Arms and the Woman

What, I wonder, would an audience of 20-year-olds make of Major Barbara? That is, assuming you could get them to sit still for an evening of continuous unrhymed talk spouted in a context of relatively naturalistic behavior by people dressed in the quaint fashions of 100 years ago. Kids don't go for talk these days—have Americans ever, really?—and they distrust illusions. But Shaw was ahead of them on both counts: His word streams are mined with self-questioning jokes that detonate in huge laughs, destroying every torrent in mid cascade. As for illusion, he reduces it to rubble long before you can start disbelieving it; half of the detonating jokes are based on his awareness that a play is only a simulacrum made of words and structure. Major Barbara contributes famously to the first type of explosion when the Salvationists, receiving Undershaft's huge check, exclaim, "Thank God!" and he replies, "You don't thank me?" It knocks illusion down for good two scenes later when, after one of Undershaft's fiercest tirades, his estranged wife commands, "Andrew, stop making speeches."

Shaw's plays would be mere walls of words if he hadn't carefully inserted such cracks to let in the light of laughter. He also, cunningly, made a point of playing his word game by a strict set of rules: The speeches must represent the characters' opinions and not the author's, but those opinions must be given at white heat, and they must play a role in clarifying the author's own beliefs. Then they must be organized into a valid narrative sequence, and this sequence must equally support a valid musical structure. The opening scene of Barbara, superficially one of Shaw's looser plays, is as elegant as an 18th-century opera ensemble: First a duet for Stephen Undershaft and his mother; next a sextet as his two sisters enter with their prospective husbands; the butler's recitative marks the key change that, with Andrew Undershaft's entrance, turns the sextet into a septet, which modulates back into a sextet, presumably on the subdominant, when Cholly exits to fetch his concertina. His reentry brings it back to the tonic; the septet blazes up full for a while, then fades out as the characters exit one by one—leaving Stephen and his mother alone to reprise the duet theme with which the act opened. Mozart himself couldn't have done it more elegantly, though the particular source of Barbara's musical structure is probably the composer whom Shaw pointedly both quotes and names in the Salvation Army act, Donizetti.

The latter's bifurcated musical personality gives the key to Shaw's paradoxical play. The Donizetti tune that Barbara Undershaft's West Ham Salvation Army band has adapted is the wedding chorus from Lucia di Lammermoor—the story in which the bride, a trapped pawn in the war of two Scottish clans, goes mad and murders the groom. The score is the contradictory essence of the bel canto style: lightly tuneful and floridly decorative, but strongly grounded in the most violent of bloody passions. As is Shaw's drawing-room comedy, in which each of the two drawing-room scenes is followed, like the castle scenes in Donizetti's opera, by a trip to a dangerous outside reality: In lieu of the park where Lucia meets her lover and the wolf-haunted crags of Ravenswood, we get the yard of the West Ham shelter and the Undershaft munitions factory. Like Lucia's brother, Barbara's father is a charming deceiver, who uses false arguments to trick her into switching sides. But Shaw is modern and Donizetti is not: Barbara's lover, as false as her father, has already switched sides too. And—modern thought being a bottomless pit of ironies—the other side is the only side. Barbara's dream of a world where the souls of the poor can be saved without taking the devil's blood money is the adolescent dream of a sheltered, idealistic girl. At the end she puts it aside—not to inherit a munitions factory, but to find a new way to save souls.

Dana Ivey: grand lady as comic mechanism
photo: Joan Marcus
Dana Ivey: grand lady as comic mechanism

Like most of Shaw's bigger plays, Major Barbara provoked moral disquiet as well as aesthetic confusion when it premiered in 1905. While the latter has abated, the former seems to run ever deeper. Two world wars, and the rest of the 20th century's towering chronicle of techno-carnage, have soured us on Undershaft's enthusiasm for improved killing machines; and while Shaw made his arms manufacturer an honest merchant who gave value for money, our contemporary Undershafts are chiefly con artists promoting epic boondoggles like the missile shield, in which only retards like Dubya believe. Even the arms dealer's rival, Christianity, for Shaw a misguided but infinitely powerful force, has dwindled in our time, to a mere tool hijacked by bigots for cheesy political purposes.

