Emma Goldman, The Social Significance of the Modern Drama
(Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914; The Gorham Press, Boston, U.S.A.)
THE ENGLISH DRAMA: GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
"MAJOR BARBARA" is of still greater social importance, inasmuch as it points to the fact that while charity and religion are supposed to minister to the poor, both institutions derive their main revenue from the poor by the perpetuation of the evils both pretend to fight.
Major Barbara, the daughter of the world renowned cannon manufacturer Undershaft, has joined the Salvation Army. The latter lays claim to being the most humane religious institution, because--unlike other soul savers--it does not entirely forget the needs of the body. It also teaches that the greater the sinner the more glorious the saving. But as no one is quite as black as he is painted, it becomes necessary for those who want to be saved, and incidentally to profit by the Salvation Army, to invent sins--the blacker the better.
Rummy. What am I to do? I can't starve. Them Salvation lasses is dear girls; but the better you are the worse they likes to think you were before they rescued you. Why shouldn't they 'av' a bit o' credit, poor loves? They're worn to rags by their work. And where would they get the money to rescue us if we was to let on we're no worse than other people ? You know what ladies and gentlemen are.
Price. Thievin' swine ! . . . We're companions in misfortune, Rummy. . . .
Rummy. Who saved you, Mr. Price? Was it Major Barbara?
Price. No: I come here on my own. I'm goin' to be Bronterre O'Brien Price, the converted painter. I know what they like. I'll tell 'em how I blasphemed and gambled and wopped my poor old mother--
Rummy. Used you to beat your mother?
Price. Not likely. She used to beat me. No matter: you come and listen to the converted painter, and you'll hear how she was a pious woman that taught me me prayers at 'er knee, an' how I used to come home drunk and drag her out o' bed be 'er snow-white 'airs, and lam into 'er with the poker.
Rummy. That's what's so unfair to us women. Your confessions is just as big lies as ours: you don't tell what you really done no more than us; but you men can tell your lies right out at the meetin's and be made much of for it; while the sort o' confessions we az to make 'as to be whispered to one lady at a time. It ain't right, spite of all their piety.
Price. Right! Do you suppose the Army'd be allowed if it went and did right? Not much. It combs our 'air and makes us good little blokes to be robbed and put upon. But I'll play the game as good as any of 'em. I'll see somebody struck by lightnin', or hear a voice sayin', "Snobby Price: where will you spend eternity?" I'll 'ave a time of it, I tell you.
It is inevitable that the Salvation Army, like all other religious and charitable institutions, should by its very character foster cowardice and hypocrisy as a premium securing entry into heaven.
Major Barbara, being a novice, is as ignorant of this as she is unaware of the source of the money which sustains her and the work of the Salvation Army. She consistently refuses to accept the "conscience sovereign" of Bill Walker for beating up a Salvation lassie. Not so Mrs. Baines, the Army Commissioner. She is dyed in the wool in the profession of begging and will take money from the devil himself "for the Glory of God,"--the Glory of God which consists in "taking out the anger and bitterness against the rich from the hearts of the poor," a service "gratifying and convenient for all large employers." No wonder the whisky distiller Bodger makes the generous contribution of 5000 pounds and Undershaft adds his own little mite of another 5000.
Barbara is indeed ignorant or she would not protest against a fact so notorious
Barbara. Do you know what my father is ? Have you forgotten that Lord Saxmundham is Bodger the whisky man? Do you remember how we implored the County Council to stop him from writing Bodger's Whisky in letters of fire against the sky; so that the poor drink-ruined creatures on the embankment could not wake up from their snatches of sleep without being reminded of their deadly thirst by that wicked sky sign? Do you know that the worst thing that I have had to fight here is not the devil, but Bodger, Bodger, Bodger with his whisky, his distilleries, and his tied houses ? Are you going to make our shelter another tied house for him, and ask me to keep it?
Undershaft. My dear Barbara: alcohol is a very necessary article. It heals the sick--. . . It assists the doctor: that is perhaps a less questionable way of putting it. It makes life bearable to millions of people who could not endure their existence if they were quite sober. It enables Parliament to do things at eleven at night that no sane person would do at eleven in the morning.
Mrs. Baines. Barbara: Lord Saxmundham gives us the money to stop drinking--to take his own business from him.
Undershaft. I also, Mrs. Baines, may claim a little disinterestedness. Think of my business! think of the widows and orphans! the men and lads torn to pieces with shrapnel and poisoned with Iyddite! the oceans of blood, not one drop of which is shed in a really just cause! the ravaged crops! the peaceful peasants forced, women and men, to till their fields under the fire of opposing armies on pain of starvation ! the bad blood of the fierce cowards at home who egg on others to fight for the gratification of national vanity! All this makes money for me: I am never richer, never busier than when the papers are full of it. Well, it is your work to preach peace on earth and good will to men. Every convert you make is a vote against war. Yet I give you this money to hasten my own commercial ruin.
