George Bernard Shaw

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Daniel J. Leary (essay date February 1963)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6058

SOURCE: Leary, Daniel J. “Shaw's Use of Stylized Characters and Speech in Man and Superman.Modern Drama 5, no. 4 (February 1963): 477-90.

[In the following essay, Leary explores the vitality of the characters and speeches in Man and Superman.]

In discussing the dramatic effectiveness of puppets, Shaw wrote:

I always hold up the wooden actors as instructive object-lessons to our flesh-and-blood players. … The puppet is the actor in his primitive form. Its symbolic costume, from which all realistic and historically correct impertinences are banished, its unchanging stare, petrified (or rather lignified) in a grimace …, the mimicry by which it suggests human gesture in unearthly caricature—these give to its performance an intensity to which few actors can pretend, an intensity which imposes on our imaginative life those images in immovable hieratic attitudes on the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral, in which the gaping tourists seem like little dolls moving jerkily in the draughts from the doors, reduced to saw-dusty insignificance by the contrast with the gigantic vitality in the windows overhead.1

This passage is a clear presentation of what I believe to be a central dramatic vision which provided a unifying action for many of Shaw's major plays. In dealing specifically with Man and Superman, I am attempting to prove that an awareness of this action so deeply rooted in Shaw's imagination does much to explain two typical and perplexing Shavian dramatic characteristics, i.e., characters that seem to be puppets and yet are vital; and speeches that, though excessively long and didactic in reading, remain fresh and entertaining when delivered from the stage.2

This vision of characters whose human qualities are transformed and intensified by a mysterious simplifying and magnifying inner force, Shaw expressed in terms of his religio-philosophic concept of the Life-Force working itself out through matter. Toward the end of his career Shaw summed up his credo:

I, as a Creative Evolutionist, postulate a creative Life-Force or Evolutionary Appetite seeking power over circumstances and mental development by the method of Trial and Error, making mistake after mistake, but still winning its finally irresistible way.3

In expressing his vision on stage, Shaw utilized what might be conveniently termed a “dialectic action,” that is, an action which takes the form of a conflict between a thesis, Spirit (the Life-Force), and an antithesis, Matter (the human body)—a conflict which often promises or presents the emergence of a synthesis, a Superman. When the dramatic character submits to the Life-Force, his body for a time becomes an impersonal instrument used to realize an evolutionary experiment or express a revolutionary truth.

This evolutionary dialectic can and does go on within the individual human being, male or female—e.g., Caesar or Saint Joan—but in order to illustrate what he felt to be the general pattern, Shaw often depicted the struggle between spirit and matter in terms of the conflict between two recurrent, openly allegorical figures, such as the clear headed experimenter and unsentimental Hero (or Genius or Artist) and the cautious maintainer of physical life and material comforts, the Mother Goddess. In Man and Superman, the two individuals, Ann Whitefield and Jack Tanner, can at least fleetingly be seen as just such embodied and spiritual forces, both forces being aspects of the Life-Force and as such both deserving, at this stage in Shaw's thinking, equal respect.4

Of course, this view of the archetypal Ann and Jack needs some qualification. That Ann is the Mother Goddess seems clear enough. Shaw himself wrote that “Ann was suggested to me by the fifteenth century Dutch morality called Everyman. … I said to myself Why not Everywoman? Ann was the result; every woman is not Ann; but Ann is Everywoman.”5 What Jack represents is more difficult to define. Jack at one point explains to Octavius that “Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman.” (p. 24) In his preface Shaw observes that in such a struggle “the clash is sometimes tragic.”6Man and Superman remains a comedy because Jack—except in the “Don Juan in Hell Interlude”—submits to Ann's purpose and for the time at least fulfills a social responsibility rather than an individual ambition. If Jack were a genius, he would be able to ignore or assimilate Ann in his greater drive; if he were Everyman, he would probably be assimilated in Ann's drive with little struggle. Shaw writes that “men of genius” are those selected by Nature to carry on the work of building up an intellectual consciousness of her own instinctive purpose. (pp. xxii-xxiii) Jack seems to talk rather than act and so does not fulfill this condition, and yet in writing about him Shaw notes, “The Woman's need of him to enable her to carry on Nature's most urgent work, does not prevail against him until his resistance gathers her energy to a climax at which she dares to throw away her customary exploitations of the conventional affectionate and dutiful poses, and claims him by natural right for a purpose that far transcends their mortal personal purposes.” (p. xxi) That Jack has intelligence enough to know what it is to be a genius seems certain, at any rate, and through his struggles he provides the dramatic situation in which the conflict of man and woman can be given expression and out of which the Superman may emerge.7

