Man and Superman is, of course, one of Shaw’s major plays, though it perhaps achieves that rank from being not one play, but two. Certainly without the long third-act dialogue in Hell, Man and Superman—for all that it dramatizes the best known of Shaw’s theories—would diminish into one of his more tractable and traditional comedies. With the Hell scene, it expands into one of the most brilliant and Shavian of them all.
—Louis Kronenberger, The Thread of Laughter: Chapters on English Stage Comedy from Jonson to Maugham
Man and Superman’s subtitle, A Comedy and a Philosophy, perfectly encapsulates George Bernard Shaw’s audacious conjunction of the 19th-century parlor comedy and a challenging drama of ideas. An early English proponent of Henrik Ibsen, Shaw adapted the Norwegian’s tragic problem play as comedy designed to delight as well as instruct his audience in a provocative reassessment of human nature and the human condition. Countering the dominant aestheticism of the late 19th century, with its claim of “art for art’s sake,” Shaw, as he established his career in London as a reviewer and playwright, consistently insisted on art’s utility in truth telling leading to self-assessment and social and moral reform. “I am convinced that fine art,” he wrote in his preface to Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1902), “is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective instrument of moral propaganda in the world, excepting only the example of personal conduct, and I waive even that exception in favor of the art of the stage because it works by exhibiting examples of personal conduct made intelligible and moving to unobservant, unreflecting people to whom real life means nothing.” For Shaw message trumped all considerations of manner, justifying the yoking of the most heterodox elements—philosophical speculation and conventions of the well-made play—in the service of a more comprehensive understanding of the world and a call to action. As Shaw wrote in his dedicatory epistle to Man and Superman addressed to drama critic Arthur Bingham Walkley, who first provoked Shaw to write a Don Juan play, “My conscience is the genuine pulpit article: it annoys me to see people comfort-able when they ought to be uncomfortable; and I insist on making them think in order to bring them to conviction of sin. If you don’t like my preaching you must lump it. I really cannot help it.”
With the exception of Shaw’s massive play cycle Back to Methuselah (1920), Man and Superman is Shaw’s most ambitious drama of ideas. It contains, or rather is bursting with, the philosophical and moral precepts that underpin virtually all of his work. Taking nearly eight hours to perform uncut—with the dream sequence of act 3 often performed as a separate two-hour-long play, Don Juan in Hell—Man and Superman has, as critic Archibald Henderson has stated, enough ideas for a dozen ordinary comedies. Described by critic Eric Bentley as “the supreme triumph of Shaw’s dramaturgical dialectics,” Man and Superman presents a comically inverted version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that begins as a satiric look at the relationship between the sexes and reaches what one critic has called, “the most searching conversation on philosophy and religion in modern English.” Testing both the limits of the audience’s under-standing and endurance, as well as the drama’s capacity to embody serious philosophical, psychological, moral, and social inquiry, Man and Superman is an unavoidable modern drama and one of the greatest imaginative philosophical works of the 20th century, the dramatic equivalent of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
It was Ibsen who provided Shaw with his fundamental model for his conception of drama and the role of the dramatist. As an iconoclast who insisted that the theater should be an arena for confronting the most difficult truths, Ibsen pioneered the dramatic revitalization that Shaw advocated. In the Quintessence of Ibsenism, one of the earliest English defenses of Ibsen’s importance, Shaw praised Ibsen’s “plays of nineteenth-century life with which he overcame Europe, and broke the dusty windows of every dry-rotten theatre in it from Moscow to Manchester.” Shaw, however, would not follow Ibsen’s lead in writing tragedies of ordinary life, preferring instead a comic method. Shaw’s immediate predecessor, both as an Irishman who achieved dramatic success in England and as a reinterpreter of the comedy of manners, was Oscar Wilde. Reviewing Wilde’s An Ideal Husband in 1895, Shaw observed that “In a certain sense Mr Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with every-thing; with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre. Such a feat scandalises the Englishman, who can no more play with wit and philosophy than he can with a football or cricket bat.” Yet Shaw, who would rival his fellow Dubliner in the comic art of the paradox, often found Wilde’s plays lacking in purpose and importance. In a famous dismissal of The Importance of Being Earnest, which he found “essentially hateful,” Shaw asserted: “It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening. I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter, not to be tickled or bustled into it.” Shaw’s unique version of what he would call “corrective comedy” is a fusion of Wilde’s dazzling verbal and intellectual play with the conventions of the drawing-room comedy of manners and Ibsen’s problem and purpose plays. Critic Nicholas Grene has pointed out in consideration of this combination of opposites that produced a unique Shavian drama, “In being like Wilde and Ibsen simultaneously, Shaw is not the least bit like either of them.”
