Man and Superman Themes


Man and Superman expounds Shaw’s pointed view of humanity’s sexual nature. In this play, Ann Whitefield woos her newly appointed guardian, John Tanner, and he, in spite of his anti-romantic persona, falls for her. He does not love her in the conventional sense, but falls prey to the ‘‘Life Force’’ that she exudes. It is more a matter of sexual attraction than it is of romanic love. Shaw’s idea of this Life Force derives from French philosopher Henri Bergson’s Olan vital, or spirit of life.

Bergson’s concept proposed that intellect was an advanced form of instinct, and that intellect and instinct together constituted the source of vitality shared between all creatures and God. Social niceties, such as the conventions of marriage and courting, merely mask the underlying drive toward life and procreation. The Life Force is the creative urge toward self-preservation and regeneration, the drive to evolve, adapt, and actualize. Bergson’s philosophy parallels French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s biological concept of the organism’s tendency to adapt to environment, to survive through self-transformation. Lamarck predated Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which Shaw opposes by going back to the idea of Lamarckian determinism in the form of an unconscious will towards life.

Shaw draws on both philosophy and biological theory for his Life Force theory, which became a common theme in his work, especially in his prefaces. Nowhere else, however, is it so fully explored as in the Don Juan in Hell segment found in Act III, where Ann Whitefield transposes into Dona Ana de Ulloa and Tanner becomes Don Juan Tenario. They debate the relative merits of heaven and earth with the devil and ‘‘the statue,’’ Ana’s dead father. Don Juan insists that, ‘‘Life is a force which has made innumerable experiments in organizing itself . . . the mammoth and the man, the mouse and the megatherium, the files and the fleas and the Fathers of the Church . . . all more or less successful attempts to build up that raw force into higher and higher individuals, the ideal individual being omnipotent, omniscient, infallible, and withal completely, unilludedly self-conscious: in short, a god.’’

The purpose of the Life Force is to create a superior being, the Superman. In Man and Superman, Life Force flows through female intuition, whose sole purpose is to achieve union with a male of intellectual superiority. An exceptional woman, who has a strong and irresistible Life Force, scoffs at weaker intellects, such as Octavius, who, though not unintelligent, lacks charisma. She seeks instead someone like Tanner, whose intellect makes him surly and offensive to other men but irresistible to strong women like Ann.

Intellect may seem an odd property to combine with the Life Force, but Don Juan explains that ‘‘brains’’ are needed to avoid death, thus the woman seeks...

(The entire section is 1205 words.)