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A Reader of Fictions: Merchants of Soul - Spoon

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Merchants of Soul - Spoon

Major Barbara

Author: George Bernard Shaw
Genre: play, humor
Pages: 110 in my edition
Publisher: my edition is Barnes & Noble Classics

Brief Summary:
The play opens on a controlling mother and her grown, but still cowed, son. The mother wants more money from the father, who evidently has not been around for years; both daughters are engaged to useless men and will need more than the allowance upon which they have been living. The family gathers to meet the father and convince him of the need for additional funds. He does not know who anyone is but his wife. The father, Undershaft, is a maker of cannons and guns and proud of it (and the money it brings him).

Major Barbara, the title character, actually appears relatively little. She and her father agree to visit each other's places of work to see who can convert the other. She works with the Salvation Army, feeding bellies and souls with Christian charity. The play is essentially about the dynamic between his work and hers.

This is one weird play. None of the characters seem like real people and they are all obnoxious. The main theme is an interesting one: an argument betwixt right and wrong. Shaw points out that all money for organizations like the Salvation Army comes from the war-makers and booze-makers. What meaning does salvation have in this context? Also, how much does a salvation borne of starvation fed mean? It actually occurs to me that the dynamic between charity/morality and between industry/immorality is somewhat reminiscent of The Fountainhead.

George Bernard Shaw has a fairly recognizable style. The most noticeable aspect is his scene setup. He describes the scene down to every last detail. Where Shakespeare plays have exceedingly brief notes, Shaw goes on for a page or two any time there is a location change. I really have trouble imagining how the scene change in the middle of the third act would be accomplished, since two very precise sets would need to be made.

The other thing about Shaw that I noticed is that he is much like Wilde, only perhaps not so funny. Both Wilde and Shaw were born Irishman. Shaw moved to England as a young boy. Still, you can see his judgment of the English in his writing, which is why the characters are so irritating. Like Wilde, the humor in the story comes from the mocking of the English, particularly the upper crust.

Best line, which comes after Undershaft tells Barbara that he saved her from the seven deadly sins:
"Yes, the deadly seven. [Counting on his fingers.] Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children."
And yes, I do love this largely because children are listed as a deadly sin. How hilarious is that?

"The fiends are fiendin' outside
Merchants of soul so unkind"

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