The might that is right and Shaw’s Major Barbara

Major Barbara
SO MANY FRAMES: The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw includes, from left, Gretchen Hall as Barbara, Nicholas Pelczar as Adolphus, Stafford Perry as Stephen, Kandis Chappell as Lady Britomart, Tyrell Crews as Charles and Elyse Price as Sarah. Below: Jennifer Clement as Mrs. Baines, Hall as Barbara and Dean Paul Gibson as Andrew. Photos by Pak Han

Might, they say, makes right, but whose might and whose right? Muddled human notions of charity, salvation, integrity and power receive a full-bore workout in George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 comedy/drama/call for revolution, Major Barbara. In the American Conservatory Theater production that opened Wednesday (in association with Theatre Calgary), Shaw – especially his rather extraordinary brain – is the star attraction.

The grand and glorious space that is the Geary Theater sometimes gets the better of director Dennis Garnhum (the artistic director of Theatre Calgary), who can’t always find the non-clumsy way to move the actors around the space for their speech making. And set designer Daniel Ostling, whose gracefully gliding set pieces are a thing of beauty, attempts to fill the vast space with empty frames and windows only to create a burden for the eyes by about the two-hour mark. When the busy-ness of the set starts to interfere with the Shavian verbosity, which occurs toward the end, there’s a problem.

The performances are all sturdy enough, with standout work coming from Nicholas Pelczar as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins, a Greek scholar who gets a whole lot more than he bargained for when he falls for the daughter of a munitions millionaire. Also adding a little edge and effervescence to a nearly three-hour show that intermittently has trouble breaking through the dialogue to find the human pulse, are Kandis Chappell (in full Dowager Countess mode) as a domineering matriarch, Stafford Perry as a milquetoast son perfectly suited to politics and Dean Paul Gibson as a captain of industry who doesn’t give a fig if his bullets, cannons and aerial bombers kill good guys or bad guys as long as the check clears (so to speak).

Major Barbara

What’s exciting here is the clever way Shaw slips us into the world of a fractured English family that could inhabit an Oscar Wilde play, with witty bon mots dropping all over the stage. But the longer we linger with the Undershaft clan, the more we get pulled into the vortex of moral and spiritual dilemma. By the last half hour or so, when the speeches are coming fast and furious (who needs bullets when you have such sharp, explosive words?), audience heads spin trying to keep up with all the arguments, observations and conundrums.

Shaw’s pontificating is positively delicious as when he has Andrew Undershaft, profiteer of war, make this observation:

Let six hundred and seventy fools loose in the street; and three policemen can scatter them. But huddle them together in a certain house in Westminster; and let them go through certain ceremonies and call themselves certain names until at last they get the courage to kill; and your six hundred and seventy fools become a government.

Then a few sentences later, Undershaft goes in for the kill, almost literally:

When you vote you only change the names of the cabinet. When you shoot, you pull down governments, inaugurate new epochs, abolish old orders and set up new.

At this point in the play, the duel is between Undershaft and his soon-to-be son-in-law, Adolphus. What of Barbara, the seemingly major character of the title? She sort of gets lost in the verbal badinage. The play really is a battle for Barbara’s soul, but Gretchen Hall doesn’t make much of an impression in the role. It’s fun to watch her try and save the soul of a violent thug (Brian Rivera) and to watch her squirm when her precious Salvation Army has no qualms taking giant donations from her father or from a whisky maker. But the character that registers most here is Adolphus. So why is his name not in the title? Hello, Dolly! was apparently on cosmic reserve for a 1960s musical. Here’s Shaw’s Dolly in full revolutionary pique as he falls under the Undershaft spell:

I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyer, the doctor, the priest, the literary man, the professor, the artist, and the politician, who, once in authority, are the most dangerous, disastrous, and tyrannical of all the fools, rascals, and impostors.

With characters shouting about the saving of souls, the value of mass destruction and the ethics of taking good money from bad business, it’s hard not to wonder how Shaw knew so much about American life in the 21st century, where guns in schools and movie theaters and on seemingly every other block attest to the notion of “my might is the right might” and questionable (at best) money being thrown at nonprofits to shine tarnished images questios the very notion of charity. How can we possibly do good in the world when doing good means doing bad somewhere else along the line? Whose definitions of “good” and “bad” are we using, anyway? Shaw doesn’t really have an answer and, unfortunately, neither do we.

American Conservatory Theater’s Major Barbara continues through Feb. 2 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$140. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

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