J. Percy Smith
Major Barbara is to Bernard Shaw as Measure for Measure is to Shakespeare. Each has for its central figure a young and beautiful woman of the purest religious faith and aspiration, who is presented with a moral problem that shakes her to the heart. Each contains an accompanying set of characters who range, as do the incidents of the play, from high comedy to farce to brutality. Each represents a solution to the problem that is of questionable validity in terms of the play itself, and enigmatic as to the author's deeper intention and as to the play's moral and philosophical implications. Each has evoked a notable quantity of critical comment expressing widely varying views, mainly satisfactory to their authors.
With few exceptions, the critics who saw the first performance of Major Barbara in 1905 found it too long and ultimately puzzling. Some found it offensive because of Barbara's utterance, in act 2, of the agonized words of Jesus on the cross, and because of the brutality displayed when in the same Act the ruffian Bill Walker flings down the Salvation Army lass Jenny Hill and punches her in the face. The notion of blasphemy having become as quaint to modern audiences as Shakespearian references to chastity, and the presence of brutality virtually a sine qua non, recent writers have rightly ignored those early objections and turned to the larger issues, not without a wary eye on the preface. The growing body of critical discussion attests to the troublesome, even ambiguous, quality of the final effect of the play.____________________