Of Man and Superman, Shaw himself said that he had written "a trumpery story of modern London life, a life in which . . . the ordinary man's main business is to get means to keep up the position and habit of a gentleman and the ordinary woman's business is to get married." This suggests that the play is a comedy of manners replete with farcical elements, a play which represents no real break in the tradition of the Victorian theater. Indeed the dramatist insisted early and late that he was not an inventor in dramatic technique. In the play are to be found such familiar romantic and melodramatic elements as a will, a love triangle, the apparently fallen woman, and an episode involving capture by brigands. Among the long-lived comic types are the mother bent on marrying off her daughter; the brash, impertinent servant who knows more than his master; and such caricatures as that of Malone, the American millionaire. In character portrayal, he almost always depends upon overstatement, and such exaggeration is strictly in the tradition of the comic writer and satirist.
Like many earlier dramatists, including Shakespeare, to say nothing of Shaw's Victorian predecessors and contemporaries, the dramatist develops situations by means of a series of misunderstandings, which may be called "mistaken awarenesses." Thus he is able to build up in each successive act a series of amusing, often exciting climaxes. Early in Act I, for example, the audience witnesses a Ramsden confident that he is the sole guardian of Ann Whitefield and determined to see to it that the revolutionist Jack Tanner shall not come near her. Then, when Jack appears, Ramsden learns that, very much against his will, the younger man is to serve as co-guardian of the young lady. Dramatic irony of this sort is always satisfying to an audience. In the same act, the Violet Robinson-Hector Malone subplot gets underway and begins to provide counterpoint to the main action. Like the main plot, it develops the sex theme and reveals woman as the dominant partner in the love game. Before her appearance, all believe that Violet has disgraced herself. Here Shaw develops and sustains one of the finest examples of dramatic irony in modern drama. The counter-discovery, that is, the correction of mistaken awareness, is expertly handled: Violet is revealed as a respectable married woman. These situations lend themselves wonderfully to the development of character. Jack is given the opportunity to voice his advanced ideas, particularly in contrast to Ramsden, the old-fashioned liberal, when he protests against his new and unsolicited responsibility, and more particularly when he eloquently defends Violet, only to be excoriated by the young lady. Nor is all this irrelevant to the main theme, for it shows both Ann and Violet as young women who, each in her own way, are determined to get their own ways.
As the play progresses, Shaw continues to make effective use of dramatic irony. The initial dialogue between Jack Tanner and Straker lets the audience know that the blissfully ignorant Tanner is the one marked down as Ann's prey, not young Octavius. Ann enters, unaware that Jack has received Rhoda's note giving the true reason why the younger sister cannot join Tanner on the motor trip, and is caught in a lie — firsthand proof that she is absolutely unscrupulous in her pursuit of the male. Enter Hector Malone. All but Violet are unaware of the fact that he is her husband, and once more Shaw realizes the comic possibilities of the situation, which nicely balances the earlier one involving Violet. Jack volubly defends Hector and earns only the American's indignation.
In Act III, Shaw introduces a story element as melodramatic as any to be found in the Victorian theater. Not only are the protagonist and his chauffeur made captive by brigands in the Spanish Sierra, but it is revealed that Mendoza, the brigand leader, had been driven to a life of crime because of unrequited love for a young lady. Coincidence of coincidences, she turns out to be Louisa Straker, the chauffeur's sister.
Coincidence and mistaken awareness are to be found even in the Don-Juan-in-Hell interlude. The old crone who makes inquiry to the first soul she meets turns out to be Dona Ana and learns that she is speaking to her one-time lover and "murderer" of her father.
In Act IV, Malone receives and reads the note Violet had intended for Hector. This is none other than a variation of the eavesdropping device so common in the popular theater, certainly from Shakespeare's day forward. Mistaken awareness abounds in this act. Malone believes that his son is pursuing a married woman and then learns that Hector is Violet's husband. One may note how this episode also balances the one in the first act. In the main plot, it is Ann's final rejection of Octavius and Jack's realization that he cannot escape her which provide the best examples of mistaken awareness and subsequent discoveries.
