Man and Superman
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW 1903
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Subtitled “A Comedy and a Philosophy,” George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is a comedy of ideas: its characters discuss ideas such as capitalism, social reform, male and female roles in courtship, and other existential topics in long speeches that resemble arias in an opera. The play’s verbosity makes it unwieldy to produce full scale, so the Epistle in the beginning and the Revolutionist’s Handbook at the end are usually not performed, and the scene in Hell, although containing the bulk of the play’s philosophical musings, is often dropped.
What is left is basically a light-hearted parlor play demonstrating Shaw’s idea of the Life Force, the force that drives women to pursue a mate in order to attempt to produce a Superman. This theory, along with a theory of eugenic breeding to accompany it, preoccupied Shaw for the rest of his life. The theories expounded in the play are full of contradictions, typical of Shaw’s writing, and critics have devoted countless books and articles to sorting them out. Early critics called the play tedious and dramatically unsound, but today it is considered a landmark in the genre of the “idea play.”
George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, the youngest child of George Carr and Lucinda Elizabeth Shaw. His mother was an opera singer Page 136 | Top of Articleand voice trainer; his father was an unsuccessful businessman and alcoholic who could not pull his family out of poverty, in spite of belonging to the genteel class of Protestant Irish gentry. Shaw once described himself as a “downstart,” one whose family had come down in the world. When Shaw was twenty, he moved to London with his mother. Lucinda earned the family’s living with her music; Shaw wrote five unsuccessful novels and furthered his education through reading. Music was central to his world and would later come to be essential to his plays.
Shaw entered the theatrical world as a critic, writing music reviews for various papers until asked to write drama criticism for the Saturday Review in 1894. He also wrote pamphlets, tracts, and articles, spoke out for the labor movement, and established the Fabian Society, a socialist intellectual group, in 1884 with Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Shaw’s interest in the theater soon led him to publish and then to produce what he called the “play of ideas,” a shift in dramatic form that altered the course of dramatic structure irrevocably. Man and Superman was the first of these, published first in book form in 1903 and then produced on stage in 1905.
Shaw, a shy man despite his speaking ability, developed a public persona, G. B. S., who parried boldly with his critics in editorials and in irreverent comments within the plays themselves. G. B. S.—impudent and witty—contrasted greatly with the real Shaw, who was shy, prudish, and courteous. Shaw felt compelled to produce plays of social reform. The words spoken by Don Juan in Man and Superman might easily have been those of Shaw himself: “I tell you that as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it. This is the law of my life. That is the working within me of Life’s incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intenser self-consciousness and clearer self-understanding.” Admittedly a virtual “writing machine,” Shaw worked relentlessly, writing plays, critical commentary, and letters of social reform, as well as maintaining a rigorous daily schedule of physical labor in his garden. Among his notable works are the plays Pygmalion, Major Barbara, and Saint Joan. At the age of 94 he fell from a tree he was pruning and broke a leg. The injury was soon followed by his demise; he died November 2, 1950, in Ayot Saint Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England, having become one of the most influential dramatists of all time.
Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkly
The printed play includes a dedication, in the form of a letter (epistle), addressed to Arthur Bingham Walkly, a drama critic and Shaw’s friend of fifteen years, who, according to the letter, had once asked Shaw why he did not write a Don Juan play. The dedication defends the play’s “preaching” tone, and sets out the premise of the play as “the natural attraction of the sexes,” to be distinguished from a play about love or marriage. The rest of the rather long and digressive letter explains that Don Juan is a philosopher who follows his instincts, along with some of his theories. This is a play admittedly designed for “a pit of philosophers” as audience.
Respectable Roebuck Ramsden and brash John Tanner are shocked to discover they must share jointly the guardianship of Ann Whitefield, whose father has just died. Tanner’s anarchistic book The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion offends Ramsden, and Tanner finds Ramsden hopelessly obsolete. They both would like to marry her off to Octavius, who loves her, and be done with their obligation. They present their dilemma to Ann, but she charms them into accepting their partnership, for her sake, and retires upstairs to mourn her father. Octavius, or Tavy, or Ricky Ticky Tavy, as Ann calls him, is clearly smitten with her, somewhat to Tanner’s disgust. Tanner compares her attention to Octavius as like that of a lion or tiger with its prey. Octavius says he would consider such treatment “fulfillment.”
Ann returns downstairs, and Ramsden tells her that Octavius’s sister, Violet, is pregnant by an unknown “scoundrel.” Octavius and Ramsden want to find him and force a marriage, but Tanner’s interest is in supporting Violet’s need to raise her child, since the male contribution to her condition is essentially over. Octavius goes upstairs to comfort his sister, while Tanner and Ann reminisce about their childhood romance. Tanner accuses her of being a boa constrictor, encircling him in her flirtation. Now Miss Ramsden, Roebuck’s maiden sister, comes downstairs, washing her hands of Violet because the young expectant mother does not show proper contrition. Violet shows her true mettle when she is outraged by Tanner’s congratulations on her courage. She is offended because she is married, much to everyone’s surprise, although she Page 137 | Top of Articlemysteriously withholds her husband’s identity. She departs indignantly, leaving the others to contemplate their stupidity.
The scene opens in the drive of a country estate, where a competent chauffeur, Enry Straker, attends to a broken-down touring car while Tanner looks on helplessly. The chauffeur and Tanner banter nearly as equals about driving fast, which scares Tanner and exhilarates his employee. Tanner calls Straker the scion of the rising class of intelligent, successful but not wealthy, working men. Now Octavius comes out of the house, having arrived earlier with Ann Whitefield and her sister Rhoda, his own sister, Violet, and an American friend, Hector Malone. Ann has refused Octavius’s marriage proposal, claiming to be too upset by her father’s death to answer.
Tanner insincerely invites Ann to accompany him on a cross-country drive to Nice, Algiers, and Biskra, assuming she will refuse. Mr. Malone offers to take Violet along, in his car. Mrs. Whitefield and Ann discreetly go indoors, leaving Ramsden and Octavius to help explain Violet’s embarrassing situation to the dense American. Alone, Hector and Violet kiss, for Hector is her secret husband. The secrecy evolves from the fact that Hector’s father would cut off Hector’s substantial inheritance if he learned that his son had failed to marry a girl whose station in life he can improve. Tanner has arranged for Ann to travel with Octavius, and it takes Straker to inform Tanner that Ann is really after him. Tanner escapes by leaving immediately for Biskra.
