George Bernard Shaw’s 1907 play about a weapons manufacturer is now more relevant than ever
And so to Major Barbara at the Abbey. Every Western arms salesman I have met – usually at arms “fairs” in the Gulf – knows Andrew Undershaft, the grotesque, brilliant, intellectual weapons manufacturer in George Bernard Shaw’s 1907 play who abides by the faith of the armourer.
“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 nationalities, all faiths, all follies, all causes and all crimes.”
Shaw had an ambiguous relationship with post-independence Ireland – he did not believe in the Celtic ideal or the neo-Gaelic movement – and incredibly this is the Dublin Abbey Theatre’s first performance of Shaw’s most socialist of plays.
As director Annabelle Comyn remarked, Major Barbara’s themes – of poverty, welfare, the labour market advocating for better conditions – are relevant today in Ireland as well as Britain. But it still contains a painful message to the Middle East, and not just because it is set during the Balkan wars; the character of Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek soon to inherit Undershaft’s magnificent, oh-so-clean, labour-intensive, pseudo-socialist Middlesex weapons plant, admits that he gave a revolver to a student to fight for Greece. “The blood of every Turk he shot … is on my head as well as Undershaft’s.” That’s all the Muslims get in Major Barbara.
But in the past in the Middle East, it was very easy to sympathise with Major Barbara herself, the Salvation Army daughter of Undershaft – and fiancée of Cusins – who saves souls in the East End of London. “There are neither good men nor scoundrels,” she pompously informs her father. “There are just children of one Father … I know them. I’ve had scores of them through my hands: scoundrels, criminals, infidels, philanthropists, missionaries, county councillors … They’re all just the same sort of sinner; and there’s the same salvation ready for them all.”
The play’s contrived but still relevant hinge creaks when the Salvation Army is forced to accept money from both Undershaft and a whiskey magnate – the destroyers of people, if not souls – in order to remain active.
But this devilish compromise is now more relevant than ever; not because Tony Blair abandoned a criminal inquiry into bribery by a British arms manufacturer in Saudi Arabia to protect “the national interest”, nor because the late Robin Cook’s mission statement on weapons sales – only to sell to the good guys – fell to pieces, but because Major Barbara herself, along with her ruthless father, have today become one.
Barbara’s self-denial, her craving after salvation and God, have been echoed to the letter by George W Bush and Blair and now by Barack Obama. True, they all believe(d) in good and bad – or “evil” – but they all held God close to their heart. They all preached, especially Blair and Obama, with salvationist obsession. Barbara is undoubtedly “faith-based”, like our Tony.
Obama likes making speeches – like Barbara, but also like Undershaft. You can listen to Barbara admit to a dockland bully that her father was “a Secularist”, just as Obama told his audience in Cairo that he came from a family which included “generations of Muslims”. And when Barbara asks her father to define his faith – and he replies: “Well, my dear, I am a millionaire. That is my religion” – you can almost hear Blair breathing.
There’s a wonderful moment at the arms foundry when Undershaft arrives with a telegram to tell his family of “good news from Manchuria”. Another Japanese victory, he is asked? “Oh, I don’t know,” he replies. “Which side wins does not concern us here. No: the good news is that the aerial battleship is a tremendous success. At the first trial it has wiped out a fort with three hundred soldiers in it.” These are not dummy soldiers blown to bits, he assures his family. It’s “the real thing”.
Undershaft’s “aerial battleship” – elsewhere an “aerial torpedo” – is, of course, our drone. Just as this weekend we were asked to celebrate the killing of six al-Qa’ida members in Yemen and five insurgents in the Sinai, northern Egypt – most assuredly “the real thing” by “aerial battleships” belonging to Messrs Obama and Netanyahu – so Undershaft produces these wonder-weapons in a squeaky-clean armaments factory whose workers worship at brand new churches and live in comfortable houses in the safety of Middlesex. The drone commanders of today, like Undershaft’s men, work from equally squeaky-clean computer consoles.
Put bluntly, our leaders speak in the language of Major Barbara – of salvation and human rights – while producing the weapons to obliterate fellow men. At least Undershaft implies that the innocent also die under his guns. Barbara speaks of “the power to burn women’s houses down and … tear their husbands to pieces” – Shaw would have made endless play of “collateral damage” – but Syria is providing countless opportunities for Russian and Western arms-makers; giving to Alawite and Sunni, to “all causes and all crimes”.
At the end of the play, Cusins agrees to inherit Undershaft’s factory so that he can “make war on war”. How that would appeal to Bush, Blair and Obama. Finally, Cusins announces that he wants “a power simple enough for common men to use, yet strong enough to force the intellectual oligarchy to use its genius for the general good.” No Labour election manifesto should be without this line.