saved until either the Professors of Greek take to making gunpowder, or else the makers of gunpowder become Professors of Greek,” he does not take into account Barbara’s importance. Plato would have thought of the intellectuals as one of the ideal forms of power because he himself was an intellectual. It is also hard to ignore that war has a definite effect on humanity. Intellect may have the power to improve or degrade a human being, and war may have the power to choose whether or not a human lives or dies. Barbara has a different form of power that should not be disregarded. Although spirituality is not completely separate from intellect, the power of faith is an extremely great influence over a person. Faith can engulf a person so much that their entire life can be dedicated toward something against basic human social behavior. For example, a human being naturally acts selfishly in order to preserve its own life. With faith in a religion that promotes selflessness, though, a human being is willing to give up the elements in life that is beneficial to that person. Even Plato gives credit to a higher being with his philosophy of the Ladder of Love in The Symposium. In Plato’s Symposium 210a-212c, the intellectual human will come to realize that the true beauty is in the Ideal, and that true Love is the love of the Ideal. Barbara is the one who guides others to the Ideal Beauty, the source of Beauty, which is God. Plato would not disregard Barbara’s purpose in the Salvation Army. Although power may be in the “gunpowder” and with the “Professors of Greek,” nothing can truly compare to the Ideal. By leading people to the Ideal, Barbara is enlightening people more than Cusins, and handing out more power than Undershaft. She might need to depend monetarily on Undershaft, but her message of salvation is special because it brings human beings to a greater importance than just academic study and war. While she may think she is being a hypocrite for taking money from those who provide warfare—the exact opposite of her mission—she still offers an important function to the people she helps. She is supporting an overall mission of destruction, but she is also giving what Plato considers to be the greatest Ideal. The focus on power or on happiness is keeping Barbara back from actually giving the true good of society. She should not have been the one who transformed by the end of this play. Her role in society is greater, and she has a great strength that should not be undermined by her father’s money. She can’t ignore the truth of his words, but she should not also ignore the truth in her purpose as the Salvation Army major.
Why exactly George Bernard Shaw chose Barbara to change her character so radically is a challenging question. Having such an important role in such a large organization as the Salvation Army is not something to be looked over. Especially being a woman in this high position means that her personality and being is extremely powerful. Her role as a spiritual guide is extremely powerful, and has an equal importance as Cusins and her father. While her father argues that “gunpowder” and “Professors of Greek” are the most important aspects of society, what he does not acknowledge is the personal power she is exuding through her spiritual influence. Undershaft uses Plato’s words, but Plato himself would give credit to Barbara’s work. Her role guiding people to an Ideal is something that Plato would consider one of the more important roles in society. Barbara should not have given up her mission as a the major in the Salvation Army, especially considering it is because her father thinks his power is more important than hers. The powers of Barbara, Cusins and Undershaft are all essential in society.