The stage directions to Act III consist of an ironic socialist mini sermon on the right of the working man to refuse demeaning labor, as represented by the band of vagabonds discussing “abstruse questions of politic economy” in an abandoned quarry in the Spanish Sierra Nevada. Their discussion parodies an intellectual club meeting, until Mendoza, the chief of the brigand, calls them back to earth. Their mode of redistributing the wealth of society lies in thievery: they are waiting to ambush the next automobile. They catch Straker and Tanner and hold the latter for ransom. To pass the time before morning, when the money can be procured, Mendoza offers to read his love poems, dedicated to one Louisa—who turns out to be Enry’s sister, Louisa Straker. The poems are so bad that Tanner recommends he throw them in the fire. The bandits and their prisoners fall asleep in front of
the fire listening to, “Louisa I love thee; I love thee, Louisa; Louisa, Louisa.”
The stage grows dark, and then a ghostly pallor, accompanied by violins playing a “Mozartian strain” reveals a man dressed as a fifteenth-century Spanish nobleman—it is Don Juan, but he looks remarkably like John Tanner. He is joined by an old woman, who turns out to be Dona Ana de Ulloa, Don Juan Tenorio’s love, the one whose father Don Juan had killed in a duel over her honor. Dona Ana, a near twin for Ann Whitefield, has just arrived in Hell (for that is where they are) having lived to the age of seventy-seven. She is surprised to learn that her old lover and her father, Don Gonzalo, are now good friends who enjoy long philosophical discussions, along with the Devil, when the old commander visits from Heaven.
The commander is a statue resembling Roebuck Ramsden in all but his marble form and the style of his moustache. He is the statue that Dona Ana commissioned in her father’s honor, after his death. They debate the relative merits of hell versus heaven, with the devil trying to convince Don Juan to go to heaven, since he “has no capacity for enjoyment” and thus doesn’t like being in Hell. The good commander would rather be in Hell because heaven is “too angelically dull” for him. The three Page 138 | Top of Articlemen discuss instinct, virtue, and love in lengthy speeches, while Ana expresses shock at their callousness toward women. She leaves in search of a father for the Superman she hopes to conceive.
The sleepers awake and hear a loud bang that turns out to be a flat tire on the car containing Ann Whitefield and the others. She has tracked John Tanner, driven by the Life Force.
The scene shifts to a villa on a hillside that looks onto Alhambra, a Medieval Moslem castle. Here, the group learns that Violet’s secret husband is the American, Hector Malone; the pair has kept their marriage a secret. Once the elder Malone meets the spirited Violet, however, he blesses the marriage and gives the couple a generous gift of money. Ann again rejects Octavius’s marriage proposal. Octavius indicates that he will spend the rest of his life mourning this rejection. Ann then woos and wins Jack Tanner, despite his recognizing the wiles with which she ensnares him. They find compatibility in cynicism.
The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion by John Tanner, M. I. R. C. (Member of the Idle Rich Class)
This section would frequently be printed in the playbill rather than presented on stage. It offers an argument for the breeding of the Superman and for eliminating marriage and describes an experimental commune in America, the Oneida Community. The tract then makes a call for a conference of people who seek the immortality such a program might bring. The handbook ends with “Maxims for Revolutionists” ranging in topic from royalty to the treatment of children and servants and ending with self-sacrifice.
The Devil is the suave and sophisticated host of Hell and the alter ego of Mendoza. The devil debates with Don Juan, insisting that it is not the Life Force that governs the earth but Death and that humans are essentially destructive beings, not creative ones. The Devil points out that the country where he holds the largest following is England.
One of the bandits, a Frenchman, who helps Mendoza waylay travelers to hold them for ransom.
See John Tanner
See The Devil
An American traveling in Europe who falls in love with and secretly marries Violet, since his father would disapprove of her social status. He is honorable but laughable because of his open-hearted good nature and because he does not know enough to be “ashamed of his nationality.” He shows his mettle when he announces himself ready to support his new wife, without his father’s financial assistance.
A Jewish Spaniard, a former waiter, and now leader of a band of vagabonds with an imposing “Mephistophelean affectation.” Mendoza has thrown his life away over a lost love, Louisa Straker. He is transposed into the Devil in the Don Juan in Hell scene. Mendoza bores his hostages to sleep with the terrible poetry he wrote to Louisa. Mendoza knows most of the main characters because he waited on them at the Savoy Hotel. Tanner befriends him and provides a viable alibi rather than turning him in to the police when they arrive.
Roebuck’s maiden sister takes a high hand with Violet, assuming her unmarried, and succeeds in offending her completely.
The quintessence of the well-to-do gentleman, Ramsden (“Granny” to Ann) fancies himself a Page 139 | Top of Articlefreethinker but is in fact a conservative. He dresses and acts impeccably, professes to want to help Violet, yet blunders into offending her with his assumptions about her marital status and the presumptuous way that he starts making decisions for her. Underneath the limitations imposed by society’s conventions, Roebuck is a kind person.
Ricky Ticky Tavy
See Octavius Robinson
Octavius, a rather simple and idealistic soul, suffers for his love of Ann, who merely toys with him and then throws him over for Jack. Tavy will probably never marry but will enshrine his brief moment with Ann on the altar of his heart.
Violet, Octavius’s sister, possesses a strong will and a firm step. Married and pregnant, she honors her new husband’s strange request to keep his name a secret from her friends to delay his father finding out that he has foiled the elder Malone’s plot to buy social advancement either for his son or his son’s new wife through marriage. Even though marriage to Violet would not show “a social profit” for anyone, she so charms Mr. Malone that he instantly accepts the marriage and blesses it with his love, and his money.
