Man and Superman By George Bernard Shaw About Man and Superman

In the stimulating and amusing Epistle Dedicatory, a letter addressed to Arthur Bingham Walkley. dramatic critic of The Times, Shaw provides, among other things, the details relating to the genesis of Man and Superman and an exegesis of his current philosophy and of certain dominant ideas in the play. Although Walkley had praised Shaw as "a man who can give us a refined intellectual pleasure," he did not rate his friend very highly as a dramatist. Since Shaw had been conducting a running battle against current romantic drama, Walkley playfully suggested that Shaw show how the love theme should be developed by writing a Don Juan play. And the dramatist complied. Aware that Walkley believed that he wrote dialectic, not drama, which (in the words of Aristotle) should be an imitation of an action, Shaw wittily concedes that he has the "temperament of a schoolmaster" and identifies himself as a reformer expressing his annoyance at the fact that people remain comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable. The implication is clear: When one is comfortable, he has no desire for change, and thus progress is impossible. "If you don't like my preaching you must lump it," Shaw concludes. All these give some insight into Shaw's comic theory. In his Praise of Comedy, Mr. James Feibleman defines comedy as the "satiric criticism of the present limited historical order and a campaign for the unlimited logical order." This involves a departure from an older view which called for approval of the conventional. Shaw would have endorsed Feibleman's view. To be sure, brilliant comedies had been based on the older theory. Henri Bergson, developing his ideas of the comic chiefly with reference to the plays of Molière, insisted that such ridiculous figures as Harpagon and Tartuffe placed themselves outside the pale of the conventional because they suffered from an inelasticity — they had become automations and thus invited derisive laughter. Shaw went further. He believed that it was not just the occasional individual who made himself ridiculous; it was the larger society, and it was the conventional itself which often was absurd. So long as it was so afflicted, society had no right to be comfortable.

Shaw dismisses current romantic plays as "childish" and insists that they are quite devoid of interest and 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." So he accepted Walkley's challenge; he has indeed written a Don Juan play, but it is one "in which the natural attraction of the sexes for one another is the mainspring of the action." The adjective natural is the significant word here. Shaw distinguishes between eroticism and sex. For him, most dramas had been concerned with the former, not the latter, which is instinctual and procreative.

Of course Shaw cannot merely rewrite the Don Juan story as it has come down in versions and variants through the centuries. The original story written by a sixteenth-century Spanish priest told how Don Juan, scion of the illustrious Tenorio family, lived a life of unbridled licentiousness and ultimately killed the governor of Seville, whose daughter he had been attempting to abduct. His sensuality having destroyed all faith in the spirit world, he then visited the tomb of the murdered man and challenged his statue to follow him to supper. The challenge was accepted; the animated statue appeared at table among the guests and carried the blaspheming skeptic to Hell. The moral, as Shaw remarks, is a monkish one: No one can escape God's inexorable justice; repent before it is too late. That will not be the text of Shaw's preaching.

It remained for Molière to give a new aspect to the character in Don Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre (1655). The hero, though as heartlessly depraved as in the Spanish original, loses some of the sterner elements of character and becomes more seductive and more amusing. Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, the libretto of which was furnished by Da Ponte, has done more to popularize the story in Molière as distinct from the severer early Spanish form than any other setting, literary or musical, has ever received.

Shaw argues that what had attracted readers and audiences to Don Juan from the very first is not the moral lesson but Don Juan's "heroism of daring to be the enemy of God. From Prometheus to my own Devil's Disciple, such enemies have always been popular." Here we have one of the keys to Shaw's interest in the story: He too could depict a hero who was a rebel on the grand scale, but one who was an enemy of the false gods of society.

And surely Walkley knows that Shaw cannot depict Don Juan in an aristocratic society dominated by men. Not only has the middle class come into its own, but woman has become completely emancipated: "Man is no longer, like Don Juan, victor in the duel of sex . . . the enormous superiority of Woman's natural position in this matter is telling with greater and greater force." Here writes the man who had hailed the advent of the New Woman in his praise of Ibsen and in his own Candida. A modern Don Juan, Shaw continues, does not even pretend to read Ovid (The Art of Love, Roman classic of eroticism); he has read "Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, studied Westermarck, and is concerned for the future of the race instead of for the freedom of his own instincts."

