Major Barbara By George Bernard Shaw Summary and Analysis Act II (Opening Scene)

Summary

Act II takes place in the Salvation Army Shelter, an old warehouse which has recently been whitewashed. Two people are seen seated in the shelter; one is a man quite "capable of anything in reason except honesty," whose name is Snobby Price. The other is a woman named Rummy Mitchens, who looks sixty due to the severity of her life but is probably only forty-five.

As the curtain rises, Rummy asks Snobby what sort of trade he is in. Snobby, a painter with questionable socialist leanings, uses this opportunity to launch into an attack against the capitalistic system and in doing so shows himself to be a poor specimen of humanity, intent more on stealing, boasting, drinking, and lying that he is in doing an honest day's work. Rummy Mitchens then confesses that she pretends to be a worse sinner than she is because the girls at the Salvation Army love to fuss over a real sinner. Snobby then confesses that he is also playing the same game by making up stories about how he abuses his "poor old mother" when, in reality, his "poor old mother" actually beats him up. This playacting doesn't bother either one of them, however, for their public confessions help bring in charitable contributions and donations; thus, they are a benefit to the Army.

Jenny Hill, a "pretty Salvation lass of eighteen," enters with Peter Shirley, a workman who is half-starved and looks half-worn out even though he is only forty-six. He is bitter over the loss of his job to a younger man. He is very proud and will accept food only when he is assured that he can repay it later. Then suddenly, a young ruffian named Bill Walker appears in the door, blocking Jenny's exit, and he accuses her (and the Salvation Army) of turning his girlfriend against him. He is out for revenge, and he begins by roughhousing Jenny. When Rummy tries to protest, Bill Walker knocks her down with the back of his hand; then after manhandling Jenny further, he sends Jenny, Snobby, and Rummy retreating to the kitchen. Peter Shirley, however, stands up to the young bully, and he challenges him to fight someone his own age and size instead of picking on old men and women and young girls. Shirley then taunts Bill Walker by daring him to fight against a man named Todger Fairmile, a fellow who recently joined the Salvation Army after having won a wrestling match in a public contest. Bill Walker is not so anxious to confront a professional and so Shirley continues to taunt him. Just before Major Barbara enters, Shirley reminds Bill Walker that Barbara is the granddaughter of an earl.

Analysis

The first part of Act II presents some of the typical inhabitants of the Salvation Army Shelter. The first two, Snobby Price and Rummy Mitchens, reveal themselves to be frauds. Shaw's point is not just to point out the hypocrisy; it is more directly aimed at suggesting that there is nothing noble or romantic about poverty. Instead of creating an atmosphere of independence, poverty breeds various types of hypocrisy, and the Salvation Army often attracts hypocrites who take advantage of the shelters. In fact, ironically, these hypocrites contribute to the success of the shelters because by publicly testifying their made-up confessions to sins which they never committed, they are able to enlarge the coffers of the collection plates. Shaw is also taking a sarcastic dig at a type of religion which emphasizes atonement through public confession because once the sinner confesses and is forgiven for his sins, he is then free to sin again. In addition, Shaw disliked the theatrical aspect of public confession, which encouraged the individual to soak up the public's attention by exaggerating his own unworthiness, as is seen in the case of both Snobby Price and Rummy Mitchens.

The opening scene, furthermore, lends additional credence to Undershaft's theories later in the play — that is, by presenting us with two hypocrites who use the Salvation Army as a crutch, Undershaft's point later on that the best way to help the poor is to find them jobs and make them independent will be more convincing in the light of Snobby's and Rummy's deceit. Furthermore, when Undershaft speaks of the evils of poverty, we will already have seen this example of two people who demean themselves by confessing to lies in order to ingratiate themselves to the Army. We must constantly remember that, for Shaw, the greatest crime was poverty, and in this scene, he presents no romantic view of it; instead, he shows us the misery of the people who are gathered in an old shelter in mid-January, shivering and hungry and lying and quarrelling.

With the arrival of Peter Shirley, we have an example of an honest poor man who has been a victim of the capitalistic class, the class which Shaw is attacking. Peter Shirley, unlike Snobby, sincerely desires to work, and he resents a system which will deny him the opportunity to work simply because he is now forty-six years old. Furthermore, it is difficult for a man who has earned his own way for his entire life to now take charity. Peter Shirley will stand, then, as a contrast to Snobby and Rummy, and he will also be a living illustration of the type of society that is needed in Undershaft's ideal socialist village, as will be revealed in the final act — a village where no one like Shirley will have to suffer the humiliation of accepting charity or will have his self-respect threatened by forces which he doesn't understand.

With the entrance of Bill Walker, Shaw introduces us to yet another type of human being, someone who will be even more instrumental to the shelter in terms of Major Barbara's theories. He is first presented as a hardened ruffian who will tolerate no other person's opinion and who resorts to violence at a moment's notice. He will be the toughest person to convert because of his great physical power and because of his stubbornness. Through him, we will see how Barbara is the most effective person in the Salvation Army.

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According to Undershaft, __________ is the most destructive thing, the worst of all crimes, known to mankind.




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