The Life-Force that drives them is impersonal. As Don Juan says “In the sex relation the universal creative energy, of which the parties are both the helpless agents, over-rides and sweeps away all personal considerations, and dispenses with all personal relations.” (p. 123) The play Everyman or Pilgrim's Progress, does present puppet-like abstractions, but Shaw allows his characters to be puppets only in moments of intensity when the vital force is pulling the strings to make them fulfill a purpose. Certainly this confessed interest in puppets does not give grounds for the usual “bromide” that Shaw's characters are lifeless, abstracted, wooden things. The passage cited at the opening of this article indicated that what the Shavian actor has to convey is not, in the narrow sense, a “character”—an individual with carefully noted traits, a complex past and a limited foreseeable future—but rather something at once human, large, and simple. The actor must convey both thesis and antithesis. These characters are caught between matter and spirit; and too much “business,” too much trickery of speech and action, chains them to matter. Quite frequently in recent productions of Shaw's plays, I have sensed that there was no instinctive respect for Shaw's “dialectic action” and that consequently the plays' classic economy and force were lost. In contrast to this, Charles Laughton in his Broadway production of Major Barbara seemed to have profited much from his experience with the “Don Juan in Hell Interlude.” The characters moved with deliberation and only when the action (in both senses) called for it. They assumed positions in center stage, front, to deliver their speech arias—speech which was controlled, faithful to the sense and to the rhythm of their parts.8

Ann and Jack, then, are not to be conveyed as wooden, make-believe characters, but as dramatic presentations which are also archetypes. We recognize their basic situations, but their poise, their almost uncanny articulateness, and in many cases their acute self-evaluation of their respective positions make them more than human. At times the play seems like a huge chess game, but though the basic movements of the pieces are prescribed, they are capable of infinite variations and permutations within those prescribed movements. As the King and the Queen are moved by the Life-Force, they talk so incessantly, so wittily, so brilliantly about why they are moving here or why they are not moving there that the physical movement itself seems unimportant except as a reflection of the tactical action of the mover.

Granville-Barker touched on this dramatic movement toward the archetype when he wrote:

… as the aim of the true dramatist's art grows finer and its practice more mature, we are likely to find him … economizing in every sort of doing so that his characters may be able less disturbedly to be what they are. … The dramatist has to give this histrionic body a spirit which will be inalienably the character's own and the essential thing in it, a spirit which will, by comparison, reduce the actor's solid reality to the value of mere appearance. By virtue of that the character will transcend the actor's incarnation of it, and may survive its incarnation in a thousand actors. … To make the spirit of a character visible through the flesh of its impersonation; here in drama is Shelley's lifting of the veil, and it is a miracle for a poet's working.9

Perhaps the most significant word in this quotation is “economizing.” The dramatist, like the poet, uses economy of expression to give unity and form, to give soul, to the total work, uses economy of background to give controlled space and limited time in which to evoke the inner spirit of his characters, and uses economy of characterization to make that finer spirit more strikingly effective. Shaw had this economy and this evocation of spirit in mind when he claimed, one year before his death, that in his plays he had been “going back atavistically to Aristotle, to the tribune stage, to the circus, to the didactic Mysteries, to the word music of Shakespeare and to the forms of my idol Mozart.”10

