George Bernard Shaw’s "Man and Superman" is 'a Comedy and a Philosophy' — Trick for Getting the Public to Listen Shavian Theory

"He identified genius with immunity from the cravings and turpitudes which make us human. Hence his regime of sexual continence which so confused and dismayed the women he persisted in loving, and hence too his abstinent diet of grated vegetables."
Michael Holroyd

Frequently the subtitles of George Bernard Shaw’s plays are just as informative as the prefaces. They are often just as clever; they are always more to the point. Such is the case with Heartbreak House, which is subtitled A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes; Fanny’s First Play, An Easy Play for a Little Theatre; and  In Good King Charles’s Golden Days,  A True History that Never Happened. So, too, with Man and Superman, this is subtitled simply but significantly a Comedy and a Philosophy. For Man and Superman, though it was written early in Shaw’s career, represents the culmination of Shaw’s theory that the drama is but a device—a trick, if you like—for getting the public to listen to one’s philosophy: social philosophy, political philosophy, economic philosophy, Shavian philosophy. With the possible exception of Back to Methuselah, Man and Superman is Shaw’s most philosophical play.

In its simplest terms, the philosophical meaning of the play is that in the war between the sexes, woman always emerges conqueror, even if man, her antagonist, be a superman; that in a battle between instinct and intelligence, instinct always wins.  Read More Victorian Period  To develop this theme, Shaw claimed to have written a modern, philosophical interpretation of the Don Juan story, which means that Don Juan is reincarnated as a Shavian hero in England at the turn of the century. Read More Drama   The closest resemblance between Shaw’s hero and the libertine celebrated in music and literature lies in their names: John Tanner, Don Juan Tenorio. Any other similarity is purely coincidental, for Shaw transformed literature’s most notorious libertine into a man of moral passion, a Nietzschean superman who lives a life of pure reason in defiance of the traditions of organized society. As a Shavian hero, Tanner is, of course, impeccably moral, even chaste. The philosophical meaning of the play arises from the fact that Tanner, representing the good man, is unsuccessful in defending his chastity. Pitted against a scheming female who embodies the sexual, maternal drive, Tanner is forced to surrender his control of sexual instinct. He capitulates and marries. Read More Drama    In effect, he commits moral suicide by succumbing to conventionality.

On one level, this theme is worked out in a contrived, almost trivial, but nevertheless hilarious plot. In his will, Ann Whitefield’s father appointed Jack Tanner and Roebuck Ramsden joint guardians of his daughter. Ramsden objects to sharing the guardianship on the grounds that Tanner, as the author of The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion is an anarchist and profligate; Tanner objects on the grounds that Ramsden is a prig and a hypocrite. Both, however, accede to the wishes of the deceased, little realizing that Ann had dictated the terms of the will in an elaborate scheme to make Tanner her husband. Upon realizing that Ann has designs on him, Tanner flees to the continent, is detained by bandits, is ultimately caught by the pursuing Ann. they agree to marry.

George Bernard Shaw
On another, more esoteric level, the philosophical implications of the theme are developed at length. Tanner has a dream—a play within the play—which turns out to be no less than a Platonic dialogue: “Don Juan in Hell.” Read More Drama   In this scene, four of the principals are re-embodied as historical or mythical personages and are universalized as moral forces. Tanner appears as Don Juan, the man of moral passion; Ann, as Dona Ma de Ulloa, the eternal maternal female; Ramsden, as Don Gonzalo, the man of pleasure; and Mendoza (leader of the bandits), as the Devil. These four engage in a debate which Don Juan, speaking for Shaw, monopolizes with a series of lengthy monologues. Herein the theme of the play is recapitulated in abstract but certain terms—the subject is Man. The end of man, Don Juan argues, is the cultivation of intellect, for only by exercising it dispassionately can man discover his purpose, and discovering it, fulfill it. Therefore, the good man, the man of moral passion, will eschew anything that subverts the life of reason. Women, however, will not be eschewed, and It Is woman, with her relentless desire to propagate, and marriage, the instrument by which she domesticates, that undermine man. If man surrenders in woman, he is doomed.

The conclusion of the play is, then, a gloomy one for George Bernard Shaw. By marrying Ann Tanner admits that woman, bolstered by the “Life Force,” is bound to triumph, that man, even the superman, is bound to abandon the pursuit of his own goal to serve woman in her goal of perpetuating the race.

Although the ending is gloomy and the dreamplay verbose, the prevailing tone play is comic and light. In spite of its philosophy, the drama is playable including the dream play—principally because Shaw succeeded in making his characters gloriously human and therefore funny.  Read More Victorian Period Tanner, for instance, is moral, intensely moral but he is fallible, even a bit ridiculous, as Ann delights in proving when she punctures his eloquent utterances with the charge of political aspiration. Ann herself is as engaging a heroine as any in Shaw’s plays. An incorrigible liar, an inveterate hypocrite, she is charming because she is thoroughly female.

The minor characters were just as obviously invented to fit into the thematic framework of the drama, but they too contribute to the fun. Both Ramsden and Mrs. Whitefield represent the authority of the old order which Tanner is trying to overthrow; both, however, have distinctly comic personalities. Believing that a man’s duty lies in protecting the weaker sex, Octavius serves primarily as a foil to Tanner but provides many laughs as a lovesick youth. Mendoza, the bandit; Straker, the impudent chauffeur; and Malone, the senile American millionaire—all figure in George Bernard Shaw’s design. All, moreover, as humorous persons, relieve the tedium of that design.

Considered as a whole, with the “Epistle Dedicatory,” which serves as a preface, and The Revolutionary’s Handbook, which is an appendix of sorts, Man and Superman is one of Shaw’s most important plays. It is not Shaw’ masterpiece, nor is it his best play. It is too obviously a piece of propaganda for such accolades. It is, however, central to George Bernard Shaw’s Philosophy, and philosophy is always central to Shaw’s plays.