Shaw describes Tanner as a big man with a beard, a young man of "Olympian majesty more like Jupiter than Apollo." And in the Epistle Dedicatory, the dramatist castigates other writers for announcing that their heroes are geniuses and then seldom giving evidence of the fact. He therefore provided as an appendix to his play Tanner's Revolutionist's Handbook to prove that his hero was a great prophet, far in advance of ordinary mortals. But in the play, Tanner is not heroic, nor is he a genius in the sense that he translates ideas into actions. He talks, according to Mr. Eric Bentley. Shaw gave him the appearance of H.
M. Hyndman, founder of the Democratic Federation in 1885 and for a time the leader of English Socialism — the man with whom Shaw came to differ as regards Marxist economic determinism. At one level, then, Shaw was satirizing the parlor socialist who was as voluble and inflammatory as Jack Tanner, but who never turned words into actions. As a matter of fact, Shaw was perfectly capable of satirizing Fabianism, especially in view of the fact that, for the nonce, he had lost faith in a political solution to a man's problems.
But when Harley Granville-Barker created the stage role of Jack Tanner, he made himself up to look as much like Shaw as possible. There is indeed much of Shaw in the hero's character. In one of his weekly articles (quoted by Mr. Bentley), Shaw wrote: "It is instinct with me personally to attack every idea which has been full grown ten years." This is exactly what Tanner does. He does not hesitate to call Ramsden an old fuddy-duddy to Ramsden's face and to advise him to cultivate a little impudence and to welcome heterodox opinions. Tanner himself does both — witness his tirades against the tyranny of greybeards and of mothers, his redefining of morality in terms shocking to the conventional. Shaw uses Tanner to purify the intellectual air. It is he who seeks to clarify the relationship between the sexes, to debunk what Shaw considered Victorian smugness and hypocrisy, to ridicule the romanticism of the Tavies and (more important) to expound his latest theory relating to the advance of the race through eugenics. Thus Tanner is intended to represent what Shaw believed to be the true moral sense. This is clearly revealed in the first long dialogue between Jack and Ann in Act I. Jack had acknowledged the fact that he had been destructive as a boy but insisted that he is now ten times as destructive, for his destructiveness is directed toward moral ends.
So Jack Tanner, by means of his own testimony, is identified as High Priest of Vitalism and Life Force. Nevertheless he does nothing but talk. Before Ann's relentless attack, Jack retreats almost in panic — and finally concedes her the victory. But to do justice to him, one must remember that he scintillates, whether he is bewailing his fate as Ann's co-guardian, amusingly discussing his chauffeur as the New Man, exchanging courtesies with the brigand leader who has made him captive, comically denouncing Ann as a boa constrictor and a tigress, or voicing his utter terror at the thought of marriage. It is significant that Jack holds the friendship of the idealistic Octavius and that not even Ramsden protests when his engagement to Ann is announced.