Of course, this economy can be found in almost any superior dramatic work. For example, Tennessee Williams ends his Glass Menagerie with a scene in which the mother and daughter can no longer be heard but are only seen moving about on a dimmed stage. In the silence the forms of the two brave and lonely women become almost tragic, for they are for a moment abstracted from the sordidness of their lives and only the essential human condition remains. However, it seems to me that Shaw is able to present this human triviality and human greatness simultaneously through his puppet characters because his major characters are seen not only in the full ridiculousness of their wavering human action, but also as driven by the Life-Force which gives a noble purpose, a significance to their action. On stage the following exchange has something of the same expanding effect as the last scene of The Glass Menagerie:

I will not marry you. I will not marry you.
Oh, you will, you will.
I tell you, no, no, no.
… I tell you, yes, yes, yes, yes.


(suddenly losing her courage, with an anguish that she does not conceal) No. We are awake; and you have said no: that is all.


(seizing her in his arms) It is false. I love you. The Life-Force enchants me: I have the whole world in my arms when I clasp you. But I am fighting for my freedom, for my honor, for myself, one and indivisible.
Your happiness will be worth them all.
You would sell freedom and honor and self for happiness?
It will not be all happiness for me. Perhaps death.
(groaning) Oh, that clutch holds and hurts. What have you grasped in me? Is there a father's heart as well as a mother's?

(p. 169)

Of this last verbal exchange Chesterton wrote, “… I can see shining … through them at that instant the splendour of the God that made them and of the image of God who wrote their story.”11

If the term “God” can be equated with Shaw's hyphenated deity, Shaw would seem to give support to Chesterton's statement. Shaw wrote to Iden Payne the following suggestions for a production of Man and Superman:

At the Court we devised a sort of pantomime at the point where Tanner and Ann are left together for the great final scene. Ann was in the centre of the stage; and Tanner took walks which began as resolute attempts to leave the garden by the gate or the terrace, and ended by vacillation, renewals of the attempt more and more feeble, always getting nearer and nearer to Ann. Finally he goes to her exactly as if she were a magnet and he a rather reluctant needle, and stops close to her with a sort of collapse as if his backbone had visibly given way. Barker [Granville-Barker] did this extraordinarily well.12

The surface has been stripped away and one sees the Life-Force at work, using human beings for its own purpose. Since the play deals, not with a Superman, but with a situation out of which a Superman may develop, two above average human beings, with very different interests, are seen being drawn together for purposes of procreation.

There is no denying that Shaw wanted this section played by actors moving almost like machinery. The language too, with its fast, clipped, brisk pacing, seems machine-like; it is able neither to take poetic flight nor, at this point at least, to stir us by a prosaic conversational tone. Yet it acts well, because the viewer can see and experience the truth of the basic situation. Shaw does not use a topsy-turvy world as does Oscar Wilde. His method is to present witty commentators on the world as it is. In this scene when the steady flow of speech stops, when Shaw presents the visual imitation of the action—man and woman surrendering themselves to a drive that transcends their petty individual drives—the audience is startled to realize that this isn't a witty paradox at all but a profound truth, a commonplace of human existence. Or perhaps it would be better to say that Shaw's drama illustrates the perfectly sound and traditional religious paradox that human life is both infinitely important and infinitely unimportant from the divine standpoint. The intense and economical presence of the puppets not only reflects the play's action, but suddenly, “sub specie aeternitatis,” their presence and movements are that action.

This matter of intensity, however, must not be confused with exaggeration, distortion, or caricature. George Santayana once defended Shaw's favorite novelist, Charles Dickens, from the charge of exaggeration, and I would like to quote that passage, suggesting the substitution of Shaw's name for Dickens'.