See Don Gonzalo Ulloa
See Don Gonzalo Ulloa
The modern Prometheus, Enry (or Henry without the dropped H), is a topnotch automobile mechanic with a penchant for fast cars. He has more competence, self-assurance, and wisdom than his employer Jack Tanner because Straker works for a living. It is Enry Straker who recognizes Ann’s pursuit of Jack. He also pulls the wool from Jack’s eyes about his own desire.
John, or Jack, would prefer to spend his days philosophizing about life rather than living it. He sees right through Ann’s manipulations but falls for her anyway. He fancies himself a revolutionary, working for social reform, and to this end has published the Revolutionist’s Handbook, the precepts of which are expounded to all who will listen by his alter ego and remote ancestor, Don Juan.
See Octavius Robinson
Don Juan Tenorio
Don Juan is the old philosopher who once was a lover and repents not of his acts but of the foolishness of his dreams. In Hell, he expounds his theory of the Life Force, and he longs to live for eternity contemplating reality.
Ana de Ulloa
At the age of seventy-seven, Ana dies and finds herself in Hell with the unexpected option of going to Heaven if she wants. She is the alter ego of Ann Whitefield, though at her age she now lacks Ann’s drive for the Life Force. She still remembers her young lover, Don Juan Tenorio, the brash man who wooed her and who killed her father in a duel over her honor.
Don Gonzalo Ulloa
A sincere and honorable man, the commander lived his life as a gentleman, doing what was Page 140 | Top of Articleexpected of someone of his class, including facing Don Juan, an expert fencer, in a duel. When he dies of wounds inflicted by the younger man, he goes straight to heaven, but he spends much time in Hell, chatting amiably with his new friend, Don Juan. Heaven and its saccharine occupants bore the Don. Influenced by his young friend, he is reconsidering the values that guided his life on earth.
Ann is a huntress in the world of male and female relationships. Her instinct toward the Life Force drives her to seek a mate worthy of producing with her the new Superman. She is sophisticated, poised, and fully in command of the men who fall for her. When she breaks Octavius’s heart, it causes her no remorse. Tanner is a good match for her because he sees through her hypocrisy. According to Shaw “Every woman is not Ann, but Ann is Every woman.”
Ann’s mother does not have to play the matchmaker’s role with a daughter who seeks her own mate, but she tries to lend a hand. Mrs. Whitefield tells Tanner that she doesn’t care if Ann marries him, but when he asserts that he has no intentions along those lines, she slyly suggests that he’d be Ann’s match. Mrs. Whitefield cannot help working for the Life Force.
Man and Superman expounds Shaw’s pointed view of humanity’s sexual nature. In this play, Ann Whitefield woos her newly appointed guardian, John Tanner, and he, in spite of his anti-romantic persona, falls for her. He does not love her in the conventional sense, but falls prey to the “Life Force” that she exudes. It is more a matter of sexual attraction than it is of romanic love. Shaw’s idea of this Life Force derives from French philosopher Henri Bergson’s Olan vital, or spirit of life.
Bergson’s concept proposed that intellect was an advanced form of instinct, and that intellect and instinct together constituted the source of vitality shared between all creatures and God. Social niceties, such as the conventions of marriage and courting, merely mask the underlying drive toward life and procreation. The Life Force is the creative urge toward self-preservation and regeneration, the drive to evolve, adapt, and actualize. Bergson’s philosophy parallels French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s biological concept of the organism’s tendency to adapt to environment, to survive through self-transformation. Lamarck predated Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which Shaw opposes by going back to the idea of Lamarckian determinism in the form of an unconscious will towards life.
Shaw draws on both philosophy and biological theory for his Life Force theory, which became a common theme in his work, especially in his prefaces. Nowhere else, however, is it so fully explored as in the Don Juan in Hell segment found in Act III, where Ann Whitefield transposes into Dona Ana de Ulloa and Tanner becomes Don Juan Tenario. They debate the relative merits of heaven and earth with the devil and “the statue,” Ana’s dead father. Don Juan insists that, “Life is a force which has made innumerable experiments in organizing itself ... the mammoth and the man, the mouse and the megatherium, the files and the fleas and the Fathers of the Church... all more or less successful attempts to build up that raw force into higher and higher individuals, the ideal individual being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and withal completely, unilludedly self-conscious: in short, a god.”
The purpose of the Life Force is to create a superior being, the Superman. In Man and Superman, Life Force flows through female intuition, whose sole purpose is to achieve union with a male of intellectual superiority. An exceptional woman, who has a strong and irresistible Life Force, scoffs at weaker intellects, such as Octavius, who, though not unintelligent, lacks charisma. She seeks instead someone like Tanner, whose intellect makes him surly and offensive to other men but irresistible to strong women like Ann.
Intellect may seem an odd property to combine with the Life Force, but Don Juan explains that “brains” are needed to avoid death, thus the woman seeks a mate whose offspring have a good chance of survival.
The German term Ubermensch first appeared in Goethe’s Faust(1808) and later in Nietzsche’s Page 141 | Top of ArticleThus Spake Zarathustra(1892). Nietzsche meant the term to indicate the universal human goal that could only be achieved when man suppresses his natural passions and commits himself to intellectual creativity. This, according to Nietzsche, is the overarching goal of humanity, the one that transcends individual goals or those of a cultural group. The Superman would be morally and intellectually superior to the average man.
Nietzsche was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher who proposed that a single all-encompassing “Will” was the cosmic force that drives nature and individuals to act as they do. The Nietzschian concept of a Superman contributed to Hitler’s drive for a superior Aryan race, and Shaw himself proposes that the Superman might be bred from humans of the highest intellectual and moral standards.
The Superman in Man and Superman has the potential to be forged through a union between Jack Tanner, due to his intellectual superiority, and Ann Whitefield, who embodies the Life Force. The Superman is explicitly mentioned in the play, when the devil calls Nietzsche’s Superman “the latest in fashion among Life Force fanatics” in Act III. Shaw’s Don Juan explains that the Life Force seeks to create a Superman, and that humanity’s highest goal is to serve that purpose as well as to gain a philosophical mind in order to understand its purpose.
