15 April 2010 | bkoganbing
Opiate Of The Masses
I'm surprised that this wonderful classic from the British cinema ever got made at the time it did. Not with having one of the major characters of the play being a munitions manufacturer. Not so very long ago munitions makers were a despised lot of people and in Major Barbara, Robert Morley's character of Edward Undershaft is admirable only for the realistic way he views life.
People in his profession were characterized as 'merchants of death' and were held in low repute until they were needed when the United Kingdom was fighting for its survival again. Morley's Undershaft does not redeem the name of the profession.
Major Barbara was first presented on the London stage in 1905 and waited 10 years before it made its Broadway debut in 1915. Europe had a general post Napoleonic peace for nearly 100 years and war was unthinkable. The arms merchants such as they were busily made their product and the countries armed more and more. But it was thought that the guns might be used in their various colonial endeavors. When they started getting used against each other in a World War, pacifism became very popular.
But in Major Barbara its author George Bernard Shaw had a different idea in mind. I think his chief reason for writing the play was to illustrate one of Karl Marx's tenets that religion was the opiate of the masses. Shaw was a Fabian socialist and wanted to see socialism come to the United Kingdom by peaceful means. But he wouldn't have disagreed with that part of Marx's diagnosis about the ills of society. He lived until 1950 and saw the post war Labour government do much of what he advocated back in the day. One wonders what he would think now of British, indeed western society in general.
Morley who has been estranged from his family for years returns and finds his eldest daughter Barbara played by Wendy Hiller a Salvation Army worker in the London slums. She thinks of herself as repudiating her hated father's evil works by doing good. He finds the idea of visiting her at the mission and showing her the error of her ways as he views it.
Religion then as now needs money, why are the televangelists out there begging for your currency to keep their work afloat? The Salvation Army does do a limited amount of good with their soup kitchens and blandishments against indulging too much in the vices. But what Shaw and his fellow Socialists would argue is that without a real living wage and the workers having some say in production, all this does is just keep the workers at bay with dreams of a perfect life in the next world no matter how bad this world might be for them.
Major Barbara is one of Shaw's greatest polemical work and in the characters of Undershaft and Barbara he pits the material against the spiritual and the material wins in a knockout. This production has some really good casting beginning with Hiller and Morley. Rex Harrison gets one of his early cinema roles as scholar Adolphus Cusins who Morley also bends to his point of view and uses the mutual attraction of Hiller and Harrison for each other for his own ends. Deborah Kerr makes her screen debut as an innocent new salvation army lass and Emlyn Williams and Robert Newton as a pair of working class types who work the system so to speak.
Major Barbara is a play set firmly in its time, I doubt it could be updated, mainly because we've passed from the Industrial Age to the Information Age because of the computer. At least that's what the sociologists will tell you. New problems have arisen and for myself I don't think the organized labor movement has quite got a handle on them. Still this fine production raises questions that we should all think seriously about.