1905 | London

Major Barbara Meets Her Maker

George Bernard Shaw eradicates poverty.

Undershaft

Cleanliness and respectability do not need justification, Barbara: they justify themselves. I see no darkness here, no dreadfulness. In your salvation shelter, I saw poverty, misery, cold, and hunger. You gave them bread and treacle and dreams of heaven. I give from thirty shillings a week to twelve thousand a year. They find their own dreams, but I look after the drainage.

Barbara

And their souls?

Undershaft

I save their souls just as I saved yours.

Barbara 

[revolted] You saved my soul! What do you mean?

Undershaft

I fed you and clothed you and housed you. I took care that you should have money enough to live handsomely—more than enough so that you could be wasteful, careless, generous. That saved your soul from the seven deadly sins.

Barbara

[bewildered] The seven deadly sins!

Undershaft

Yes, the deadly seven. [counting on his fingers] Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability, and children. Nothing can lift those seven millstones from man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted. I lifted them from your spirit. I enabled Barbara to become Major Barbara, and I saved her from the crime of poverty.

Cusins

Do you call poverty a crime?

Undershaft

The worst of crimes. All the other crimes are virtues beside it; all the other dishonors are chivalry itself by comparison. Poverty blights whole cities, spreads horrible pestilences, strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound, or smell of it. What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there, a blow now and a curse then. What do they matter? They are only the accidents and illnesses of life; there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London. But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill-fed, ill-clothed people. They poison us morally and physically; they kill the happiness of society; they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime; we all fear poverty. Pah! [turning on Barbara] You talk of your half-saved ruffian in West Ham: you accuse me of dragging his soul back to perdition. Well, bring him to me here, and I will drag his soul back again to salvation for you. Not by words and dreams, but by thirty-eight shillings a week, a sound house in a handsome street, and a permanent job. In three weeks he will have a fancy waistcoat, in three months a tall hat and a chapel sitting; before the end of the year, he will shake hands with a duchess at a Primrose League meeting and join the Conservative Party.

Madame X, by John Singer Sargent, 1884. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916, New York.

Madame X, by John Singer Sargent, 1884. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916, New York. 

Barbara

And will he be the better for that?

Undershaft

You know he will. Don’t be a hypocrite, Barbara. He will be better fed, better housed, better clothed, better behaved, and his children will be pounds heavier and bigger. That will be better than an American cloth mattress in a shelter, chopping firewood, eating bread and treacle, and being forced to kneel down from time to time to thank heaven for it: knee drill, I think you call it. It is cheap work converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other. I will undertake to convert West Ham to Mahometanism on the same terms. Try your hand on my men: their souls are hungry because their bodies are full.

Barbara

And leave the East End to starve?

Undershaft

[his energetic tone dropping into one of bitter and brooding remembrance] I was an East Ender. I moralized and starved until one day I swore that I would be a full-fed free man at all costs—that nothing should stop me except a bullet, neither reason nor morals nor the lives of other men. I said, “Thou shalt starve ere I starve”; and with that word I became free and great. I was a dangerous man until I had my will; now I am a useful, beneficent, kindly person. That is the history of most self-made millionaires, I fancy. When it is the history of every Englishman, we shall have an England worth living in.

Lady Britomart

Stop making speeches, Andrew. This is not the place for them.

Undershaft

[punctured] My dear, I have no other means of conveying my ideas.

Lady Britomart

Your ideas are nonsense. You got on because you were selfish and unscrupulous.

Undershaft

Not at all. I had the strongest scruples about poverty and starvation. Your moralists are quite unscrupulous about both: they make virtues of them. I had rather be a thief than a pauper. I had rather be a murderer than a slave. I don’t want to be either, but if you force the alternative on me, then, by Heaven, I’ll choose the braver and more moral one. I hate poverty and slavery worse than any other crimes whatsoever. And let me tell you this. Poverty and slavery have stood up for centuries to your sermons and leading articles: they will not stand up to my machine guns. Don’t preach at them; don’t reason with them. Kill them.

Contributor

George Bernard Shaw

From Major Barbara. His first four novels having been rejected by British publishers, Shaw wrote polemics for the left-wing, idealistic Fabian Society in the 1880s before finding steady work as a London music critic. In 1905, at the age of forty-eight, Shaw achieved international success with his play John Bull’s Other Island, when it was given a bespoke performance for Edward VII.