Analysis of Jack (John) Tanner as Shavian Don Juan in 'Man and Superman'

"I am a gentleman. I live by robbing the poor."

George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)

 Don Juan is a type by himself, invented by a Spanish Monk early n the 16th century. He is an archetypal character who has passed through different ages. He was represented as an ardent rebel against God and religion. Read More Drama He took ‘arms against a sea of’ conventional values about morality and ethics. As an enemy of God, he exulted in sensuous or carnal pleasure and remained unrelenting until the doomsday. This is the traditional Don Juan—a licentious and immoral and unrepentant libertine who flouted all norms of sex and amorality and was not struck by penitence even up to the end. The old Spanish tale recounts the promiscuous Don Juan's seduction of the daughter of Sevilla's military commander. After killing the commander in a duel, Juan cynically invites the victim's funerary statue to a feast. The statue comes to life, seizes the defiant Juan, and drags him down to hell.

Since its genesis in the early 16th century, the character of Don Juan had been treated by a good number of writers and playwrights. Indeed, Milton’s Satan, Shelley’s Prometheus and Goethe’s Faust are tangible personifications of this conventional Don Juan, cast in the variant moulds. But by far the best treatment of Don Juan ever presented by any artist is the Don Juan of Mozart.  In his Preface to Man and Superman Shaw himself has extolled Mozart’s concept of Don Juan who has “freedom in love and in morality mocking exquisitely at slavery to them, and interesting you, attracting you, tempting you and inexplicably forcing you, to range the hero with his enemy, the statue on a transcendent plane.”

Subsequently in the romantic period i.e. in the 19th century, Byron vulgarized the concept of Don Juan by painting him as a maniac, eccentric, vagabond; licentious and libertine. According to Shaw, Byron has falsified that traditional image of Don Juan by depicting him not as an adversary of God but as “a romantic and adventurous sower of wild Oats”. Read More Drama Nevertheless, Byron’s Don Juan exerted a great formative influence on the imagination of the literary figures of the succeeding period.

G. B. Shaw
Shaw appears as a veritable iconoclast in his treatment of this conventional Don Juan. Shaw creditably discarded the type, set by his predecessors and “gave the most original and challenging variation of all.” His Don Juan has nothing in common with the Byronic libertine. On the contrary, the Shavian Don Juan is out and out philosophical, “gifted enough to be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil, follows his own instincts with regard to the common statute or canon of law and therefore whilst gaining the ardent sympathy of our rebellious instincts, finds himself in moral conflict with existing institutions”. Now therefore it is obvious that John Tanner is the Shavian Don Juan in Man and Superman. He is indubitably a man of exceptional quantities and extraordinary characteristics. He possesses a superior faculty r intelligence, wit and courage. He clings tenaciously to unconventional values and ideas and he is vitriolically strident bout traditional customs and institutions. He is strongly opposed to the existing institution of marriage and other such c-old codes of conduct, which have evolved and come down ç us through the ages. As is the wont of a revolutionary Tanner makes a scathing attack on servility to conventional norms and morality.

He acts according to the urge of his instinct, which he advocates to be the supreme guiding factor. His following pronouncement to Violet may serve as a fitting illustration here:
“You were right to follow your instinct; that vitality and bravery are the greatest qualities a woman can have and the fact of your not being legally married matters not ne scrap either to your own worth or to our real regard for you.”
   Shaw was prompted by a revolutionary zeal which may be exemplified by The Revolutionary’s Handbook written by him. He has exposed the fatulity of our conventional sense of morality and ethics. He ran a tilt at the traditional ideas of marriage, sex, family and politics.
Thus Tanner is the befitting protagonist of this play, although ironically he is considered unfit to be the right guardian of Ann and Rhoda. This is a paradox indeed. Critics galore including Shanks and Prof. A. C. Ward have admired the attributes of Tanner in unequivocal terms: he is indeed ageless and timeless. “He is the most recognizably typical of Shaw’s heroes”. ‘When John Tanner suddenly opened the door and appeared in   George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman”, says Prof. A. C. Ward, “an invigorating wind blew through the western world.” He is the most masculine principle incarnate. Indeed, Tanner is the worthy mouthpiece of Shaw’s philosophy and the entire action of the drama rotates round Tanner’s point of view. His outstanding personality is evidenced even by the description of his mien, physiognomy and dress. Although he is in- the prime of his youth, he has the prudence and wisdom of a prophet, “He is prodigiously fluent of speech, restless, excitable.” Read More Drama His Olympian majesty and imposing appearance are suggestive of Jupiter. He is “a sensitive, susceptible, exaggerative, earnest man: a megalomaniac, who could be lost without a sense of humour.” It is he who claims the credit of voicing forth this eternal truth that woman possesses ‘a blind fury of creation.’ -Thus he becomes panic-stricken as it were when he is ordained to become the guardian of Ann and Ramsden. He is resolved to break resolutely the shackles of social and moral taboos. He is all out to shatter the cherished ideals and idols, conventions and impositions. He is far from the base and sordid urge for violating the feminine chastity. But still he is regarded as an immoral being by the upholders of conventionality. The popular views and ideas on marriage, sex and family, the cult of respectability, the hackneyed craze for glorifying the social institutions and norms, the adoration of the womenfolk—all these have been put to the acid test of his reasoning and intellect. He has subjected all these to a thorough dissection and has ruthlessly 1 exposed the inherent futility. He is again the repository of Shaw’s Life-Force. Thus ultimately he submits himself to the exhortation of Ann knowing full well that he is a quarry and not a huntsman.
Also he has a fine sense of wit and humour. Thus he has the capacity for attracting the listeners by his witty talks, resplendent with verbal repartees. When Ramsden says, “I grow advanced every day”, he instantaneously blurts out, ‘More advanced in years, Polonius”. Read More Drama Tanner’s remarks are very often surcharged with implied irony. Thus when Mendoza, the brigand chief tells him, “I am a brigand, I live by robbing the 4-ich,” he wittily retorts: “I am a gentleman, and I live by robbing the poor.” Read More George Bernard Shaw He combats against the so-called respectable reactionaries by dint of his wit.
He can see through the thick layer of mists into the very kernel of things. He knows it fully well that while woman is the stronger sex, the contriver and pursuer, man is the sought out victim, the quarry or the prey. Man is the fly while woman is the spider. “He sees the whole world strewn with snares, traps, gins, and pitfalls for the capture of men by women.”
Woman is absorbed in a ceaseless pursuit of captivating her desired man. He realized the basic truth pinpointed by  George Bernard Shaw in this play. Thus he took the right course of action by yielding to the marriage-proposal of Ann. Just as a woman has an allegiance to Nature and has to carry out - ‘Nature’s behest’, a man should also, in the similar manner, obey the dictates of Nature by co-operating his selective female counterpart for the procreation of a better human race.

(Note:  adaptations of Don Juan’s story:
 The play El burlador de Seville (The Libertine of Seville, 1630) attributed to Tirso de Molina.
The verse- play Don Juan tenorio (Don Juan the Rake, 1844) by José Zorrilla y Moral.
French playwrights Molière’s Dom Juan; ou, Le festin de pierre (Don Juan; or, The Stone Banquet, first acted in 1665)
Sir Aston Cokayne’s The Tragedy of Ovid (1669)
Thomas Shadwell’s The Libertine (1676).
Lord Byron’s mock epic Don Juan (1819-1824)
George Bernard Shaw‘s comedy Man and Superman (1903).
The opera Don Giovanni (1787) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The symphonic poem Don Juan (1889) by Richard Strauss. )