The identification of these authors is quite significant, pointing as it does to Shaw's new approach to the sex theme in English drama. Edward Alexander Westermarck, the distinguished Finnish anthropologist who accepted the appointment as Professor of Sociology at the University of London in 1907, is best known for his scholarly The History of Human Marriage and as an authority on morals. Obviously, it is the human race, not the individual, which is his prime concern. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the famous German philosopher whose best-known work is The World as Will and Idea, expressed many revolutionary ideas which recommended themselves to Shaw, although the latter rejected Schopenhauer's pessimism. It was the German philosopher, for example, who identified Force — Life Force, to use Shaw's term — as inner will operating independent of intellect (Shaw was to modify this); who rejected romantic love and argued that sex relates properly to the weal and woe of the species, not merely to the individual; who wrote that woman exists in the main solely for the propagation of the species and in their hearts take the affairs of the species more seriously than those of the individual. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (18441900) is perhaps even more widely known as an original and revolutionary philosopher who emphasized self-aggrandizement or the will to power as the chief motivating force of both the individual and society. It was he also who saw woman as a kind of trap of the Life Force, of which she was the instinctive agent.

The modern Don Juan, Shaw continues, is anything but a profligate. He is a philosophic man, "more Hamlet than Don Juan" of tradition. At this point, Shaw digresses a bit to renew his feud with Shakespeare, deploring the "mere harmonious platitude" in Hamlet's lines and the "absurd sensational incidents and physical violences of the borrowed story." The point is that Shaw believed that Shakespeare should have written more like John Bunyan, William Blake, or Shelley (who was for Shaw "a religious force"); he should never have pandered to popular taste but should have been always the artist-philosopher. Or, to put it in other words, Shakespeare should have accepted the role of preacher.

Returning to his main subject, Shaw emphasizes his view that the modern Don Juan is not to be confused with Casanova (1725-98), that gifted Italian who is popularly identified as the prototype of the libertine. Shaw's Don Juan, then, is "a figure superficially quite unlike the hero of Mozart." But since the dramatist has not the heart to deprive Walkley of a view of the original Don Juan's nemesis, the ambulatory statue, he has resorted to a kind of trick: He has introduced into a perfectly modern three-act play a "totally extraneous act." This is the Don Juan in Hell intermezzo, which Shaw describes as "a Shavio-Socratic dialogue" and which gives Don Juan the opportunity to philosophize at great length in his talk with the lady, the Statue, and the Devil.

Returning to the discussion of the play proper, Shaw again emphasizes the fact that he has merely executed Walkley's commission, the dramatization of "sexual attraction to wit." And in doing so, he has been steadfastly realistic: He has not adulterated the product with "aphrodisiacs" nor "diluted it with water." All this, of course, is another hit at the current romantic drama which was an anathema to Shaw. His is a story of modern London life, where the ordinary man strives to maintain his position as a gentleman, and the ordinary woman is concerned with marriage. After all, the law of nature is involved: Money means nourishment, which is man's first concern; marriage means children, which are woman's prime interest.

Shaw comes pretty close to reducing the average human being to an amoeba at this point in his discussion of these two basic drives. Or, perhaps more accurately, he shows the influence of the relatively new naturalism, according to which the instinctual was emphasized and sex and hunger identified as the ultimate sources of human behavior. Early and late he had been interested in the institution of marriage. Some of his ideas found expression in his fifth novel, An Unsocial Socialist (1884), in which Sidney Trefusis is an outspoken rationalist like Jack Tanner in Man and Superman. He had been especially influenced by Samuel Butler, whose The Way of All Flesh is a keenly satiric criticism of English family life in the middle classes. But what Shaw is leading up to immediately is an endorsement of Socialism. The prosaic Englishman, he states, is like all prosaic people — stupid. Such a person does not realize that the present system where at all costs every man wants to be rich and every woman to be married "must produce a ruinous development of poverty, celibacy, prostitution, infant mortality, adult degeneracy, and everything men most dread." Socialism would make possible a highly scientific social organization which would eliminate all these evils.

Back to the play. It will deal with sexual attraction, not nutrition. The serious business of sex is left by men to women, who let men concern themselves with nourishment. Shaw tacitly denies that there is anything revolutionary in this: In Shakespeare's plays, the women always take the initiative, and the pursuing female is found in joyous and dark comedies alike. This is the "Shakespearean law" in the realm of sex, so says Shaw. Thus he makes clear the basic plot line of Man and Superman: the tragicomic love chase of man by woman.