When people say that Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me they can have no eyes and no ears. They probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value. … ‘What a bad mirror’ the world exclaims; ‘it must be concave or convex; for surely I never looked like that. …, But the polite world is lying; there are such people; we are such people ourselves in our true moments, in our veritable impulses; but we are careful to stifle and hide those moments from ourselves and from the world; to purse and pucker ourselves into the mask of our conventional personality; and so simpering, we profess that it is very coarse and inartistic of Dickens to undo our life's work for us in an instant, and remind us of what we are.13

Such characters are drawn by constantly bringing into relief one distinguishing feature, too complex perhaps to be defined, in such a way that the imagination instinctively supplies all the other qualities. This intensely complex simplification is one of Shaw's triumphs, second only, perhaps, to his magnificent use of language.

Though Brecht in The Three Penny Opera, Beckett in Waiting for Godot, and Ionesco in Jack, in varying degrees, use much the same dramatic simplification to intensify their characterization, their “puppets” seem to be without a puppetmaster or at least to have strings tangled. The image of man and the movement of his soul delineated by these dramatists tend to be existentially absurd and essentially without purpose. These characters with their rehearsed responses have become comic puppets in the Bergsonian sense, for they are mechanical rather than vital. In Man and Superman Shaw presents only one simply mechanical and purposeless character and that is Henry Straker, one of the faceless new men. He is first observed under the motor car that Shaw had brought onto his world stage, but only part of his body is seen; his head is under the car. He can drive and repair the machine, but he has no goal. Travel for the sake of speed is all he is interested in. It is significant that Tanner in a moment of self-doubt confesses to Straker, “I am the slave of that car and of you too,” (p. 49) for with the passing years and the multiplying instances of modern man's unreasonableness and lack of dedication, Shaw's own faith and hope in the Life-Force began to waver, and in his final years he produced plays whose characters seemed peculiarly modern in their absurdity and lack of purpose.14

I have suggested that when Shaw's characters are most puppet-like they are frequently most archetypally representative of the dialectic that is at the heart of his vision and his philosophy. Shaw's use of language, too, is clarified by keeping in mind his interest in puppets, for it seems to me that his words and cadences are transformed and intensified by the same mysterious simplifying and magnifying inner force. In the following paragraphs I use various approaches toward an analysis of Shaw's style, but throughout, the fundamental point being made is that Shaw achieves both intense vitality and a peculiar aesthetic distancing in many of the long speeches of his major characters, because these characters are “personae” for the Life-Force and as such their speeches necessarily are a direct reflection of the dialectic struggle between matter and spirit. Thus the tension between the divine and the human, between matter and spirit, is reflected through certain startling verbal juxtapositions, through abrupt shifts in tone and subject matter, through the merging of concrete and abstract terms and through great aria-like speeches built upon conflicting themes.

Probably the most obvious, certainly the most frequently used of Shaw's verbal devices is the taking of the familiar word and the holding it up in an unfamiliar light. In the “Interlude” we find such words as devil, hell, heaven, purgatory, the Church, confession, justice, duty, honor, holiness, spirituality, love, faith, miracles, sincerity, joy. And all of them are being used with new shifts in their meanings. For example, Ana finds that she belongs in hell because she feels no pain while there. Again we find that hell “is the home of honor, duty, justice and the rest of the seven deadly virtues.” (p. 90) But perhaps this startling use of language can best be presented by observing the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated words, words that have pejorative connotations with words that express religious or moral values. Usually these words do have syntactical relationships and can technically be referred to as oxymorons employed with the specific intention of transforming or transvaluating our judgment of standard morality. Even when they are not syntactically related, they have a tendency to merge in the consciousness of the hearer, thus canceling or altering the original value of the words and allowing Shaw to project a new morality on a more or less neutral background. The following couplings are separated by five or fewer words in the text: time-eternity, murderer-good man, Devil-best society, wicked-comfortable, fool-love, Hell-justice, flies-fathers of the Church, Prince of Darkness-gentleman, licentious institution-marriage, hate-religion, uncomfortable-moral, cranks-saints, silly story-Bible, poison gas-justice.

