AD's English Literature : The Rich Metaphorical Significance of the Hell-scene in G. B. Shaw's "Man and Superman"

The Rich Metaphorical Significance of the Hell-scene in G. B. Shaw's "Man and Superman"



Act III of Man and Superman is loaded with rich metaphorical significance. It is virtually a full-fledged one-act play incorporated into and inter-fused with the texture of this drama by the superb dramatic genius of Shaw. The drama being a realistic one the Hall scene typifies Shaw’s ability to create fantasy.

 Indeed it is suggestive of an exquisite imaginative fecundity of Shaw. Thus, by skillfully interweaving this piece of fantasy with the drama Shaw has made wonderful admixture of realism and fantasy. “Without this scene Man and Superman is merely a comedy, the story of a marathon man-hunt on the part of a woman. With this scene alone it attains the dignity of a philosophy”. In stage representation this scene proved to be exceptionally effective and Shaw himself intended it to figure as a vital and inextricable part of the drama. The entire scene is laden with philosophical ideas of almost encyclopedic magnitude. Prof. A. C. Ward has made an illuminating comment on the merit of this scene; “Among the many conversation – pieces in Shaw’s plays this is supreme. In sustained brilliance of argument in paradox and wit and humor, it is unsurpassed in dramatic literature. Yet these are no more than its raw materials”.

The scene is conspicuous for its verbal music. It is a marvelous tour de force of discussions, capable of enthralling the listeners by its sheer power of enchanting music apart from the merit of rich philosophical undertone. The meaning underlying this scene is of no mean importance. Commenting on the musical aspect of this scene, Prof. A. C. Ward says;“Passages of Mozart’s music bridge the gap between the actual and the drama state as the scene begins and great chords roll out later”.

The metaphorical value of the scene deserves a more careful attention. The dialogue in Hell is obviously metaphorical. It provides subtle intellectual exercise. But Shaw has lifted intellectual arguments and philosophical speculations to the plane of music. The dream-sequence represents the mental turmoil of Tanner who at the concluding part of the Second Act, is found to undergo great mental conflict. He is afflicted by doubts and fears. Contrary to the denizens of Hell and the Devil who are exclusively romantics, involved in the endless pursuit of pleasure. Don Juan finds no happiness of pleasure. To him pleasure is ephemeral, although it is seemingly attractive and winsome. Don Juan craves fro blessedness, a life of contemplation and not of sensuous enjoyment. He is horrified at the prospect of an eternal pleasure. In close resemblance with Aristotle, Don Juan prefers to conceive life intellectually and not sensually. Aristotle has opined that true happiness “does not lie in amusement; it would indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself”. The Hell is replete with elfin enchantments. It is a veritable bower of bliss, a pleasant grotto of sensuous delights. But it is absolutely unfavorable for the satisfaction of the soul. The conflict between these two different and interdictory strands of thought constitutes the sine qua non of the Hell scene. Heaven has been viewed as an unending contemplation of reality. Unlike Hell and the sensual life therein which is devoid of any aim or purpose, the life of the mind has a definite goal and a decisive aim. It aims at the furtherance of knowledge.

The Hell-scene is not an extraneous in the pattern of this drama. It is a forum for the discussion of the kernel of the Shavian thought which comprises the motif of the play. This is not an ordinary scene of dramatic interlude. It is an interlude which serves an important purpose in the play. It deals with topics of exceptional seriousness. But the most important point which deserves to be noted here is that the scene effervesces with the revolutionary views and ideas of Shaw himself. It bears the impress of Shaw as an iconoclast striving hard to break the bondage of conventionality.

Like all Shavian plays, Man and Superman is also didactic. The serious philosophical arguments have been made palatable through the medium of Comedy. This is the device by which Shaw arrests our attention. He unreservedly manifests his method of presenting ideas with pleasure, equivalent to that of a Comedy. Theatre, according to Shaw, had been a legitimate or fitting plarform for the propagation of his ideas, however, propagandizing they might be. But the also clung to the belief that the place voicing forth his ideas must necessarily be dramatically successful. The characters, situations, dialogue and thought-contents should be cogent and consistent. Thus jack Tanner arouses much fun and humour as he, after having tenaciously maintained a deep misogynistic outlook, ultimately submits himself to the enticement of Ann. “The ironic use to which Shaw puts these characters is given larger philosophic scope in the third Act. The dream-sequence is commonly referred to as ‘Don Juan in Hell’. Here Ramsden the substitute father of the modern play is metamorphosed into Ann’s real dead father who denies unreal obligations and responsibilities and takes the Devil’s side. The Devil appears as a loquacious hypocritical sentimental Victorian gentleman with many good arguments as well as good tunes, defending pleasure against the onslaught of the intellectual Juan. Jack’s ancestor Juan here pursues, not women, but the higher good, form which women are merely an unnecessary distraction. Ana even after death, clings tenaciously to the same Victorian decorum as her descendant, Ann, some of which is frankly hypocritical, but some of which is undeniably practical and Shaw says, a way of fulfilling a necessary higher function. These characters are Ann and Jack, only older. There is the implication in the third Act that Juan does not relent but will continue his solitary speculations. But it is left as an implication while the last word tantalizingly is Ana’s as she rushes off in determined pursuit of a father for the Superman.” This Act is kind of play-within-a-play, a rhetorical drama which is nearly always omitted from performance and from some editions of the play on grounds of length, but is simultaneously integral to the play and has life and cogency enough to withstand quite separate presentation, just as Acts I. II and IV constitutes a clear, complete, separately sustained play without the especially philosophic operatic third Act.”

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