Summary and Analysis
Act I (Andrew Undershaft meets his family)
Morrison, the butler, announces the arrival of Andrew Undershaft, who is an "easy-going elderly man, with kindly patient manners, and an engaging simplicity of character . . . but he has . . . formidable reserves of power, both bodily and mental." Undershaft greets his wife courteously and graciously. Lady Britomart makes a sweeping gesture and tells him: "This is your family." At first, Undershaft is confused that he has such a large family, and he initially mistakes Lomax for his son, and then he thinks that Stephen is a stranger named "Mr. Stephen"; when he turns to Adolphus Cusins, Cusins, with his scholarly correctness, takes charge of matters and sets Undershaft straight by identifying everyone present in their correct relationship to him.
As they settle themselves, Undershaft admits how uncomfortable he is because "if I play the part of a father, I shall produce the effect of an intrusive stranger; and if I play the part of a discreet stranger, I may appear a callous father." After a number of awkward pauses in the conversation, the subject of Barbara's involvement in the Salvation Army is brought up. Undershaft indicates a great interest in Barbara's work, particularly in the Salvation Army's use of militant and military music to win converts. He also feels an affinity for the motto of the Salvation Army: "Blood and Fire"; this very motto might well serve his own munitions company as well as it serves the Army — and, after all, they both, father and daughter, do serve some sort of army. Barbara provides souls for her Army, and Undershaft provides arms for his armies. Undershaft furthermore maintains that his "sort of blood cleanses; my sort of fire purifies."
When Lomax suggests that even though cannons might be necessary, one still can't approve of them, Undershaft doesn't mind such criticism because he is in a good mood; this morning, his foundry perfected a gun with which the testers could blow "twenty-seven dummy soldiers into fragments . . . [a gun] which formerly destroyed only thirteen." Undershaft further explains that he is not ashamed of his profession; he does not keep his "morals and [his] business in watertight compartments." Unlike other people who make immense sums of questionable money and then give large sums to hospitals, churches, and other organizations as conscience money, he uses his profits in order to experiment and create better weapons and research "in improved methods of destroying life and property." True Christianity, with its philosophy of turning the other cheek, would make him bankrupt. His own morality, therefore, must have a place in it for cannons and torpedoes.
In a further discussion of what constitutes true morality, Barbara argues with her father; she says that from her experience, there are no really good or evil people in the world — only sinners — and that "the same salvation [is] ready for them all" regardless of social rank or profession. This leads Undershaft to wonder if Barbara has ever "saved" anyone in the munitions profession. Thus, they strike a good bargain with each other: He challenges Barbara that if he comes to her Salvation Army Shelter, would she come to his munitions factory the next day, and, afterward, they can compare the quality of life found in both places. He then wonders, aloud, which one of them will convert the other. As they agree to the joint visits, Barbara says that her shelter will be found at the sign of the cross, and Undershaft says that his foundry is located at the sign of the sword. To solidify the agreement, Barbara decides to ask Lomax to play "Onward Christian Soldiers," but Lady Britomart is offended and announces that if there is to be a religious observance, it will have to be done properly, with the Anglican prayer book, but the others ignore her and go into the drawing room for a service featuring the loud music of the Salvation Army's tambourine and concertina.
Left alone with Cusins, Sarah, and Stephen, Lady Britomart tells Cusins that she knows that the only reason that he joined the Salvation Army was to be with Barbara, and thereupon Cusins playfully asks her not to tell on him. She then sends Sarah out to join the others and bemoans to her son Stephen how unjust it is for her to have to shoulder the problems of bringing up the children only to have the children completely attracted to their father when they are grown.
This scene sets up the essential conflict in the drama — that is, the conflict between Major Barbara's view of life, contrasted with the view of life expressed by her father, Andrew Undershaft. But before this serious conflict is presented, it is echoed in a minor sort of way by the appearance of Undershaft, who has not seen his family for many years even though he has been their financial mainstay of support during all these years. The case of the father mistakenly identifying his children provides the traditional comedy required in this scene. On a serious level, however, this is a wry comment on the fact that Undershaft will indeed adopt a foundling to run the munitions factory, and it is a prelude to the fact that he will disinherit his own son, who is seen here and elsewhere as a simp, incapable of running such a huge operation; this matter is humorously treated though, as Undershaft mistakes, first, Lomax for his son, then rejects his son Stephen as a stranger, someone named "Mr. Stephen," and then Undershaft turns to Adolphus Cusins as his real son. This is ironic since at the end of the play it will be Adolphus who will become the next heir to the munitions factories. Cusins is the only person in the midst of all this confusion to have the presence of mind to straighten things out for Andrew Undershaft, and this indebts him already to Undershaft.
Undershaft, throughout the scene, is a person of rather commanding appearance and personality. He is intellectually agile and, apparently, has the advantage of being old enough to have worked out his own views towards religion and morality. He does not believe in the Christian motto which enjoins people not to resist evil. To follow the Christian doctrine and submit to evil would mean the destruction of his entire munitions empire. It would make him bankrupt; therefore, he has rejected traditional Christianity; at this point, we do not know if he has substituted something else, but this matter will be revealed later in the play.
The central point here is the dramatic conflict between father and daughter; Shaw is presenting two opposing ways of looking at religion and life, and he is masterful in presenting the key conflict between the "maker of arms" for the armies of the world and the "savior of souls" through another type of army, and yet both armies have a motto that is similar: The "Blood and Fire" of the Salvation Army could easily apply to Undershaft's munitions factories, and Undershaft uses traditional, Christian religious imagery to describe his munitions factories, which are responsible for a "blood that cleanses" and a "fire that purifies." Cleansing and purification are the main aims of both the Salvation Army and the Undershaft and Lazarus Munitions Foundry. Furthermore, two similar signs are used by Shaw to identify the location of the two places: The home of the Salvation Army is at the sign of the cross, and the Munitions Foundry is at the sign of the sword. The Cross and the Sword, then, become aligned when the family, plus fiancés, decides to sing the militant Christian song "Onward, Christian Soldiers," which employs the imagery of both the foundry and the Christian cross.
Thus, we are brought to the basis of all drama — some type of conflict; now, we have the central conflict before us. Furthermore, Undershaft is seen as a tempter, another dramatic convention. In addition, in classical dramas and in literature of all types, there is often a type of bargain made between two people. Here, the bargain is between Undershaft and Barbara, and at the end of the scene, it can be assumed that Undershaft, as the temper, might be stronger than the militant Major Barbara. Readers of drama should consider the type of bargain that Faust entered into with Mephistopheles and should also consider the number of tempters and temptations that are found in the Bible.