The intellect is needed because without it, man “blunders into death.” The philosophic man “seeks in contemplation to discover the inner will of the world, in invention to discover the means of fulfilling that will, and in action that will by the so-discovered means.” In other words, each human should seek its highest ability to comprehend its ultimate purpose and then bend willingly to the Life Force’s urge to create the Superman.
The Don Juan story is an age-old tale of an obsessive lover and adventurer who is carried off by the devil after a lifetime of chasing women. It is probably best told by Mozart in his opera Don Giovanni(1787). In Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni (Don Juan) woos Donna Anna, who rejects him and whose father, the Commander, he kills in a duel over her honor. Later Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello see a statue of the dead Commander in a
cemetery and Don Giovanni jokingly asks it to dinner. The statue nods its head and later appears at dinner, whereupon it chastises Don Giovanni for his reckless life. Then the Devil appears to carry him off, while the police arrive too late to arrest him for the murder of Donna Anna’s father.
The origin of the Don Juan story is unknown, having first appeared in Spanish literature in 1630 as Don Juan of Seville. Moliere also wrote a version in the eighteenth century, and Lord Byron, in the early-nineteenth century, takes Don Juan from Spain to a Greek island, to Turkey and Russia, and then to England as a garrulous adventurer who intersperses his love affairs with philosophical musings on power, politics, and poets. Shaw’s play is a kind of modernized and inverted comedic adaptation of Mozart’s work, which Shaw knew intimately from his mother’s participation in opera and which he learned to love.
In Shaw’s Don Juan story, the woman, Ann Whitefield, plays the pursuer and the Don Juan figure of John Tanner is a reluctant lover. The commander/statue becomes Roebuck Ramsden, who threatens not with a sword but by throwing Tanner’s book, The Revolutionist’s Handbook, at him. Rather than fight over her virtue, they duel verbally over whether Ann should be allowed to read Tanner’s book and how to share her joint guardianship. In a distinct role reversal, the theme of moral corruption in Don Juan is, in Shaw’s work, cast aside in favor of a theme of moral passion (a term borrowed from Hegel)—a passion, on Tanner’s part, to be moral in the face of Ann’s seduction. Naturally, he loses, because Ann is without morals and because she is driven by the Life Force—as is Tanner—to procreate. In Shaw’s Don Juan, moral corruption is portrayed as simply a side effect of the basic biological drive to preserve the species.
The Idea Play
Typical of nineteenth-century drama was the “parlor comedy,” which had its roots in the “comedy of manners” popularized during the Restoration period (late-seventeenth century). The dominant theme of the comedy of manners was society life, specifically as it related to courtship and marriage. In a comedy of manners, the plot both reflects and satirizes the moral behavior of the characters, who represent “types” of people rather than fully rounded individuals. The parlor comedy moved the action to the parlor, or sitting room, where the characters discussed their predicaments.
Shaw advanced the parlor comedy into the play of ideas. The play of ideas had evolved from Henrik Ibsen’s serious parlor dramas, where characters discussed deep moral or social crises. There was more talk than action in Ibsen’s work, and Shaw adapted the “talking” play into a dramatized dialogue between conflicting ideas instead of characters. Whereas Ibsen’s plays put realistic characters into a parlor to discuss at some length their conflict with antagonists, Shaw loads the dialogue with philosophical ideas voiced by “types” who discuss ideas at great length. In an idea play, it is not the action or the characters but the ideas that take center stage.
Women’s Suffrage Movement
In 1889, Shaw considered running for public office as a Liberal candidate. His platform would include “suffrage for women in exactly the same terms as men.” During Shaw’s life, women discovered that they could earn an independent living. The next logical step was to demand the right to vote. Women in Britain had been fighting for the vote and the right to own property since 1875. Shaw’s circle of friends included renowned suffragettes such as Emily Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, who endured multiple imprisonments and force-feedings—tube-feedings to prevent them from dying (as a result of the hunger strikes they would pursue) and thus becoming martyrs—in their mission to liberate women.
Shaw supported the suffrage movement and spoke out against forcible feeding, which he considered torture. Although he frequently contributed witty editorials to the suffragettes’ cause, however, he felt that women themselves were completely capable of fighting their own battles and that women should not need men’s assistance to procure what was rightfully theirs. Furthermore, although he insisted that “the denial of any fundamental rights to the person of woman is practically the denial of the Life Everlasting,” he so often couched his criticisms in flippant humor that women were not sure he was actually helping their cause. As it was, the cause dwindled by the turn of the century, after the press lost interest in it.
Finally, in 1918, women over the age of thirty were granted the right to vote and to hold positions in the House of Commons. At the same time, the property clause requiring male voters to own property (amounting to ten British pounds) was removed.
George Bernard Shaw with his two friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb formed the core of the
Fabian Society, named after the Roman general Fabius, who saved Rome from the invading Hannibal. Shaw’s Fabian Society sought to obtain basic human rights through gradual reforms in society as a way to stave off what might otherwise lead inevitably to revolution. The society members took as their mission the simplification of their lifestyles, in order to expend their energy in bettering the lives of others.
The Fabian Society was an outgrowth of the Fellowship of the New Life, founded by Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson in 1883 and centered on achieving ethical perfection in order to serve the larger society through promoting socialism. Cambridge fellow Edward Carpenter honed the group’s belief to specifically endorse vegetarianism, hard physical labor, and handspun clothing, in a blatant rejection of the excesses of the Victorian upper classes. The Webbs and Shaw adopted this philosophy, taking the new Victorian work ethic to an extreme: they worked eighteen-hour days gardening, writing, and distributing pamphlets on socialist ideals. They abhorred any form of personal indulgence, from overeating and sex to the wearing of fine clothing. They abstained from eating meat and led celibate, spartan lives.
Besides their social and political mission, the Fabians also supported the arts, and it was under the auspices of the Fabian Society that Shaw presented a series of lectures about the dramatic influence of Henrik Ibsen (Hedda Gabler), whose work he admired and promoted in Britain. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three founding Fabians lived productively until their eighties (nineties in Shaw’s case), and they were still writing prolifically in their seventies. Their purpose in adopting their strict regime of personal hygiene was to subordinate their needs to greater cause of human equality.
