Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Starring Dana Ivey, Cherry Jones, David Warner, David Lansbury, Denis O'Hare, Zak Orth. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt.
First a few words from the playwright, Mr. G. Bernard Shaw, taken from his Preface to Major Barbara - First Aid to Critics; The Gospel of St. Andrew Undershaft:
"It is this credulity that drives me to help my critics out with Major Barbara by telling them what to say about it. In the millionaire Undershaft I have represented a man who has become intellectually and spiritually as well as practically conscious of the irresistible natural truth which we all abhor and repudiate: to wit, that the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty, and that our first duty - a duty to which every other consideration should be sacrificed - is not to be poor. "Poor but honest," "the respectable poor," and such phrases are as intolerable and as immoral as "drunken but amiable," "fraudulent but a good after dinner speaker," "splendidly criminal," or the like. Security, the chief pretense of civilization, cannot exist where the worst of dangers, the danger of poverty, hangs over everyone's head . . .
"It is exceedingly difficult to make people realize that an evil is an evil. . . .
"Now what does this Let Him Be Poor mean? It means let him be weak. Let him be ignorant. Let him become a nucleus of disease. Let him be a standing exhibition and example of ugliness and dirt. Let him have rickety children. Let him be cheap and let him drag his fellows down to his price by selling himself to do their work. Let his habitations turn our cities into poisonous congeries of slums. Let his daughters infect our young men with the diseases of the streets and his sons revenge him by turning the nation's manhood into scrofula, cowardice, cruelty, hypocrisy, political imbecility, and all the other fruits of oppression and malnutrition. Let the undeserving become still less deserving; and let the deserving lay up for himself, not treasures in heaven, but horrors in hell upon earth. This being so, is it really wise to let him be poor? Would he not do ten times less harm as a prosperous burglar, incendiary, ravisher or murderer, to the utmost limits of humanity's comparatively negligible impulses in these directions? Suppose we were to abolish all penalties for such activities, and decide that poverty is the one thing we will not tolerate -- that every adult with less than, say, £365 a year, shall be painlessly but inexorably killed, and every hungry half naked child forcibly fattened and clothed, would not that be an enormous improvement on our existing system, which has already destroyed so many civilizations, and is visibly destroying ours in the same way? . . ."
Yes. Well. Quite so. Anyone wishing to examine Shaw’s exquisite comedy in depth - what it all means - need only procure a copy of the play, complete with the author’s preface, and all questions will be answered. We will here confine ourselves to a few comments on the excellent revival of which, currently on offer by the Roundabout Theatre Company.
You know you’re on to something good when a first act advertised to last for an hour and a half seems to rush by in but a few minutes, and a second act reputedly lasting just over an hour draws to a close after only a few moments.
Whether due to Shaw’s intellectually intoxicating words, or Daniel Sullivan’s perceptive and deceptively simple direction, or the uniformly brilliant cast - or some magical synergy of the three - the Roundabout’s Major Barbara is proof (were any needed) of how powerful, vital, and captivating the well integrated work of a good playwright, a good director, and good actors can be.
Dana Ivey (Lady Britomart Undershaft) dazzles as she commands the stage, the quintessential British matron, heir and defender of a class system Shaw mercilessly attacked throughout his career. David Warner (Andrew Undershaft), Shaw’s harbinger of social and political ideals, his superman here struggling to recruit both his daughter and her fiancé to the Shavian world view, triumphs in a performance that brings to mind the calm center of a hurricane.
Cherry Jones (Barbara Undershaft), as the indomitable idealist forced to face the faults of her beliefs, and Denis O’Hare (Adolphus Cusins), as the weak man who grows strong by virtue of his love for her, perfectly capture both the hesitant reserve and humor of Shaw’s concept of intellectual courtship.
Also of particular note are the wonderful supporting performances of Zak Orth (Stephen Undershaft), who reminds one of a young Robert Morley, and Jenny Sterlin (Rummy Mitchens).
John Lee Beatty’s sets are sumptuous without overpowering, as are Jane Greenwood’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s clever lighting.