No trip to the Shaw Festival would be complete without seeing a little Shaw. That would be better phrased as ‘seeing something written by Shaw’. I don’t think there is such a thing as “a little Shaw”. Shaw was a master of the English language and his virtuosity is on full display in all his plays. They are long and wordy. They are also full of interesting ideas and clever language. I don’t think there is a better example of this than his 1905 play, Major Barbara. The play itself and this year’s production are nice; maybe even very nice.
The title character is a young woman from a privileged background who has dedicated her life to helping those less fortunate by working with the Salvation Army. Her principles are challenged when her organization is confronted with the choice of reducing its efforts to help those in need or accepting donations from those who, to Barbara’s mind, are complicit, if not responsible, for the plight of the people she wants to help. One of these ethically inconvenient donors is her father, a munitions manufacturer. The play is funny. It is peopled with an assortment of interesting characters who provide opportunities for comedy and who also act as platforms from which Barbara and her father can launch their opposing viewpoints. And, being Shaw, it is articulate.
For me, attending a Shaw play is like attending the opera. I usually enjoy the experience of seeing a performance. I appreciate the talent and artistry involved in doing it well. On an intellectual level, I like the ideas conveyed. But I rarely find it emotionally engaging. When it does happen, such as the Festival’s 2007 production of Saint Joan, it becomes a treasured memory. More often, it is a pleasant evening at the theater that goes on a little longer than I consider ideal. Such was the case with this year’s Major Barbara. The set, costumes and performances were wonderful. I can’t think of anything about it that could have been better. I last saw the play when the Festival produced it in 1998. I liked it then too. I’m sure I will see it next time they do it; hopefully not before about 2020. I always like it but it will never be my favorite play.
The ideas of the play are timely. Suffering through the ongoing ugliness that is American politics in the 21st century, it is interesting to take a respite and hear a discussion about social issues where the opinions expressed aren’t code for something else. It’s sad that we have to go back to material written more than a century ago to find it. We heard a lot in the last presidential election about the philosophy of Ayn Rand. I wonder what she thought about this play, if she ever saw it. I don’t really see her as a theater fan. I suspect we’d disagree about the ideas in this play… at least I hope so.