Although others periodically joined the group, H. G. Wells (The Time Machine) the most notable among them, it was this trio that held the society together and made its greatest impact on British society. The Fabian Society was revived in 1960 and still serves as a liberal think tank for Britain’s current Labour Party.
Man and Superman was first published in book form in 1903 before being produced on the stage. Shaw published this early play himself, supervising the work closely. He sold just over 2700 copies in Britain. Essayist and critic G. K. Chesterton, as quoted in George Bernard Shaw: The Critical Heritage, considered the book “fascinating and delightful” Page 144 | Top of Articlebut called his friend Shaw to task for showing little faith in humanity. Likewise, essayist and critic Max Beerbohm, writing in the Saturday Review, found Shaw’s characters flat and priggish, so much so that “The Life Force could find no use for them.”
By the time the play was produced, in May of 1905 at the Royal Court Theatre, many of the prominent drama critics had already read the printed version of the play. The leading critic of the day, E. A. Baughan, who wrote under the pseudonym “Vaughan” in the Daily News, called Shaw an “anaemic idealist,” who might become “the comedy writer for men and women who have the modern disease of mental and physical anemia.” A. B. Walkley, the critic to whom Shaw addresses his dedicatory epistle in the beginning of the printed play, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Shaw’s “idea-plot” interferes with his “action-plot,” such that finds the former “soon exhausts itself,” while the latter is “a mere parasite of the other.”
William Archer, a journalist who had helped Shaw get an early job writing art criticism, and who then wrote for the World, expressed distaste for the character of Ann Whitefield, calling her a “man-devouring monster.” Archer suggested that Shaw approached his subject with too broad a brush, painting male-female relationships in such general terms as to lose the realism demanded by theater. In spite of such criticism, the play ran for 176 performances and served as a turning point in Shaw’s career, because the actor who played Jack Tanner, Granville Barker, was a producer who recognized Shaw’s talent and helped him to stage several more plays at his theater over the next few years. The “Don Juan in Hell” scene was not included in this first production but was separately staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1907. The tradition of producing this scene separately has continued.
Critics evaluating Shaw’s career as a whole often point to his lack of feeling, complaining that his plays are “as dry and flat as a biscuit” according to V. S. Pritchett, quoted in George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey. These critics complained that his characters talk so much that the ideas in the idea play get lost in the verbiage. In his early years, however, Shaw had great influence over young minds, as drama critic Eric Bentley asserted in Bernard Shaw, because he questioned “marriage, the family, education, science, religion, and—above all—capitalism.” His mode was to proselytize through discussion, presenting multiple sides of the debate through a dramatized dialectic. He stirred up the beehive and waited for his audience to reorganize their thinking according to higher principles.
That his audiences often simply enjoyed the show and failed to “get” his message was a source of tremendous disappointment for Shaw. He had the reputation of a gadfly or crank, not a profound social reformer. Misunderstood, Shaw created G. B. S. (George Bernard Shaw), an alter ego who would fight arrogantly with the public while Shaw the man shunned publicity. G. B. S. wrote scathing responses to the critics and was taken for a crank. “Not taking me seriously,” G. B. S. announced, “is the Englishman’s way of refusing to face facts.” Even so, by the time he was seventy, Shaw was “probably the most famous of living writers,” according to a New York Times editorial.
As Bentley pointed out, “Shaw’s career is ’sounder’ that any merely popular writer’s, for his books have gone on selling indefinitely and his plays have returned to the stage again and again.” Looking back, T. S. Eliot, quoted in Discovering Authors, said of him that “It might have been predicted that what he said then would not seem so subversive or blasphemous now. The public has accepted Mr. Shaw not by recognizing the intelligence of what said then, but by forgetting it; we must not forget that at one time Mr. Shaw was a very unpopular man. He is no longer the gadfly of the commonwealth; but even if he has never been appreciated, it is something that he should be respected.”
Hamilton is a Humanities teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay she discusses the ideological contradictions in Shaw ’s play and in his nature.
Shaw’s Man and Superman holds a myriad of comic inversions, from the role reversal in which
the woman pursues the man, to the satiric switching of heaven and hell. His inversions confuse even the play’s characters, whose conventional responses to unconventional situations make up the comedy of his play, while the underlying truths expressed by the inversions make up its philosophical content. For example, Ana, having recently arrived in Hell, finds it a delightful paradise, and she cannot wait to get into Heaven, since to her mind, “if Hell be so beautiful as this, how glorious must Heaven be!”
Don Juan, the Devil, and her deceased father, the Commander, protest: they too once shared her delusion, but they now know the truth. Don Juan is in Hell, where one would expect him to be after having killed the Commander. Having led a life of sin, Don Juan might well look forward to reveling in Hell, but in fact he cannot stand it. However, his reasons reveal an inversion in Shaw’s structuring of heaven and hell. Don Juan’s problem is not that heaven and hell are switched, but that what he expected from each is also switched. Hell is the Heaven of earthly imagination—but it is based on misguided imagination. Thus Shaw’s inversions occur on multiple and intersecting planes.
Hell is a beautiful paradise (a commonplace inversion) that is hellish in its tedium (not an
inversion) and the tedium consists of the continuation of earthly hopes and dreams (the key inversion). The latter inversion proves to be the most perverse and is one of the cornerstones of the philosophy Shaw explores in this play. In Shaw’s Hell, the Devil is an earnest fellow, not an evil being. But his rather unexpected plea for sincerity and warmth make Don Juan ill. At the same time, the Commander, a good and kindly man, has gone to heaven as he might have expected. But because Heaven too is inverted, he finds it a place of boring contemplation, full of hypocrites. Don Juan wants to go to Heaven to contemplate reality, while the Commander wants to escape this “most angelically dull place in all creation.”
Further inversions occur in the Devil’s perception of humankind. The Devil abhors (rather than revels in) humanity’s obsession with Death and deadly inventions, from the rack and gallows to patriotism and other “isms” that insidiously encourage destruction in their name.
