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MAJOR BARBARA – CHARACTERISATION

‘Major Barbara’ is rich in characters, some more important than others. The three major
characters are Andrew Undershaft, Barbara and Adolphus Cusins, who in the end form the triumvirate
of salvation. To complement these three characters and at times, solely to highlight their traits in
opposition, are a host of other minor characters. Some of these do not even appear on stage but
references to them serve as an instrument for plot- construction, development and exposition.

In the creation of his characters, Shaw has been accused of putting ‘puppets’ or ‘caricatures’ on
stage whose only purpose is to expound the author’s point of view. Sir Andrew Undershaft seems to
have been the designated mouthpiece of the dramatist in the play. The ideas he presents at the very
beginning, on poverty, death, destruction and religion, remain with him till the end. There is no
discernible change or development in the character portrayal of Undershaft. The lines spoken by him
seem to have come straight from what Shaw says in the preface to the play. Undershaft therefore seems
to confirm critics’ observation that Shaw puts characters on stage to expound his own theory and
philosophy.

In the other two major characters, Barbara and Cusins, one observes a change and a shift in
their points of view. Both do not subscribe to Undershaft’s moral system initially but are ultimately
converted. It has been suggested that this conversion has an element of falsity in it. Barbara appears as
a naïve believer bent on ‘saving’ her father’s soul. The note of despair in her disillusionment in Act II
is convincing and the reader easily sympathises. However, she is far less convincing in her conversion
because the author’s reforming zeal seems to have overtaken, leaving her character rather lifeless and
robbing her of her individuality. Similarly, Cusin’s outburst, calling Undershaft the “Prince of
Darkness” seems more real than his ultimate conversion.

Undershaft’s constancy makes him static; a classic example of what one critic has called
Shaw’s “gramophones”. His success in convincing the other two main characters to his point of view
bear the marks of the author’s obvious interference. They seem to grow and develop not of their own
accord but strictly according to Shaw’s convenience. However, the argument that Shaw’s characters do
not undergo any inner turmoil is not wholly true. Barbara’s ultimate disillusionment with the Salvation
Army is a conflict within herself and we understand the process of questioning and doubting in her
mind. The sense of unreality, then, perhaps, springs from the fact that her conversion results from the
influence of an outside force rather than from any form of gradual self-discovery.

Some of the minor characters in the play appear real and unaffected by Shaw’s propagandist
zeal. True to its form as a ‘discussion play’, most of the characters are presented through their own
dialogue and the minor characters are distinguished by the very dialect they speak. Shaw in Act II
introduces the class-marked Cockney dialect. Here one of dialect’s primary functions is to set Barbara-
the saviour- against those who require salvation. Her return before the audience is the return of the
proper, polished English of Act I. In contrast, at his lowest, Bill Walker’s “voice and accent” will
become “horribly debased”. Barbara’s dialect- “proper English”- marks her as the Cockney’s redeemer.

Bill Walker is the picture of a common ruffian, given to trouble-making, found everywhere on
the streets. His different reactions to the different treatments meted out to him are typical of such a
character. Mrs. Baines, the Commissioner in the Salvation Army is a devoted and sincere worker who
is willing to accept tainted money in order to keep the shelter open. A practical realist, she goes about
her own work in the way she thinks best without caring too much for principles and dogmas. These
characters appear more real to us perhaps because they are free from Shaw’s efforts to propound his
ideas through them.

The picture of Lady Britomart may be considered an achievement in Shaw’s art of


characterisation. The main purpose of her presence seems to be to offer an opposition to, or to present
the alternative of, Undershaft’s Gospel. She insists on propriety in a family not particularly interested
in such social forms. Although she objects to her husband for his betrayals of convention, familial duty
and morality, her only response to the new system of morality Undershaft introduces is to turn away in
disapprobation. She is a comic figure who arouses laughter in the way she attempts to manipulate
Stephen and the rest of her family. She also arouses pathos when we find her family ignoring her fitful
suggestions and well-crafter schemes. Although not central to the plot, Lady Britomart is one of
Shaw’s most interesting creations in the play.

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