Mrs. Obama, Meet Mr. Shaw


I can't help wonder, in reading that Mrs. Obama has been campaigning for her husband by urging people to forswear wealth, if we could get her a ticket to Major Barbara. Even that old reprobate Socialist Shaw understood that "the poor you have always with you" and suggested their morals couldn't improve if their wealth didn't (because abject poverty makes one desperate). I wouldn't follow Shaw's prescriptions for how to increase wealth, but at least he understood there was a connection between property and liberty and harbored no romantic illusion that the condition of poverty constitutes the virtue thereof. The point is illustrated in Major Barbara by the willingness of the abject poor to say whatever they must (including faking conversions) in order to get bread at the local mission. Want to really convert someone, Shaw asks here? Convert him on a full stomach.

I don't pretend I understand what Shaw is trying to say by making the businessman who is revealed to be the true benefactor of the poor to be amoral (an arms dealer who will sell to anyone). Nor in the "re-imaging" (as we now terribly say) of St. Barbara, the traditional patron saint of armorers. But we did catch an absolutely smashing performance of the play a little over a week ago. The program summarizes the play thus:
At the center ... is the rebellious but naively idealistic Barbara Undershaft. A major with the Salvation Army, Barbara finds the foundation of her beliefs rocked when the charity accepts a donation from her long-estranged father, a millionaire arms dealer.
I can't recall the last time I saw a production in which every character was strong, instead of having the feeling certain scenes were weighed down by either poor casting or a weak performance. This was just great fun, and a feast for the eyes as well. (Why oh why do '70s fashions return, but never Edwardian dress? I need Lady Undershaft's green velvet gown from the opening scene.) I have to particularly single out Ted van Griethuysen as the millionaire arms dealer Andrew Undershaft, especially during a very funny interview with his namby-pamby son about his career towards the beginning of Act III (read it here). A marvelous performance, and that scene is particularly well-observed.