With so many inversions competing for attention, Shaw is not able to avoid certain logical contradictions. For example, Hell is Hellish to someone like Don Juan partly because of the Devil’s longing for “love, happiness, and beauty.” Rather than feeling inferior to God’s creation, the Devil claims to have created Hell as a haven away from Heaven’s hypocrisy. Such fatuousness nausates Don Juan, who finds soul-searching hypocritical, although he himself wants to abide in Heaven where he can contemplate reality. He’ll find only hypocrisy in Heaven, according to the Commander, who leaves Heaven “forever,” having recently converted from hypocrisy himself.
According to the Commander, the truly blessed go to Hell. Meanwhile, the Devil finds offense in Dona Ana’s preference for Heaven’s brand of hypocrisy over his. In other words, both places harbor hypocrites as well as enlightened individuals who seek the reality they left behind on earth. Such contradictions led critics such as Bertrand Russell to declare Shaw “more bounder than genius” because the logic of his philosophy did not make sense.
Shaw’s penchant for turning things upside down extended to real life as well as the closed fictional world of the stage and again inherent contradictions caused him difficulties. His almost perverse tendency towards opposing conventional thought rankled the suffragettes he tried to help when he suggested that the women’s voting rights movement should, by definition, not need to enlist the support of men.
He told his sister Lucy that women were better off speaking for themselves than making use of men’s entreaties. He wrote several essays in their support, but then, treating women as he did men, he ridiculed them for their voting follies once they were empowered. As he was quoted in The Genius of Shaw:
Only the other day the admission of women to the electorate, for which women fought and died, was expected to raise politics to a nobler plane and purify public life. But at the election which followed, the women voted for hanging the Kaiser; rallied hysterically round the worst male candidates; threw out all the women candidates of tried ability, integrity, and devotion; and elected just one titled lady of great wealth and singular demagogic fascination, who, though she justified their choice subsequently, was then a beginner. In short, the notion that the female vote is more politically intelligent or gentler than the male voter proved as great a delusion as the earlier delusions that the business man was any wiser politically than the country gentleman, or the manual worker than the middle class man.
Shaw compares his disappointment in women voters with his disappointment in businessmen and manual workers. Even though common sense would predict that novice voters would necessarily lack political sophistication, Shaw derides women for it. He glosses over the fact that having never had the vote, they need time to get used to their new responsibility. It is as though, as a way of chiding others to live up to his ideals, Shaw stubbornly refuses to see things as they are but as they should be. At the same time, because he sets himself up as a critic and judge, he fails to attend to his own logical inconsistencies.
Shaw comes by his inversions naturally: born a Protestant in the Catholic city of Dublin, Ireland, he was never to enjoy either acceptance or shared values with his peers at school or at play. His religious and cultural otherness led him to experience painful isolation within a teeming city. He wrote of his year-long stint at a mostly Catholic school in a piece entitled “Shame and Wounded Snobbery,” applying the phrase often applied to Hell and which he reiterates in Man and Superman: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
As a strategy for survival, Shaw eschewed relations with the lower class Catholic boys and instead “was a superior being, and in the play hour did not play, but walked up and down with the teachers in their promenade.” Meanwhile, because of the “downstart” nature of his family’s fortunes, he was also shunned by the more affluent Protestant middle-class boys of the neighborhood. If his outsider status trained his eye for social injustice, it also
gave him the time and inclination to train his wit for imaginary reversals of fortune. Doubly shunned, he became doubly aloof, feeling philosophically and economically superior to his Catholic peers even though seen by them as socially inferior.
His memories of this period of his life so haunted him that he said “when ghosts rise up from that period I want to lay them again with a poker.” He took his escape route into fantasy, creating an internal world where he righted the wrongs around him. What may have begun as playful imagining, became an ingrained habit of mind. In the preface to his long autobiographical essay Immaturity, he explains the creation of his G. B. S. persona as a derivative of his escape into fantasy:
Whether I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom was not of this world: I was at home only in the realm of my imagination, and at my ease only with the mighty dead. Therefore I had to become an actor, and create for myself a fantastic personality fit and apt for dealing with men... I was outside society, outside politics, outside sports, outside the church. If the term had been invented then I should have been called the Complete Outsider.
Later within that preface Shaw notes that whenever he addressed “music, painting, literature, or science ... the positions were reversed” and he became “the Insider.” Being an Insider in Shaw’s terms meant being perceived as capable of judging authoritatively, but ironically, this status implies being outside. In other words, essential inversion lies at the very core of Shaw’s personality and in fact serves as a defining characteristic of all that is best in his nature and intellect. Just as he inverted his own self to become an “Insider,” he went about Page 148 | Top of Articleconstructing fictional worlds that he could breath into life on the stage. Worlds where his upside-down logic could flourish. An Outsider is at heart a critic who serves the world that rejects him by rejecting that which is offensive in the world.
In Man and Superman, Shaw applies his inversions to no smaller a target than Humankind and its most important dreams and delusions: the relations between man and woman, the purpose of life, and the structure of the hereafter. In so doing, he chides his fellow humans to reconsider the structures of the mind that delude them, and he builds a bridge, albeit shaky and tentative, between his world and theirs.
Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
Calling Man and Superman “Shaw’s great treatise on sex, morality, and the war between men and women,” Kramer offers a positive review of a 1988 revival of the play, though she expresses reservations about the lead actors essaying Jack and Ann.
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Source: Mimi Kramer, “Don Bernardo in Hell” in the New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, no. 49, January 25, 1988, pp. 85–87.
In a review that was originally published on September 12, 1903, Beerbohm expounds on the nature of dramatists, using Shaw’s play Man and Superman, as an illustration. He also examines the play as a worthwhile theatrical experience.