It is obvious that Shaw's contrasts of mood, his verbal dexterity, his surprise pairings do more than put an old morality to new uses. The conflicts, the dialectics, also provide much of the sustaining humor and energy in the plays. In the shorter exchanges in “Don Juan” there often can be found sudden jarring meetings of opposites; it is a “spirit-matter” dialectic action on a linguistic level. Thus this form of verbal clash is more than a divertissement. For example, Don Juan in the middle of his explanation about the idea of hell, says to Ana, “Do not look shocked, my dear Ana; and do not be alarmed: there is plenty of humbug in hell …,” and then goes on with his metaphysical speculations. At the close of his statement Ana queries, “And will all the men call me their dear Ana?” (p. 93) Humorous, yes, but it is also representative of the continuing interaction of thought and matter, and it leads to a discussion of the meaning of love. Again Don Juan asks about the statue of Ana's father and recalls that awesome invitation to dinner. Ana replies that naughty little boys have been writing on it and breaking its nose off. The contrast is reinforced immediately, for Mozart's statue music is heard and “a living statue of white marble,” Ana's father, appears. He is the ossified embodiment of social convention, but in the following exchanges Don Juan, one of the “naughty” people, chips away enough of the marble to show the humbug beneath. A similar shallowness is seen in Ana when she says to Don Juan on finding that she is in hell, “Oh! and I might have been so much wickeder! All my good deeds wasted! It is unjust.” (p. 88) Here one has the fun of an unexpected but honest human reaction. Still the comment underscores the contrast between the immoral man of integrity and the moral woman of deception. Later when Juan explains that “it was Woman who taught me to say, ‘I am; therefore I think.’ And also ‘I would think more; therefore I must be more,’” the Statue asks him to “stick to the concrete, and put your discoveries in the form of entertaining anecdotes. …” (p. 117) This exchange provides the comic contrast of a Don Juan who is a man of contemplation and a conventional father who is something of a libertine. On another level, however, the exchange leads to a central discussion of man's need for woman. In still another instance Don Juan announces, “I'll take refuge … in solitude,” and the Devil answers, “Why not take refuge in Heaven?” (p. 99) The contrast here is between the man of depth and the man of surface, and the humor of the situation proceeds from the idea of the Devil pleading with someone to go to Heaven. Various laugh-provoking situations occur because of this contrast, but still the idea of Heaven as a place of contemplation, of growing self-awareness, and Hell as a place of purposeless pleasure is the core of the entire “Interlude.”

These sudden shifts in subject matter or in tone contribute to dramatic progression, for quite frequently the sudden reductions of level are presented at a time calculated to refresh the audience's powers of attention before moving to another complex issue. They are also a part of the temperamental quality, the extreme emotional mobility, which makes these parts so difficult to act. At times the characters seem almost Chekhovian in their vacillations, changes of mind, and apparent nonsequiturs. Even firm characters seem to change emotional pitch, or reverse intellectual outlook in mid-speech, though they always preserve a state of lyrical excitement, a sense of psychic freedom, of immunity, that in both depression and exaltation manifests itself in an all-embracing freedom of tone and subject matter.

Still another stylistic characteristic which reflects the polarities of Shaw's thinking was suggested by Chesterton when he wrote, “Shaw talks about cheese, boots, perambulators, and how people are really to live.”15 Shaw is rather like a metaphysical poet working in prose. He startles, entertains, and conjures up a vast world by the universality of his references. Shaw plays spiritual generalities against material concretions so artfully that one finds himself adopting some of the mercurial traits of Shaw's thought, and in the process abandoning the atmosphere of “closed morality” for the heady air of “open morality.” Some examples of this humanizing yet universalizing device would be found in conversations in which devils and servants are talked about (p. 90) or good fencing and achieving heaven (p. 93), counter-tenors and piety (p. 609), the life hereafter and race tracks (p. 114), support for the back and Life-Force (p. 120), squalling babies and paradise (p. 121), morality and a card game (p. 129), a drifting ship and hell. (p. 132)

