Man and Superman
George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman is a romantic comedy that defies conventional courtship. Whereas traditionally, a woman is hunted by, and ultimately submits to a man; in this play, Ann Whitefield is in relentless pursuit of John Tanner. All of the major thematic developments center on the idea of progression. John Tanner is a revolutionist who strives to avoid the ideas and customs he views as old and obsolete. The traditional acts of courtship and marriage are unappealing to Tanner. Yet, in contrast to his beliefs, he feels a strong attraction to Ann.
Shaw believes that this attraction is the natural "Life Force" that continually perpetuates the procreation of the human race and facilitates the evolution of mankind. The idea of Superman is that man works to create something superior to him, bringing about continual improvement and progression with every new generation. Thus, it is the responsibility of men and women to bring about this improvement. Ann's act of self-preservation is what drives her to pursue Tanner. However, Ann's persistence forces Tanner to flee. His view is that love, courtship and marriage are mere distractions that inhibit his ideology, progress and self-improvement. Ann's unconscious mind is superior to Tanner's self-awareness. Her ability to listen to nature and allow it to guide her actions leads Tanner to eventually surrender; for he then realizes that progress, or improvement, is not possible without preservation.
Shaw perceives certain qualities that define the Superman. Throughout the play, Ann is ambitious in her pursuit of the man who challenges her and is fully aware of her ability to manipulate others to get what she wants. She does whatever is required to fulfill her needs. Moreover, although Tanner is aware of Ann's tactics, in the end, he is manipulated. He concedes the inevitable and requests her hand in marriage.
George Bernard Shaw was born on July 26, 1856, in Dublin, Ireland. Shaw's mother, Lucinda Elizabeth, was the daughter of an Irish landowner and was considerably younger than her husband. Shaw's father, George Carr Shaw, was the son of a failed Dublin stockbroker. He was a weak and ineffectual man, given to drowning his sorrow in alcohol. Before the author was born, his father retired from work as a civil servant and had become a corn merchant, which proved unsuccessful. Much of Shaw's childhood was plagued by his family's financial concerns.
Although they lived in Ireland, the Shaws were Protestants, and George Bernard was baptized in the Church of England. The boy was never very religious and did not enjoy attending church. He did not like his formal education, even though he attended several different schools. He started at the Wesleyan Connexional School and ended his fifteenth year at the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School.
For the most part, Shaw's childhood was unhappy. By the time he was fifteen, his parents' marriage had broken up. His mother deserted her family and went off to England to live with her two daughters. Shaw left school to support himself, working as a clerk and cashier for a firm of land agents for almost four and a half years. Shaw read voraciously and frequented the theatre during this period. He was especially interested in Shakespearean plays. He also had a love of music, as his father played the trombone, and his mother was an excellent singer.
In 1876, Shaw's sister Agnes died from consumption at the age of nineteen. Shaw was devastated by her early death, and left Ireland and joined his mother and other sister Lucy in London. His intention was to become a musician or a painter; however, Shaw, a shy young man, did not adjust well to the liberal London atmosphere and could not find a place in the arts community there. To support himself, he undertook a variety of odd jobs, including writing a series of articles as a music critic. From November 1876 to July 1878, Shaw wrote his articles under the pseudonym of Lee and published them in a weekly paper called the Hornet. After working for two years at the Edison and Bell Telephone Company, he left in 1880 to establish himself as a writer.
As he began his writing career, Shaw was financially dependent on his mother. When his articles were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and magazines, he decided to become a novelist. Although his first novel was rejected by all the publishers, Shaw continued to write, producing four more novels between 1880 and 1883. He was unable to find a publisher for any of them. Finally, in 1886, Shaw published his first novel, Cashel Byron's Profession, which was a popular success. A year later, in 1887, he published an Unsocial Socialist. That was the end of his career as a novelist.
During the early years of his time in London, Shaw became interested in socialism. By 1882, he considered himself a Socialist, and he joined the Fabian Society in 1884, serving on their Executive Committee for many years. In 1884, Shaw also attended a lecture delivered by Henry George, who proposed that national revenue should be collected by a single tax on land, rather than by numerous taxes on various things. This lecture proved to be a turning point in Shaw's life, shaping his future political thought.
Shaw finally obtained regular work as a journalist with the help of William Archer. From 1888 to 1890, he wrote as a music critic for the Star, the evening paper of London, under the name of "Corno di Bassetto.." Shaw also served as a drama critic for the Saturday Review for several years. His insightful articles on theater were collected in Our Theatre in the Nineties, published in three volumes in 1932.
Man and Superman is a play in four acts by, published in 1903 and performed (without scene 2 of Act III) in 1905. The first complete performance was in 1915. The Superman of the title is derived from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Basic to Man and Superman, which Shaw subtitled a Comedy and a Philosophy, is his belief in the conflict between man as spiritual creator and woman as guardian of the biological continuity of the human race. The play incorporates Shaw's concept of the "Life Force" and satirizes the relationship between the sexes. 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."
The third act is a dream episode entitled "Don Juan in Hell." Based on the Don Juan legend, particularly as it appears in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, the act takes the form of a theatrical reading and is often presented independently. In 1951-52, the First Drama Quartette toured the United States and England reading "Don Juan in Hell," dressed in formal evening clothes, each actor standing at an individual lectern, often with script in hand. The performers were Charles Boyer, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Laughton, and Agnes Moorehead.
Ann Whitefield, a strong woman who seeks a husband, pursues John Tanner, a wealthy revolutionary who lives by pure reason and who plans to remain a bachelor. Subsidiary characters, Violet Robinson and Hector Malone, are secretly married. Violet becomes pregnant and will not name the father. The characters engage in debate about love and marriage. Tanner flees from Ann and is captured by brigands. He has a dream, which is a play within a play ("Don Juan in Hell"), in which characters from Man and Superman are disguised as Don Juan, the moralist; Dona Ana, the eternal female; Don Gonzalo, a libertine disguised as a statue; and the Devil. Awakened from the dream, Tanner discovers that Ann has led a search party to find him. Eventually they plan to marry. Tanner recognizes that he is yielding to the inevitable "Life Force" represented by Ann, Shaw's Everywoman.
Tanner is of the opinion that Ann is an aggressive and somewhat frightening predator. It seems she is hunting for a husband and marriage with her will be anything but easy. Tanner goes on to warn Octavius that Ann is a man-eater. He compares her to a boa constrictor and tells Octavius that the man Ann marries will be eaten alive. Octavius defends Ann against these unflattering words, revealing his infatuation with her. Tanner remains unconvinced.
Ramsden is the enigma of the play. An older experienced man, he is quite naive. During a discussion about Ann's wishes regarding her new guardians, Ramsden says, "I quite intend that Ann's wishes shall be consulted in every reasonable way. But she is only a woman, and a young and inexperienced woman at that." (p. 51). Tanner, however, shows that he understands all too well who Ann is, when he responds, "Ramsden: I…