Aristotle, often as he sneered at Plato, never called Plato a dramatist, and did not drag the Platonic dialogues into his dramatic criticism. Nor did Plato himself profess to be a dramatist; and it would need a wide stretch of fancy to think of him dedicating one of his works to Aristotle as notable expert in dramatic criticism. On the other hand, here is Mr. Bernard Shaw dedicating his new book to “my dear Walkley,” that pious custodian of the Aristotelian flame, and arguing, with Platonic subtlety, that this new book contains a play. Odd! For to drama Mr. Shaw and Plato stand in almost exactly the same relation. Plato, through anxiety that his work should be read, and his message accepted, so far mortified his strongly Puritan instincts as to give a setting of bright human colour to his abstract thought. He invented men of flesh and blood, to talk for him, and put them against realistic backgrounds. And thus he
gained, and still retains, “a public.” Only, his method was fraught with nemesis, and he is generally regarded as a poet—he, who couldn’t abide poets. Essentially, he was no more a poet than he was a dramatist, or than Mr. Shaw is a dramatist. Like him, and unlike Aristotle, for whom the exercise of thought was an end in itself, and who, therefore, did not attempt to bedeck as a decoy the form of his expression, Mr. Shaw is an ardent humanitarian. He wants to save us. So he gilds the pill richly. He does not, indeed, invent men of flesh and blood, to talk for him. There, where Plato succeeded, he fails, I must confess. But he assumes various disguises, and he ventriloquises, and moves against realistic backgrounds. In one direction he goes further than Plato. He weaves more of a story round the interlocutors. Suppose that in the “Republic,” for example, there were “Socrates (in love with Aspasia),” “Glaucon (in love with Xanthippe),” etcetera, and then you have in your mind a very fair equivalent for what Mr. Shaw writes and calls a play. This peculiar article is, of course, not a play at all. It is “as good as a play”—infinitely better, to my peculiar taste, than any play I have ever read or seen enacted. But a play it is not. What is a dramatist? Principally, a man who delights in watching, and can portray, the world as it is, and the various conflicts of men and women as they are. Such a man has, besides the joy of sheer contemplation, joy in the technique of his art—how to express everything most precisely and perfectly, most worthily of the splendid theme. He may have a message to deliver. Or he may have none. C’est selon. But the message is never a tyrannous preoccupation. When the creative and the critical faculty exist in one man, the lesser is perforce overshadowed by the greater. Mr. Shaw knows well—how could so keen a critic fail to detect?—that he is a critic, and not a creator at all. But, for the purpose which I have explained, he must needs pretend through Mr. Walkley, who won’t believe, to an innocent public which may believe, that his pen runs away with him. “Woman projecting herself dramatically by my hands (a process over which I have no control).” A touching fib! The only things which Mr. Shaw cannot consciously control in himself are his sense of humour and his sense of reason. “The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.” That is one of many fine and profound aphorisms printed at the end of the book, and written (one suspects) joyously, as a private antidote to the dramatic tomfoolery to which Mr. Shaw had perforce condescended. Well! Mr. Shaw will never be manumitted by Reason. She is as inexorable an owner of him as is Humour, and a less kind owner, in that she does prevent him from seeing the world as it is, while Humour, not preventing him from being quite serious, merely prevents stupid people seeing how serious he is. Mr. Shaw is always trying to prove this or that thesis, and the result is that his characters (so soon as he differentiates them, ever so little, from himself) are the merest diagrams. Having no sense for life, he has, necessarily, no sense for art. It would be strange, indeed, if he could succeed in that on which he is always pouring a very sincere contempt. “For art’s sake alone,” he declares, “I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence.” That is no fib. Take away his moral purpose and his lust for dialectic, and Mr. Shaw would put neither pen to paper nor mouth to meeting, and we should be by so much the duller. But had you taken away from Bunyan or Ibsen or any other of those great artists whom Mr. Shaw, because they had “something to say,” is always throwing so violently at our heads, they would have yet created, from sheer joy in life as it was and in art as it could become through their handling of it. Mr. Shaw, using art merely as a means of making people listen to him, naturally lays hands on the kind that appeals most quickly to the greatest number of people. There is something splendid in the contempt with which he uses as the vehicle for his thesis a conventional love-chase, with motors and comic brigands thrown in. He is as eager to be a popular dramatist and as willing to demean himself in any way that may help him to the goal, as was (say) the late Mr. Pettitt. I hope he will reach the goal. It is only the theatrical managers who stand between him and the offchance of a real popular success. But if these managers cannot be shaken from their obstinate timidity, I hope that Mr. Shaw, realising that the general public is as loth to read plays as to read books of undiluted philosophy, Page 151 | Top of Articlewill cease to dabble in an art which he abhors. Let him always, by all means, use the form of dialogue—that form through which, more conveniently than through any other, every side of a subject can be laid bare to our intelligence. It is, moreover, a form of which Mr. Shaw is a master. In swiftness, tenseness and lucidity of dialogue no living writer can touch the hem of Mr. Shaw’s garment. In “Man and Superman” every phrase rings and flashes. Here, though Mr. Shaw will be angry with me, is perfect art. In Mr. Shaw as an essayist I cannot take so whole-hearted a delight. Both in construction and in style his essays seem to me more akin to the art of oral debating than of literary exposition. That is because he trained himself m speak before he trained himself to write. And it is, doubtless, by reason of that same priority that he excels in writing words to be spoken by the human voice or to be read as though they were so spoken.