Barbara. Drunkenness and Murder! My God, why hast thou forsaked me?
However, Barbara's indignation does not last very long, any more than that of her aristocratic mother, Lady Britomart, who has no use for her plebeian husband except when she needs his money. Similarly Stephen, her son, has become converted, like Barbara, not to the Glory Hallelujah of the Salvation Army but to the power of money and cannon. Likewise the rest of the family, including the Greek Scholar Cusins, Barbara's suitor.
During the visit to their father's factory the Undershaft family makes several discoveries. They learn that the best modern method of accumulating a large fortune consists in organizing industries in such a manner as to make the workers content with their slavery. It's a model factory.
Undershaft. It is a spotlessly clean and beautiful hillside town. There are two chapels: a Primitive one and a sophisticated one. There's even an ethical society; but it is not much patronized, as my men are all strongly religious. In the high explosives sheds they object to the presence of agnostics as unsafe.
The family further learns that it is not high moral precepts, patriotic love of country, or similar sentiments that are the backbone of the life of the nation. It is Undershaft again who enlightens them of the power of money and its role in dictating governmental policies, making war or peace, and shaping the destinies of man.
Undershaft. The government of your country. I am the government of your country: I, and Lazarus. Do you suppose that you and a half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays us. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn't. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. 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. Government of your country! Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucuses and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys. I am going back to my counting house to pay the piper and call the tune. . . . To give arms to all men who offer an honest price for them, without respect of persons or principles: to Aristocrat and Republican, to Nihilist and Tsar, to Capitalist and Socialist, to Protestant and Catholic, to burglar and policeman, to black man, white man, and yellow man, to all sorts and conditions, all nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes and all crimes. . . I will take an order from a good man as cheerfully as from a bad one. If you good people prefer preaching and shirking to buying my weapons and fighting the rascals, don't blame me. I can make cannons: I cannot make courage and conviction.
That is just it. The Undershafts cannot make conviction and courage; yet both are indispensable if one is to see that, in the words of Undershaft:
"Cleanliness and respectability do not need justification: they justify themselves. There are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill fed, ill clothed people. They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime: we all fear poverty. I had rather be a thief than a pauper. I had rather be a murderer than a slave. I don't want to be either; but if you force the alternative on me, then, by Heaven, I'll choose the braver and more moral one. I hate poverty and slavery worse than any other crimes whatsoever."
Cusins, the scientist, realizes the force of Undershaft's argument. Long enough have the people been preached at, and intellectual power used to enslave them.
Cusins. 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.
This thought is perhaps the most revolutionary sentiment in the whole play, in view of the fact that the people everywhere are enslaved by the awe of the lawyer, the professor, and the politician, even more than by the club and gun. It is the lawyer and the politician who poison the people with "the germ of briefs and politics," thereby unfitting them for the only effective course in the great social struggle--action, resultant from the realization that poverty and inequality never have been, never can be, preached or voted out of existence.
Undershaft. Poverty and slavery have stood up for centuries to your sermons and leading articles: they will not stand up to my machine guns. Don't preach at them; don't reason with them. Kill them.
Barbara. Killing. Is that your remedy for everything?
Undershaft. It is the final test of conviction, the only lever strong enough to overturn a social system, the only way of saying Must. Let six hundred and seventy fools loose in the street; and three policemen can scatter them. But huddle them together in a certain house in Westminster; and let them go through certain ceremonies and call themselves certain names until at last they get the courage to kill; and your six hundred and seventy fools become a government. Your pious mob fills up ballot papers and imagines it is governing its masters; but the ballot paper that really governs is the paper that has a bullet wrapped up in it.... Vote! Bah!! When you vote you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new. Is that historically true, Mr. Learned Man, or is it not?
Cusins. It is historically true. I loathe having to admit it. I repudiate your sentiments. I abhor nature. I defy you in every possible way. Still, it is true. But it ought not to be true.
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 shells, man. Come and make explosives with me. The history of the world is the history of those who had the courage to embrace this truth.
"Major Barbara" is one of the most revolutionary plays. In any other but dramatic form the sentiments uttered therein would have condemned the author to long imprisonment for inciting to sedition and violence.
Shaw the Fabian would be the first to repudiate such utterances as rank Anarchy, "impractical, brain cracked and criminal." But Shaw the dramatist is closer to life--closer to reality, closer- to the historic truth that the people wrest only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take.
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