Man and Superman opens in the full Wildean manner with the idiom of the romantic comedy parodied and upturned. Staunchly conservative Roebuck Ramsden and the self-styled “Member of the Idle Rich Class” and professed revolutionary Jack Tanner find themselves named joint guardians of Ann Whitefield, whose father has just died. The willful and self-possessed Anne is being courted by the earnest but ineffectual poet Octavius Robinson. His sister, Violet, is discovered to be pregnant. Facing ostracism from her respectable friends, Violet claims to be married but refuses to name her husband. Tanner, the characteristic Shavian provocateur, takes subversive aim at Victorian sanctimony and hypocrisy. By the end of the act Shaw has completed a witty and startling reversal of roles and values. Violet, cast as the Victorian disgraced woman, whom Tanner sympathizes with as a victim of social conventions, reveals herself as both impenitent and dismissive of Tanner’s sympathy. As she says, “I won’t bear such a horrible insult as to be complimented by Jack on being one of the wretches of whom he approves.” Moreover, Tanner, the play’s embodiment of Don Juan, the seductive libertine, becomes the pursued by his new ward, and the radical conventionality of the play’s pair of ingénues—Ann and Violet—overpowers and outmaneuvers the purported anarchist. In Shaw’s drawing room women are activists, while the men are coy and elusive, and respectability is slow to conceal the unmistakable traces of the instinctual. With its gender reversal and frankness about sexual matters Man and Superman counters what Shaw called in his preface “the predicament of our contemporary English drama,” in which dramatists have been “forced to deal almost exclusively with cases of sexual attraction, and yet forbidden to exhibit the incidents of that attraction or even to discuss its nature.” Shaw sets out to dramatize “the natural attraction of the sexes for one another” as “the mainspring of the action” and the launching pad into a Shavian cosmology and morality play.
Act 2 opens on the drive of Mrs. Whitefield’s suburban estate as Tanner’s chauffeur, Henry Straker, repairs his master’s touring car. This is likely the first time in a serious play that an automobile had ever appeared on stage. Following the reversal of man as the pursuer and woman as pursued, Straker serves as a second major inversion concerning class. The working-class Straker demonstrates both his superiority to his master in his practical competence and his advantage over the helpless rich. As Tanner remarks, “I am a slave of that car and of you too.” In the new world of technological change represented by the automobile, the engineer is king, and the conventional distinctions between master and servant are scrambled. Tanner views Straker as a new phenomenon: “Here have we literary and cultured persons been for years setting up a cry of the New Woman whenever some unusually old fashioned female came along; and never noticing the advent of the New Man. Straker’s the New Man.” Straker’s ascendancy is only the first in a series of surprising reversals and revelations. Violet’s husband turns out to be the rich young American Hector Malone, and the couple have concealed their marriage because Hector’s father, a former Irish immigrant, snobbishly wants his son to marry a British aristocrat. It is Straker who breaks the news to Tanner that Ann, who has gained an invitation from her guardian to join him on a driving tour of the Continent, has set her sights on Jack, not Octavius, for her husband. Tanner, as “the destined prey,” responds by flight, ordering Straker to set off immediately for North Africa.