In Shaw's preface to Lillah McCarthy's autobiography, he provides a ready approach to the last stylistic characteristic I wish to touch on. Shaw writes:

In a generation which knew nothing of any sort of acting but drawing room acting, and which considered a speech of more than twenty words impossibly long, I went back to the classical style and wrote long rhetorical speeches like operatic solos, regarding my plays as musical performances precisely as Shakespeare did.16

Shaw, who had been a regular music critic for six years, did indeed modify his style of character and speech presentation to conform to certain aspects of operatic technique, aspects that recall certain characteristics of puppets that had long intrigued him. In opera it is not the soprano's or tenor's business to fill in his part with detailed acting—with carefully shaded facial expressions or with gestures which the situation does not strictly call for; still less is it to fill out the character of Ana or Don Giovanni beyond the indications Mozart provides, and then to impose these conceptions on the music by strained expressiveness of phrasing. All that is needed is to sing true, allow the music to do its own work, and let the rest take care of itself. The music with its harmonies, its themes, its conflicts, sustains the operatic character, gives him a purpose in even an apparently meaningless plot, and frequently overshadows while simultaneously intensifying him.

Shaw rightly emphasizes the similarity of his long dramatic speeches to that of operatic solos, confessing that in his dramas he “was going back … to the forms of my idol Mozart.”17 The big speeches are built up like arias, which repeat a major theme through variations until the cumulative effect demands a dramatic close. Here is a portion of one of the Devil's speeches in the “Interlude,” set out not as poetry—which it is not—but as prose admirably designed for speaking in the theater.18

1. I … confess to you that men get tired of everything,

2. of heaven no less than of hell;

3. and that all history is nothing but a record of the oscillations of the world between these two extremes.

4. An epoch is but a swing of the pendulum;

5. and each generation thinks the world is progressing because it is always moving.

6. But when you are as old as I am;

7. when you have a thousand times wearied of heaven, like myself and the Commander,

8. and a thousand times wearied of hell, as you are wearied now,

9. you will no longer imagine that every swing from heaven to hell is an emancipation,

10. every swing from hell to heaven an evolution.

11. Where you now see reform, progress, fulfillment of upward tendency,

12. continual ascent by Man on the stepping stone of his dead selves to higher things,

13. you will see nothing but an infinite comedy of illusion.

14. You will discover the profound truth of the saying of my friend Koheleth, that there is nothing new under the sun.

15. Vanitas vanitatum.

It is evident that Shaw has once again given one of his best songs to the Devil. It is also evident that the source of vitality in this speech can once again be traced to a dialectic between spirit and matter, this time expressed in terms of “heaven” and of “hell” of hope and doubt, of evolution and frustration.

The theme of futility, of purposelessness, which would ultimately pervade Shaw's drama, is even now, at the height of Shaw's evolutionary progressiveness, eloquently expressed. Line 1 enunciates the theme which is, of course, universal futility. Lines 2 and 3 repeat this theme with variations of space and time. Line 4 also echoes the futility theme while introducing the governing metaphor of the speech. Line 5 sums up what has already been said and takes issues with the whole idea of man's progress. Line 6 is something of a grace line whose sense is really incorporated into line 7. It provides a slight pause before the precipitous plunge into a full articulation of the gospel of despair, before the pendulum swing of balanced clauses and contrasted ideas begins. Lines 7 and 8 once again state the theme of futility, but now it is intensified by the reiteration of “a thousand times.” Note, too, that this reiteration has a swinging effect much as the pendulum already referred to. While lines 7-8 treated the theme on a personal level, lines 9-10 consider it in its social and then in its biological variations. Moreover the appearance and inversion of “heaven” and “hell” continue the pendulum motion. The increasing arc is also suggested by “heaven” and “hell,” both appearing in these lines, whereas “heaven” or “hell” had appeared in lines 7-8. A full stylistic oscillation occurs in lines 11 and 12, for line 11 is a prosaic restatement of the theme in all its aspects, while line 12 presents the same statement poetically. Futility is advanced with particular irony in line 13, since it is the Prince of Illusion who warns Don Juan about the danger of illusion. Line 14 continues the restatement of theme and continues the irony, for with the quotation from the Bible one also remembers that the Devil can quote the Bible for his own purposes. Finally line 15 with its two words succinctly sums up the theme and variations in a truly dramatic close. There has been a full swing of the pendulum from lines 11-12, “Where you now see …” countered by the equally lengthy lines 13-14, “you will see nothing. …” Now in the final line all has been stopped, all has been reduced to inertia.