The name of this play’s hero is John Tanner, corrupted from Don Juan Tenorio, of whom its bearer is supposed to be the lineal descendant and modern equivalent. But here we have merely one of the devices whereby Mr. Shaw seeks to catch the ear that he desires to box. Did not the end justify the means, Mr. Shaw’s natural honesty would have compelled him to christen his hero Joseph or Anthony. For he utterly flouts the possibility of a Don Juan. Gazing out on the world, he beholds a tremendous battle of sex raging. But it is the Sabine ladies who, more muscular than even Rubens made them, are snatching and shouldering away from out the newly-arisen walls the shrieking gentlemen of Rome. It is the fauns who scud coyly, on tremulous hoofs, through the woodland, not daring a backward-glance at rude and dogged nymphs who are gaining on them every moment. Of course, this sight is an hallucination. There are, it is true, women who take the initiative, and men who shrink from following them. There are, and always have been. Such beings are no new discovery, though their existence is stupidly ignored by the average modern dramatist. But they are notable exceptions to the rule of Nature. True, again, that in civilised society marriage is more important and desirable to a woman than to a man. “All women,” said one of Disraeli’s characters, “ought to be married, and no men.” The epigram sums up John Tanner’s attitude towards life even more wittily than anything that has been put into his mouth by Mr. Shaw. John Tanner, pursued and finally bound in matrimony by Miss Ann Whitefield, supplies an excellent motive for a comedy of manners. But to that kind of comedy Mr. Shaw will not stoop—not wittingly, at least. From John Tanner he deduces a general law. For him, John Tanner is Man, and Ann Whitefield is Woman—nothing less. He has fallen into the error—a strange error for a man with his views—of confusing the natural sex-instinct with the desire for marriage. Because women desire marriage more strongly than men, therefore, in his opinion, the sex-instinct is communicated from woman to man. I need not labour the point that this conclusion is opposite to the obvious truth of all ages and all countries. Man is the dominant animal. It was unjust of Nature not to make the two sexes equal. Mr. Shaw hates injustice, and so, partly to redress the balance by robbing Man of conscious superiority, and partly to lull himself into peace of mind, he projects as real that visionary world of flitting fauns and brutal Sabines. Idealist, he insists that things are as they would be if he had his way. His characters come from out his own yearning heart. Only, we can find no corner for them in ours. We can no more be charmed by them than we can believe in them. Ann Whitefield is a minx. John Tanner is a prig. Prig versus Minx, with the gloves off, and Prig floored in every round—there you have Mr. Shaw’s customary formula for drama; and he works it out duly in “Man and Superman.” The main difference between this play and the others is that the minx and the prig are conscious not merely of their intellects, but of “the Life Force.” Of this they regard themselves, with comparative modesty, as the automatic instruments. They are wrong. The Life Force could find no use for them. They are not human enough, not alive enough. That is the main drawback for a dramatist who does not love raw life: he cannot create living human characters.
And yet it is on such characters as John and Ann that Mr. Shaw founds his hopes for the future of humanity. If we are very good, we may be given the Superman. If we are very scientific, and keep a sharp look out on our instincts, and use them just as our intellects shall prescribe, we may produce a race worthy to walk this fair earth. That is the hope with which we are to buoy ourselves up. It is a forlorn one. Man may, in the course of æons, evolve into something better than now he is. But the process will be not less unconscious than long. Reason and instinct have an inveterate habit of cancelling each other. If the world were governed by reason, it would not long be inhabited. Life is a muddle. It seems a brilliant muddle, if you are an optimist; a dull one, if you aren’t; but in neither case can you deny that it is the muddlers who keep it going. The Page 152 | Top of Articlethinkers cannot help it at all. They are detached from “the Life Force.” If they could turn their fellow-creatures into thinkers like themselves, all would be up. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they have not that power. The course of history has often been turned by sentiment, but by thought never. The thinkers are but valuable ornaments. A safe place is assigned to them on the world’s mantelpiece, while humanity basks and blinks stupidly on the hearth, warming itself in the glow of the Life Force.
On that mantelpiece Mr. Shaw deserves a place of honour. He is a very brilliant ornament. And never have his ornamental qualities shone more brightly than in this latest book. Never has he thought more clearly or more wrongly, and never has he displayed better his genius for dialectic, and never has his humour gushed forth in such sudden natural torrents. This is his masterpiece, so far. Treasure it as the most complete expression of the most distinct personality in current literature. Treasure it, too, as a work of specific art, in line with your Plato and Lucian and Landor.
Source: Max Beerbohm, “Mr. Shaw’s New Dialogues” in his Around Theatres, Simon & Schuster, 1954, pp. 268–72.
Evans, T. F. George Bernard Shaw: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1997.
Kronenberger, Louis. George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey, World Publishing, 1953.
Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw, Methuen, 1967.
A leading drama critic looks at Shaw’s drama from the perspective of his political and social ideas and the impact he has had on the theater.
Berst, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama, University of Illinois Press, 1973.
A close analysis of Shaw’s major plays.
Brecht, Bertolt. “Ovation for Shaw” in Modern Drama, translated by Gerhard H. W. Zuther, Vol. 2, no. 2, 1959, pp. 184-87.
Brecht, the author of such plays as Mother Courage and Her Children and a fellow innovative playwright and social reformer, praises Shaw’s art.
Dukore, Bernard F. Bernard Shaw, Playwright, University of Missouri Press, 1973.
Dukore praises Shaw as a watershed playwright of the twentieth century.
Hardwick, Michael, and Mollie Hardwick. The Bernard Shaw Companion, John Murray, 1997.
Contains summaries of the plays and a brief biography of Shaw.
Hill, Eldon C. George Bernard Shaw, Twayne, 1978.
A monograph on Shaw and his plays, part of the Twayne writers series.
Holroyd, Michael. The Genius of Shaw, Hodder and Stoughton, 1979.
A biographical study of Shaw’s life and times, including pictures of many of his associates and early productions.
Innes, Christopher. The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Recent essays on Shaw and feminism, his dramatic structure, and his influence on the theater.
Kaye, Julian B. Bernard Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Tradition, University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.
Describes the legacy of eighteenth-century ideas of sociology and the socialist agenda of the nineteenth century and Shaw’s place in this world of ideas.
MacCarthy, Desmond. Shaw, MacGibbon and Kee, 1951.
In this biography, an esteemed drama critic evaluates Shaw’s social agenda as it appears in his plays.
Meisel, Martin. Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater, Princeton University Press, 1963.
Shaw is assessed in relation to the conventions of nineteenth-century popular theater.
Weintraub, Stanley. “Bernard Shaw” in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 6: Modern Writers, 1914-1945, Gale, 1992, pp. 348-68.
Weintraub surveys Shaw’s personal life and his work, focussing on his creation of the play of ideas.
Weintraub, Stanley. The Unexpected Shaw: Biographical Approaches to G. B. S. and His Work, Ungar, 1982.
Weintraub makes connections between Shaw’s personal life and his work, including a chapter on the influence of certain paintings on Shaw.
Whitman, Robert F. Shaw and the Play of Ideas, Cornell University Press, 1977.
Examines Shaw as a proselytizer of philosophical, social, and religious ideas.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693100019