These thoughts come out because Daniel Sullivan's production, for once in the Roundabout's pockmarked history, is both straightforward and emotionally—though not always verbally—pellucid. Sullivan takes the play on strictly traditional terms, with no directorial funny business, off angles, or deconstructive interference—nothing like, for instance, the visual tilt of his Broadway Moon for the Misbegotten or the Freudian creeps of his Lincoln Center Ah, Wilderness! Apart from two mild experiments in casting that don't work out—Henny Russell as a strangely brusque, tough-minded Sarah, and Zak Orth as a cartoonlike, slightly sissified Stephen—the characterizations are entirely traditional, and often extremely good within the tradition. (Among the minor roles, David Lansbury's Bill Walker, Rick Holmes's Cholly, and Beth Dixon's Mrs. Baines are especially well played.) The most successful of them is also the simplest: Dana Ivey's Lady Britomart. What wonderful body English, as well as vocal English, this great comic actress has. Surely her neck hasn't always moved in this peculiar way, giving her head the effect of a Bunraku puppet expressing displeasure. Bergson would rejoice: Here is his comic theory of mechanism come to life. Ivey's triumph is that of the actor as über-marionette. Watch her turn around in the last act's doorway, when Lady Britomart thinks Billson has called her "explosive," and you'll see a human attain the puppet's higher reality.

Marginally less inspired, but more fully resolved on this earthly plane, are Denis O'Hare, as Barbara's fiancé Cusins, and David Warner, making his U.S. stage debut as Undershaft. Cusins is a professor of Greek, and O'Hare catches, though perhaps slightly overstresses, his puckish, jittery, professorial quality. The danger in the performance is that we might think Cusins weak, a spouse most likely to be henpecked; in the tricky last act, O'Hare has to shout occasionally to make it clear that this bespectacled, slavishly devoted figure can assert himself, that his surface panoply of intellectual questionings and doubts conceals a strong set of principles facing their strongest challenge. Tall, craggily imposing Warner never needs to shout, and doesn't, except when Undershaft launches into his final grandstanding (the subject of his wife's tart comment). The minor flaw in Warner's otherwise sturdy, articulate performance is its leaning toward the crisp and perfunctory, as if he viewed his dealings with everyone onstage except Barbara and Cusins as another business negotiation; he makes no effort to sketch in the charm the other characters see in him, the sly humor of his interjections, the streaks of sympathy and compassion under his hardheadedness. On the other hand, Undershaft is the devil (Cusins repeatedly calls him "the Prince of Darkness"), and, as he often asserts, no gentleman. Warner's somber insistence on his deadly business darkens the play's color but also sharpens its impact.

Which may be the reason that Cherry Jones's Barbara seems an airier, perhaps even a flightier, figure than usual. Jones has carried heavy emotional burdens spectacularly well in a wide range of plays; one is accustomed to thinking of her as a "deep" actress, of her voice as a rich, lower-range instrument. But the voice always turns out to be higher, and its tone a little breathier, than one's recollection of it; here it goes along with the stylishly cut clothes (the handsome costumes are by Jane Greenwood) and a delicacy of manner to portray a young upper-class woman who has not moved all that far from the expensive family home. Even when the men are bantering, or bargaining with each other for control of her, Barbara ought to be our focus.

When Jones has the lines, nothing can stop her from riveting our attention: Her two "big" scenes—the struggle for Bill Walker's soul and the last-scene recrimination with her father over it—are high drama at its purest. When she has only interjections, though—as in the check-writing scene that provokes her "Why hast Thou forsaken me?"—she seems lost in the crowd. A similar dislocation occurred in Moon for the Misbegotten, as if something in the combination of this director and this actress made her reluctant to command the stage. But this play centers on a woman whose role in life is to command; Barbara is her father's daughter, just as her meek professorial spouse is a born "shark." He will continue the armaments business; what we don't see, in Jones's Barbara, is that she will transform it. But maybe, after 96 years of nonstop carnage, such hopes are hopelessly dated, which means that the transfiguring light at the end of Major Barbara is now its darkest aspect.

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