By John Quinn
While every playwright infuses his or her work with their personal philosophy, few attack the social order with the intensity of George Bernard Shaw. His 1905 play, “Major Barbara,” being staged by the Hilberry Theatre, is a biting satire, challenging the status quo in religion, economics and society. Some barbs are dated, some are remarkably contemporary. Shaw plays with an argument still raging among political scientists: Is social inequality bred by a broken economy or an unfair class system?
Barbara Undershaft (Danielle Cochrane), child of privilege, is now a major in the Salvation Army. The London shelters have fallen on hard times. Barbara’s strong moral compass is knocked out of kilter when the Army accepts a generous donation from her estranged father, Andrew (Edmund Alyn Jones), an arms manufacturer. Daddy Warbucks is tempting Barbara to join him on the dark side. Temptation is the operative word, as Undershaft is frequently referenced in devilish terms. The paradox in “Major Barbara” is that the business mogul speaks in Socialist Shaw’s voice. “When you vote, you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders, and set up new.” Shaw’s contempt and cynicism for the established order is the fabric from which he fashioned his satire.
But perhaps the most chilling theme of “Major Barbara” is Shaw’s insight on “crony capitalism,” a topic we’re hearing much discussed lately. In a searing dialogue with his son, Stephen (Topher Payne), Undershaft lashes out. “The government of your country! I am the government of your country! … Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gavel shop, can govern a country like England?” What would Shaw make of the U. S. Congress?
Be forewarned: “Major Barbara” is a little didactic. Shaw’s intent is more educational, less entertainment. That being said, when the satire flies, it soars. The play is written in three acts, but here performed in two. The first is long on plot and character development; the last is when the fun really begins. Give credit to director Carolyn M. Gillespie for not letting Shaw’s political ranting overwhelm the evening. If your sole encounter with G.B.S. is “My Fair Lady,” here’s a chance to know the Irritated Irishman better.
: Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through May 5. $12-30. 164 minutes. 313-577-2972. http://www.hilberry.com