Barbara Bellow Watson
The major difficulty of Major Barbara lies in its simple and necessary irony, which is only the irony of life itself. Shaw, in his preface to the play, gives copious "First Aid to Critics," but the confusion remains, partly because, as he himself points out, if you tell the truth nobody will believe you, and partly because this preface deals with ideas rather than with dramatic method. That method is, as Chesterton calls it, "the grave, solemn and sacred joke for which the play itself was written," an irony designed to show that we may not accept the least of capitalism's benefits without acceping the last of its depredations: also that the damage it does and the audacity of its excuses beggar invective and so thoroughly satirize themselves that no response is left but irony, a weapon Shaw wields as superbly as Swift. There is even a modest echo of A Modest Proposal in the preface:
Suppose we were to abolish all penalties for such activities as burglary, arson, rape and murder, and decide that poverty is the one thing we will not tolerate—that every adult with less than, say, £365 a year, shall be painlessly but inexorably killed, and every hungry half naked child forcibly fattened and clothed, would not that be an enormous improvement on our existing system, which has already destroyed so many civilizations, and is visibly destroying ours in the same way?
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Publication information: Book title: George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. Contributors: Harold Bloom - Editor. Publisher: Chelsea House. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1988. Page number: 13.
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