The dramatist concedes that some friends who had heard him read the play were shocked at woman's unscrupulousness in her pursuit and capture of man. They should realize that woman is doing no more than following the law of nature; if she did otherwise there would be an end of the human race. Shaw pokes fun at man's hypocrisy and capacity for deluding himself — his view of woman as the lesser man, his "speaking of Woman's 'sphere' with condescension, even with chivalry, as if the kitchen and nursery were less important than the office in the city." Among the unrealistic and the uninformed, it is assumed that woman must wait motionless until some man proposes marriage to her. If she does wait motionless, it is as the spider waits for the fly!

Shaw next explains why great literature and works of art so often treat sex unrealistically. If ordinary men produced the really superior works of art, those works would express fear of predatory woman rather than love of her illusory beauty. But the man of genius is free of the tyranny of sex. When he is young, it means for him pleasure, excitement, and knowledge; when he is old, it is a source of contemplative tranquility. His purpose, like that of woman, is impersonal and irresistible. Books produced by these artists present no true picture of the world; they reveal "only the self-consciousness of certain abnormal people who have specific artistic talent and temperament." So it is that the scripture and great art works do not treat love scientifically but deal with "romantic nonsense, erotic ecstasy, or the stern asceticism of satiety." But among the exceptionally gifted, there are those who are normal and who have no private ax to grind; these are the ones who drive toward truth.

According to Shaw, the fact that woman is the pursuer has important political implications, for democracy, "the last refuge of cheap misgovernment," will ruin us if rapine were not repressed and importunity discouraged. He then takes a look at the political situation in Britain, that "tight but parochial little island." When he and Walkley were born, aristocracy and plutocracy still ran the government; the country was run by a selected class into which one had to be born. Now the commercial class, the membership in which is determined by money, has its new share of political power. And all this has taken place at a time when Great Britain has become a Commonwealth of Nations and is witnessing the partition of all of Africa and perhaps all of Asia. Can anyone believe that the new class will measure up to the great responsibility which faces the nation? Voters show no more intelligence in the polling booths than they do when attending the public theaters. Quoting Edmund Burke, Shaw concludes that the nation now is under "the hoofs of the swinish multitude."

This statement may come as a surprise to those who assumed that an avowed Socialist must love the common people. Shaw certainly did not hate them; he simply had no confidence in their ability to rule effectively. He has no more confidence in formal education, in progress, or in heredity. "Any pamphleteer," Shaw writes, "can shew the way to better things; but when there is no will there is no way. . . . Progress can do nothing but make the most of us all as we are." In rejecting heredity, Shaw specifically refers to an hereditary ruling class such as the aristocracy or the new commercial class. Direfully he predicts that, unless an electorate of capable critics is found, modern civilization will collapse as did those of Rome and Egypt. In his intensity, he voices sentiments to be found in the first two lines of Wordsworth's well-known sonnet which was written a century earlier:

The world is too much with us late and soon, Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

British newspapers and melodramas bluster about imperial destiny, but the eyes of the populace are on the American millionaire. Since an American millionaire has a prominent role in Man and Superman, Shaw's remarks are of special interest.

At this point, one might conclude that the dramatist was in a state of complete pessimism. One cannot deny that the Fabian Shaw had suffered disillusionment in political theory as the source of humanity's achievement. But he remained idealistic and optimistic and dismissed political change as the solution to social problems in preparation for the setting forth of a new solution.

Shaw next reassures Walkley: He has not put all this "tub-thumping" into his comedy. Only his modern Don Juan, Jack Tanner, appears as a political pamphleteer, and his views are recorded in The Revolutionist's Handbook, an appendix to the play. Shaw is not one of those romancers who proclaim the superiority of their heroes and then deny their audiences access to the heroes' works. In the handbook is to be found the "politics of the sex question" as Shaw conceived Don Juan's ancestors to understand them. He admits that, at the dramatic moment, Tanner speaks for him. Aware that many people naively believe that there is only one absolutely right point of view, Shaw offers a word of caution. No one who is such an absolutist can be a dramatist or anything else. His point is that truth often remains an elusive thing and that an issue would not be an issue unless honest and reasonable people differed strongly about it.