I chose this famous speech of the devil for analysis because the balance in structure so clearly illustrates the underlying dialectic which gives a dramatic force even to a statement recommending despair. However, similar structures are to be found in all of Shaw's great speeches. And in all of them there is, as Dixon Scott put it, an athletic sparseness of adjectives, a deliberate speed that first presents itself as “cold-blooded intelligence,” but as the momentum increases “produces a kind of glow, an unusual warmth that almost melts the icy argument, almost turns it into something rich and wild.”19 Though I emphasize balanced structure and economic sparseness, I am not suggesting that the actor should impose a sing-song cadence on the speeches of Shaw's characters, but that he should let the intrinsic rhythm rule his speaking, just as the sense rules the rhythm.20 There is a reason for the peculiar construction of these speeches, just as there is for the repetitions in arias; they are perennially exciting because the repetitions and recapitulations drive the action home to the spectator even while they drive it dramatically forward: that is, through their cumulative effect, they drive home the idea or the emotion which at these operatic moments is the action. Nor am I suggesting that the characters must act as if wearing Greek masks, and must speak their lines as if in an oratorio. Human nature should show through, but when it does, the gesture or tone must be more than a personal idiosyncrasy. In a play such as Man and Superman, we must be permitted to see, hear, and feel at all times the underlying action. We must see Jack and Ann cooperating with the Life-Force by being specifically man and woman. We must hear in Jack's speeches that he is bringing to the biological synthesis an intellectual dissatisfaction which attains the level of contemplation. We must hear the calculated weariness of the Devil as he reduces all striving to a balanced ennui. We must feel that both Jack and Ann in their dialectic action represent the Life-Force resisting the gospel of purposelessness, while extending the horizon of mankind's possibilities. While enjoying the combat of Ann and Jack, we must also be aware that the Motherly Woman and the Hero are engaged in an archetypal struggle in which first matter is given a new spirit.


  1. Quoted from Max Von Boehn, Dolls and Puppets, trans Josephine Nicoll (London, 1932), p. 5.

  2. I am indebted to Francis Fergusson and his adaptation of Aristotle's terms, “action” and “soul.” However, Fergusson states in The Idea of a Theater (New York, 1953), p. 195, that Shaw's drama is an example of the “partial perspectives” of modern theater, that in Shaw “the interest is centered … not on events or narrative sequences … but on the fateless fate and the bodiless force of the emancipated mind itself.” Although the center of interest in the present study is the battle of wills rather than the sequence of events, I hope to prove that there is a unifying, fateful, and corporeal, as well as spiritual, action permeating the dialogue, the characters, and, indirectly, the plot of Man and Superman.

  3. Shaw, Farfetched Fables in Buoyant Billions, Far-Fetched Fables & Shakes Versus Shaw (London, 1950), p. 77.

  4. Shaw's Manichean tendencies led to the gradual abandonment of this dialect of spirit and matter. For a fuller statement on the evolution of this struggle and its meaning in terms of Shaw's “religion” see “Adam and Eve: Evolving Archetypes in Back to Methuselah,The Shaw Review, IV (May, 1961), 12-23, an article I co-authored with Richard Foster.

