(Sara Keating’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 8/9.)
In his 1891 essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism, George Bernard Shaw argued that society is made up of three discrete types of people: philistines, who have no capacity for creative thought; idealists, who believe in the tangibility of the impossible; and realists, who can see the world for what it is. His 1905 play Major Barbara dramatises this personal philosophy, by pitting religious idealism against pragmatic realism within a single family unit.
Barbara Undershaft, a major in the Salvation Army, is Shaw’s earnest idealist. She has thrown off the social expectations of her class to dedicate herself to saving the souls of the poor, but does not realise that her altruism is compromised by her own privilege. Her estranged father Andrew, a weapons manufacturer, is Mephistopheles to her saintly martyr.