Shaw anticipates possible criticism. Since he is an artist, he can never grasp the common person's view of sex. Had he not himself insisted that the artist is free from its tyranny? Is it not therefore presumptuous for him to write a Don Juan play? Not at all. First it was Walkley who urged him to do so. More important, his treatment of the subject may have validity for the artist; it may amuse the amateur; it may be intelligible and suggestive to the Philistine. "Every man who records his illusions is providing data for the genuinely scientific psychology," he concludes. In making such a statement of substance and pith, Shaw is sufficiently modest. But immediately he assures Walkley that what he writes is far beyond the intelligence of the public with its "simple romantic head." He does not need to be told that this long Epistle Dedicatory and the dream of Don Juan in Act III cannot be produced in a popular theater: "As for me, what I have always wanted is a pit of philosophers; and this is a play for such." In other words, his play indeed is a comedy of ideas; it bears the subtitle "A Comedy and a Philosophy."

Shaw makes his acknowledgement of sources and influences in his creation of leading characters in Man and Superman. From the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, best remembered as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, he "stole" the character of the brigand-poetaster — that is, Mendoza, leader and favorite orator of the brigands encamped in the Spanish Sierra Nevada. He took over Leporella, servant to Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera, but changed him into Enry Straker, a representative of the new engineering and mechanic class which H. G. Wells had predicted would ultimately dominate in a society dependent upon the machine. Shaw also points out that in The Admirable Crichton, the dramatic success of the year 1902, Sir James Matthew Barrie had anticipated him by creating a servant who is better informed than his master. In his knowledge of women and machines, so Enry Straker is. Shaw had high praise for Barrie's play, for it too is a drama of ideas.

Under the leadership of Mendoza, the brigands introduced at the beginning of Act III have formed a League of the Sierra. Shaw explains that the idea came to him when he recalled that a certain West Indian Colonial Secretary, impressed by Sidney Webb's encyclopedic knowledge, suggested that Webb "form himself into a company for the benefit of the shareholders." Shaw refers to the Colonial Secretary, Webb, and himself as the "Fabian Three Musketeers."

Octavius, the dramatist states, comes straight from Mozart. In the opera, it will be recalled, he is Don Ottavio, who is engaged to Donna Ana; in Shaw's play, Octavius is romantically in love with Ann but is not her fiancé. Ann herself, Shaw continues, was suggested by the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman. He had asked himself why there should not be an Everywoman. Ann, he concludes, is just that, but every woman is not Ann. By this Shaw means that Ann, instinctively aware of her destiny as one upon whom the survival and future of the human race depends, is the pursuer in the love game; but imbued as she is with Vital Force and a high degree of perspicuity, she is not to be taken as the prototype of every woman.

Declaring that the unknown author of Everyman was "no mere artist, but an artist-philosopher," Shaw pays his tribute to these superior beings and inveighs once more against melodrama and romance. Among his heroes are Mozart, Bunyan, Blake, Hogarth, and Turner, and he claims literary kinship with Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, William Morris, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche. Shaw concedes that he does read Shakespeare and Dickens but finds them limited because "their pregnant observations and demonstrations are not coordinated into any philosophy or religion." There follows a rather detailed discussion of various characters in Shakespeare's plays and Dickens' novels, and a no less detailed eulogy of the writers to whom he has given the accolade of the artist-philosopher. In this portion of the epistle, Shaw is as downright as ever. He decries Dickens' "sentimental assumptions," which he finds to be "violently contradicted by his observations"; he flatly states that to Shakespeare the world was "a great 'stage of fools' on which he was utterly bewildered." In contrast, the Shavian artist-philosophers from Bunyan to Nietzsche saw life realistically and portrayed it courageously. The reader may be a bit surprised to find that, according to Shaw, Pilgrim's Progress is "A consistent attack on morality and respectability" and that Nietzsche's philosophical writing has close affinities with it. What he is getting at is the idea that the greatest writers avoid "Tappertitian romance" (the reference is to Sim Tappertit, the would-be-lover of Dolly Varden in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge) and "the garish splendors and alcoholic excitements" of melodrama. Above all, the great writer is one who has the courage to attack the conventional and what passes for morality.

Shaw concludes, at long last, by stating that for art's sake alone he "would not face the toil of writing a single sentence." "Art for art's sake" is the doctrine which holds that the aim of art should be creation and the perfection of technical expression rather than the service of amoral, political, or didactic end.

Adumbrated by Coleridge and given early expression in Edgar Allan Poe's The Poetic Principle, the doctrine had been evolving ever since the Romantic period and was widely popular at the time Shaw was writing. Little wonder that he should reject it, for Shaw advertises the fact that he is a man with a message. But he is wise enough to know that he cannot gain or hold an audience unless he can present it entertainingly.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Ann has great respect for Violet because she believes Violet




Quiz