This play was performed in Britain in 1905 and in the U. S. in 1915. What would have been the contexts for a play on arms manufacture and morality at the time? (buildup of weapons before the First World War; debate in U. S. about whether the U. S. should join England in fighting Germany)
What were Shaw's own politics on the subject of war? (He opposed WWI) Does this seem consistent with the lighthearted approach to weapons manufacture and sales taken by the play?
What are some of Major Barbara's overarching themes? (the dependence of charity on financial subsidy; the affectations of the wealthy and poor; the hypocrisies and cunning of the latter; the difficulties of moral consistency, the need for creative compromise, the interlocking corruption of institutions, the hypocrisy of pretentions, etc.)
In what settings do the three acts of the play take place, and how does the succession of scenes follow the plot and its development?
What significance resides in the names of the characters--e. g., Britomart, Barbara, Undershaft?
How would you describe Shaw's style? What are some particularly amusing jokes or plot twists? (e. g., Augustus is a "foundling" because under the Deceased Wife's Sister's Act his parents' union wasn't legal in England) What use is made of paradox? Contradictions? Sudden shifts in tone and allegiance?
Is Major Barbara a comedy of manners? To what extent do ideas rather than characters or events determine the plot? What are some examples of reversal and recognition?
What do we learn about Lady Britomart's family in Act 1? Her relationship with her son Stephen? What aspects of the lives of her daughters and future sons-in-law are mocked? How much wealth does she expect for her family?
What are some comic aspects of Andrew Undershaft's reunion with his children? (can't recognize them) Do we know why Lady Britomart disapproves of him? (she disapproves of armaments, also is angry that he intends to leave the foundry to a foundling rather than his son)
What attitudes of mind are represented by Sarah's suitor? By Barbara's fiance? Will he be able to support himself and Barbara through his academic endeavors?
What opinion does Undershaft hold of his son and vice versa?
What do we learn about Barbara? In Act 2, what aspects do we see of her character?
Does the Salvation Army as portrayed help the genuinely destitute and deserving? (poor feign religion to receive food) What problems does Bill Walker bring into the mission? What ideas does he embody or express, and do some of them hit their mark?
What forms of working-class ideals and political views are mocked in the characters of those who frequent the mission? (Chartism, self-help, reading of Tom Paine, William Morris Labour Church)
What recognition of the economic sources of philanthropy distresses Barbara? Does it seem plausible that she should be so naive?
What views does Andrew Undershaft represent? (he has been right to make money in any way possible for this relieves him from poverty) Are there some obvious flaws in his argument? (doesn't consider the effects of his actions on others)
What does he maintain is the relationship between industry and government? (government does the bidding of wealthy industrialists) Does this seem a realistic view? Could one make similar claims today?
Why do you think Shaw chose for his hero an unscrupulous weapons manufacturer rather than, say, a textile manufacturer?
What is the reason why an especially well-ordered and prosperous workforce is chosen to demonstrate the good effects of industry? Would most factories have provided such services for their employees?
What do we learn about the manufacture of weapons from the newcomers' visit? (unsafe, rule-driven)
On what grounds can Augustus Cusins be considered a foundling? Would the audience have found this amusing?
What motivates Undershaft's choice of Augustus as his heir? Does this seem to be related to his prospective marriage to Barbara? Is Barbara herself consulted?
What do you make of Augustus Cusins' sudden conversion to a life as an arms manufacturer? Is it realistic that Barbara should support this?
Who seems to be the central speaker in this final act? What arguments can be made against his views that weapons manufacture reduces poverty? (killing of those in other countries devastates their lands and peoples, evokes attacks in response)
What seems pointed about the fact that the previously firm-minded Barbara makes no counterargument? What do you make of her final act of seizing her mother's skirt? (regresses, ceases to critique the evils she has opposed)
Can you describe the final scene as one of patriarchal bonding? What renders Lady Britomart and Barbara unable to provide a counterbalance? What do you think will be Barbara's future?
Does the ending provide a final synthesis of the claims of practicality and idealism? Reformism and naked individualism? Family conflict vs. family harmony?
How is the plot affected by the absence of credible working-class characters in a play about the means to eradicate poverty?
What views does the play or its characters express on the topic of religion?
Are there other instances in turn-of-the century avant garde literature in which philanthropy is seen as misguided or a trivial affectation of the wealthy? (cmp. George Gissing's The Nether World) Have you read other novels which portray the Salvation Army? (Margaret Harkness, A City Girl)
Would Aristotle consider this play a successful comedy? (for him, in a comedy the good are rewarded; if the evil are rewarded the play is neither tragic nor comic but incoherent)
Would you describe this play as feminist, since its titular character is an independent-minded woman? (women are inconsistent and readily give up their chief beliefs on trivial grounds) Are there aspects of its claims which are disturbing? Convincing? (broad social critique of society's interlocking evils and compromises)
What observations are added by Shaw's preface to the play? What does he advocate? (incomes entirely dependent on labor, equality and an end to privilege, rejection of religion, rational order)
How are these views relevant to the play? Do they seem consistent with its respect for a "self-made" industrialist who inherited a foundry?