Shaw’s Major Barbara: The Prodigal Father

mb  20001G.K.Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw’s friend and jovial debate opponent, called Shaw “a heathen mystic.”

I think he was right.

How else can you explain one of the world’s most famous public socialists creating the world’s most compelling and flattering portrait of an unrepentant capitalist?

How else can you explain one of the world’s most famous public pacifists making the most convincing arguments for war?

How else do you explain one of the world’s most famous public atheists calling for merger of ministers of the body with ministers of the soul?

How, in other worlds, do you explain Major Barbara, the paradoxical masterpiece now playing at Shaw Chicago under the inspired direction of Robert Scogin?

A definition may help: A mystic is one who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.

With Major Barbara, Shaw-the-mystic chose Saint Barbara, the patron saint of armorers, as his starting point. Saint Barbara’s rich father, the pagan Dioscorus, locked his only daughter in a tower to protect her from any but his influence. However, in his absence, Barbara asked that a third window be placed in her wall. Through the three windows Barbara felt the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit change her. She found herself in the possession of healing powers. At his return, Dioscorus attempted to kill Barbara, but she fled to a cave. When Barbara’s father found her, he tortured her to cleanse her of her Christian faith. However, her Savior appeared to heal Barbara’s wounds and Barbara’s prayers brought an angel to cover her nakedness. Nevertheless, Dioscorus then beheaded his daughter.

As he did with Saint Joan, Shaw uses the tale of a saint as the foundation for his play. Into Saint Barbara’s story, Shaw mixes a reversal of Jesus’s most famous parable, The Prodigal Son.

In Christ’s parable, the sinning child returns to his father’s home destitute and repentant. The son is an image of the fallen children of God, and the father represents our forgiving and rejoicing God.

In Major Barbara, Shaw returns the absent father, Andrew Undershaft, to his family of misguided children. The play develops as the father disabuses his children of their foolish beliefs and ideas, and culminates in the wedding of his favorite daughter (Barbara) with his successor, the foundling Greek professor, Adolphus Cusins.

Undershaft is a God figure arriving among his children to proclaim the truth, and to save them from the mistaken paths they have chosen or notions they have acquired. Undershaft introduces himself as “a confirmed mystic,” and proclaims a wisdom beyond the human intellect.

Unlike his family, Undershaft accepts death, destruction, pain and suffering as part of life, thereby presenting a more transcendent Christian truth than that proclaimed by his Salvationist daughter. He believes that to push away the unbearable parts of life is to deny life itself. Undershaft echoes St. Paul’s admonition to “give thanks always to God for all things”, not just the good things of life, by stating that “trouble and anxiety are good things.” And by arguing for the sale of weapons to all, regardless of the buyer’s intent, Undershaft allies himself with the God who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Undershaft, like Christ, proclaims that feeding the hungry, hydrating the thirsty, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and welcoming the homeless are necessary to the ministry of a person’s spirit. Undershaft echoes the Mystery of Sacraments by calling for the healing of both soul and body.

Eventually Cusins and Barbara see his wisdom; they choose to accept the fullness of life now revealed to them. Cusins acknowledges that all power is spiritual power; one can’t have power for good without also having power for evil. Barbara understands that she had been offering the “bribe of bread”, and vows to continue her ministry, but with a fuller view of the Paschal/Easter message. She sees that the way of Life leads through the Factory of Death: “through the raising of hell to heaven and the raising of man to God, through the unveiling of an Eternal Light in the Valley of the Shadow.

Undershaft the father has arrived to perfect his work on earth by uniting the mind of Cusins’ intellect with the nous –eye of the heart – of Barbara to create a superior approach to life, one more pleasing to God/Undershaft

Undershaft has revealed the mystery of existence, what the Greeks call the mysterion – a phenomenon of not knowing nor understanding, just capturing our gaze and wonder. By baffling his wondering family, Undershaft proves St. Gregory’s belief that “it is only wonder that understands anything.”

Shaw Chicago has assembled a wonderful collection of actors to present one of the most important plays of the twentieth century with great care and joy. Jack Hickey’s Andrew Undershaft is a revelation. Most of the Undershafts I’ve seen have presented him as Machiavellian – tricky, haughty, and proud. Mr. Hickey and director Robert Scogin, have gone the other way. This Undershaft is open, humble, grateful, a Shavian Henry Travers (Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life). This a tour de force performance which illuminates all of the characters on stage with him.

Likewise, Barbara Zahora’s Major Barbara seems more like her mother than like her father, a clever switch from the usual interpretations. Gary Alexander again turns in a hilarious performance, as Cholly Lomax, the driveling fiancé of Undershaft’s younger daughter, a fellow in perpetual search of a clue. Like Mr. Alexander, Richard Marlatt can be expected to turn in an eye-opening performance and he does so again with the painfully earnest middle-aged unemployed worker, Peter Shirley. With both Alexander and Marlatt, one knows you are going to enjoy the performance, the fun is discovering how they will do it this time.

Doug MacKenzie dazzled Chicago audiences earlier with his Jack Tanner, the know- it-all hero of Man and Superman. Here Mr. MacKenzie makes Adolphus Cusins into a cute ruffled professor and endears him to all. We can almost see the chalk dust on his coat sleeves. Christian Gray’s Snobby Price show this terrific actor’s versatility as he creates a character exactly the opposite to his Jack Worthing of The Importance of Being Earnest. Mary Mitchell’s Lady Britomart, along with Marcia Kazurinsky’s Mrs. Baines, have found a dimension of sexy seduction for their characters’ encounters with the “innocent” Andrew Undershaft. Matthew Gall modulates his Stephen Undershaft, revealing him bit by bit, until he emerges full blown in his final encounter with his father.

The others in the cast are remarkable, but you will have to attend the production to learn just how.

Major Barbara is a wonderful play, sure to bring you a lot of intellectual and theatrical wonder

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