But if Man and Superman is "a repertory of old state devices," to use Reuben A. Brower's term, it is also much more. For one thing, Shaw is a master of inversion. In his play, the Victorian Womanly Woman as heroine is replaced by the Vital Woman who relentlessly tracks down her man. He was honest and modest enough to point out that he had not invented the pursuing female in literature: Shakespeare and many others had anticipated him in drama, and the passionate pursuing female flourished in non-dramatic narrative of the Ovidian tradition. But as far as nineteenth-century and particularly Victorian drama was concerned, Shaw was an innovator. If Barrie did anticipate him in depicting a servant who was more knowledgeable than his master, Shaw nevertheless, in the character of Henry Straker, made adroit use of just such an inversion. Comic inversion is again illustrated in the characterization of Mrs. Whitefield. Many a mother in popular drama had been intent on marrying off her daughter, but where else is one to be found with the same motive for such intention? Mrs. Whitefield was devoted to Octavius as if he were a favorite son; one would expect her to welcome him as a son-in-law. But no, Tavy was too nice a boy to be victimized by Ann, whereas Jack would be a match for her. There are good examples of Shavian inversions in the Don-Juan-in-Hell interlude also. Hell is the place where one does nothing but enjoy himself; Heaven is a boring place. Hell is the home of the Seven Deadly Virtues in whose names most of the world's misery has been caused. The Devil, a would-be gentleman and democrat, is the one who lauds love and beauty and who wants everyone to be happy. Don Juan is anything but a condemned sensualist and murderer; he is a high-minded idealist dedicated to pure reason.
It certainly is not to be assumed that Man and Superman is only a composite of comic reversals, farcical incidents, and melodrama often involving type characters. As Shaw himself wrote in the dedicatory epistle, "This pleasantry is not the essence of the play." It remains a comedy and a philosophy. Yet one can understand why from the first performance, the play has been hailed even by those who have not the slightest interest in or knowledge of the philosophy. It happens to be good theater. And if it is filled with talk, talk, and more talk; the talk is dramatic, especially in the sense that it individualizes and develops the many characters.
Shaw is adept at varying the style of speaking from one character to another. The contrasting "voices" in the play go far to explain Harley Granville-Barker's instructions to the cast he was putting through rehearsal: "Do remember, ladies and gentlemen, that this is Italian opera." One may add to this Shaw's own remark: "My sort of play would be impossible unless I endowed my characters with powers of self-expression which they would not possess in real life." His success in individualizing the oral style of his characters may be illustrated by comparing the speeches of Ramsden and Tanner. The outmoded Ramsden does talk like "a president of highly respectable men, a chairman among directors, an alderman among counsellors, a mayor among alderman." Except when scandalized by Tanner's brash remarks, he sounds like the dignified member of Parliament used to success through the "withdrawal of opposition and the concession of comfort and precedence and power." In contrast, Jack's style is more like that of the public-park and street-corner orator. It has an exciting, intense quality appropriate to the man who prided himself on being an iconoclast and has learned, as Shaw did, that the way to attract attention is to startle or to shock people. And it is Tanner who is master of the many sallies, jests, epigrams, and aphorisms in the play. He does not hesitate to call Ramsden "an old man with obsolete ideas" and Ann "a boa constrictor," or to declare that "morality can go to its father, the Devil." To Octavius, whose own discourse offers such a marked contrast, he comes out with "perfectly revolting things sometimes." But they do not revolt the audience — quite the contrary.
Violet, who knows and has gotten exactly what she wants, namely, a rich husband, speaks far differently from Ann Whitefield. She minces no words; she is always direct, to the point. To the crushed Jack Tanner who had rushed to her defense, she says tersely: "I hope you will be more careful in the future of things you say." And to Hector she offers this practical counsel: "You can be as romantic as you please about love, Hector; but you must not be romantic about money." Ann, the Vital Woman and Violet's intellectual superior, can and does speak lines completely appropriate to one posing as the weak, helpless, and completely dutiful daughter. She easily hoodwinks Granny Ramsden and has led Octavius to believe that she is the ideal Womanly Woman. When Tanner gloomily admits that he must serve as one of her guardians, she gushes delightedly: "Then we are all agreed; and my dear father's will is to be carried out. You don't know what a joy that is to me and my mother!" But alone with Jack and aware that he sees right through her, her style of discourse changes. She is his match in the wit's combat.
Man and Superman is operatic in another way. The longer speeches, notably those made by Jack Tanner, are bravura pieces, comparable to the arias in grand opera. Examples include Tanner's conceding that he cannot wholly conquer shame, his description of the true artist when he endeavors to enlighten the lovesick Octavius, his defense of Violet, and his denunciation of the tyranny of mothers and of the institution of marriage. Don Juan's memorable peroration when he announces his intention of leaving Hell and going to Heaven provides another good example.