Having exposed the conventions of gender and class as shallow and misleading, Shaw in act 3 reconstitutes and expands the battle of the sexes allegorically in a dialogue in which the characters metamorphose into archetypes as the particulars of the drama are universalized. The act opens in the Spanish Sierra Nevada, where Jack and Straker, having eluded the pursuing Ann, are seized by Spanish bandits dedicated to more equitable distribution of wealth. The bandit leader is the urbane Mendoza, a former waiter at London’s Savoy Hotel. His introduction, “I am a brigand: I live by robbing the rich,” is answered by Tanner: “I am a gentleman: I live by robbing the poor.” Cordially agreeing to pay the demanded ransom Tanner decides to spend the night with the brigands, and they fall asleep as Mendoza recites poetry about his great unrequited love for, as it turns out, Straker’s sister. As the landscape darkens and strains of Mozart’s Don Giovanni are heard, a dream sequence commences embodying elements of Tanner’s subconscious. A Spanish nobleman, Don Juan Tenorio, resembling Tanner, appears. He is eventually joined by Doña Ana, the woman Juan has seduced, her father, the Commander, whom Juan has killed defending his daughter’s honor, and the Devil. The setting is hell, where Ana, to her shock, has been consigned and where her father, bored with heaven, hopes to remain. In Shaw’s witty interpretation of the Don Juan story Ana becomes everywoman, afflicted by a conventional piety, who when she learns that she is damned, regrets that she was not more wicked on earth. Don Juan does not live up to his reputation as a womanizing sensualist but instead shuns women in his search for wisdom, while the Commander is recast as a hedonistic philistine who comes to hell for relief from the stultifying moral righteousness of heaven. Their dialogue, moderated by the eloquent and often persuasive Devil, begins with a reconceptualization of hell and heaven. In Shaw’s Divine Comedy hell is reserved for self-indulgent and deluded pleasure seekers while heaven is the home of “the masters of reality.” Heaven welcomes those sustained by a higher purpose beyond self, which Don Juan identifies as the Life Force that urges humankind toward perfectibility. The Devil, how-ever, mounts the case against such an affirmative cosmic drive:
Have you walked up and down earth lately? I have; and have you examined . . . Man’s wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine. . . . His heart is in his weapons. This marvelous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness.
Granting the Devil his due, Juan acknowledges Man’s tendency toward destruction and violence but insists that instances of subordination to causes greater than self constitute unmistakable claims for humankind’s salvation. Don Juan and the Devil next consider questions of love and woman’s place in the cosmic scheme. To the Devil’s relegation of women as solely the object of romantic passion, Juan recognizes a greater purpose of women in their fealty to the Life Force and their faith in the future and a higher purpose by propagating the race. The extraordinary tour de force dialogue ends as Don Juan sets off for heaven where “you live and work instead of playing and pretending,” pursued by Ana who has been inspired by talk of the Nietzchean Superman. The Devil recalls the philosopher: “I had some hopes of him; but he was a confirmed Life Force worshipper. It was he who raked up the Superman, who is as old as Prometheus; and the 20th century will run after this newest of the old crazes when it gets tired of the world, the flesh, and your humble servant.” Ana, earning her salvation by accepting the imperatives of the Life Force and a purpose beyond self, sets out to find “a father for the Superman.”
Act 4, set in a garden of a villa in Granada, gathers the original characters to resolve the complications standing in the way of love and marriage. Having introduced the philosophical conception of the Life Force in the dream play, Shaw applies it in working out his dual love plots. Hector’s father, encountering Violet, is eventually brought round to the marriage in the face of his daughter-in-law’s determination and good sense. Ann confesses to Octavius that she could not live up to his romantic ideal of her and intends to marry Tanner instead. When Ann and Tanner are finally left alone, he surrenders to the power of the Life Force that has decreed their union as inevitable:
Tanner: [despairingly] Oh, you are witty: at the supreme moment the Life Force endows you with every quality. Well, I too can be a hypocrite. Your father’s will appointed me your guardian, not your suitor. I shall be faithful to my trust.
Ann: [in low siren tones] He asked me who would I have as my guardian before he made that will. I chose you! Tanner The will is yours then! The trap was laid from the beginning.
Ann: [concentrating all her magic] From the beginning from our childhood—for both of us—by the Life Force.
Tanner: I will not marry you. I will not marry you.
Ann: Oh; you will, you will.
Tanner: I tell you, no, no, no.
Ann: I tell you, yes, yes, yes.
Ann: [coaxing—imploring—almost exhausted] Yes. Before it is too late for repentance. Yes.
Tanner: [struck by the echo from the past] When did all this happen to me before? Are we two dreaming?
Ann: [suddenly losing her courage, with an anguish that she does not conceal] No. We are awake; and you have said no: that is all.
Tanner: [brutally] Well?
Ann: Well, I made a mistake: you do not love me.
Tanner: [seizing her in his arms] It is false: I love you. The Life Force enchants me: I have the whole world in my arms when I clasp you. But I am fighting for my freedom, for my honor, for myself, one and indivisible.
As in a Shakespearean romantic comedy, the obstacles to love and marriage are finally surmounted as the source of those obstacles—in human nature and society—are exposed. Here Shaw mounts a truly cosmic argument in which the conventions of courtship, gender, sexuality, and the meaning of existence itself are subjected to a radical and astonishing reappraisal.