  5. Man and Superman (London, 1930), p. xxi. Further references to the play and its Preface will be made parenthetically in the text.

  6. The Preface is largely devoted to establishing the qualities of the artist and the mother woman. See particularly pp. xvi-xix.

  7. Arthur Nethercot has devoted Chapters V and VI of his very useful Men and Supermen (Cambridge, 1954) to a careful analysis of the Shavian male and female and of their conflicting purposes.

  8. Archibald Henderson reports that Charles Laughton explained to him that in staging the “Interlude” he had in mind the Greek stage—the bare faces simulating masks and the high stools, the “cothurni.” Henderson continues, “I suggested to Laughton that he had not gone far enough. Here was the puppet play ‘par excellence’ in contemporary guise.” George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century (New York, 1956), p. 402.

  9. Harley Granville-Barker, On Poetry in Drama: The Romanes Lectures Delivered in the Taylor Institution, 4 June 1937 (London, 1937), pp. 30-31.

  10. Shaw, “Play of Ideas,” New Statesman and Nation, XXXIX (May 6, 1950), 510-511.

  11. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw (London, 1935), p. 211.

  12. “Some Unpublished Letters of George Bernard Shaw,” ed. Julian Park, The University of Buffalo Studies, XVI (1930), 127.

  13. George Santayana, “Dickens,” Essays in Literary Criticism of George Santayana, ed. Irving Singer (New York, 1956), p. 212.

    Archibald Henderson reports Shaw as declaring: “I find that the surest way to startle the world with daring innovations and originalities is to do exactly what playwrights have been doing for thousands of years; to revive the ancient attraction of long rhetorical speeches; to stick closely to the methods of Molière; and to lift characters bodily out of the pages of Charles Dickens.” Is Bernard Shaw a Dramatist? A Scientific, but Imaginary Symposium in the Neo-Socratic Manner (New York, 1929), pp. 21-22.

  14. Thus in his play Too True to Be Good (1932) Shaw can describe his characters as having “something fantastic about them, something unreal and perverse, something profoundly unsatisfactory. They are too absurd to be believed; yet they are not fictions; the newspapers are full of them.” Too True to Be Good, Village Wooing & On the Rocks (London, 1949), pp. 105-106.

  15. Chesterton, p. 212.

  16. Shaw, “Preface” in Lillah McCarthy, Myself and My Friends (London, 1933), p. 3.

  17. See Footnote 9.

  18. T. S. Eliot writes that “prose on the stage, is as artificial as verse. … Our two greatest prose stylists in the drama … are, I believe, Congreve and Bernard Shaw. A speech by a character of Congreve or Shaw has—however clearly the character may be differentiated—that unmistakable personal rhythm which is the mark of a prose style.” “Poetry and Drama,” On Poetry and Poets (New York, 1957), p. 76.

  19. Dixon Scott, “The Innocence of Bernard Shaw,” George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey, ed. Louis Kronenberger (Cleveland, 1953), p. 87.

  20. Vincent Sheean observes in his article, “My Last Visit with Shaw,” Atlantic Monthly, CLXXXVII (January, 1951), 20-21: “Actors have told me that his [Shaw's] lines are easy to memorize, in spite of their length, because of the inner connections between them: the progressions have inevitability. What is more, the lines have cadence, and if an actor leaves out a word or substitutes another the cadence is as much destroyed as it would be in Shakespeare.”

Michael Solomonson (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Solomonson, Michael. “Man and Superman: The Shavianizing of Friedrich Nietzsche.” Independent Shavian 34, no. 3 (1996): 54-59.

[In the following essay, Solomonson investigates the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy on Man and Superman.]

Scholars often suggest a link between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and that of Bernard Shaw. In particular, Shaw's Man and Superman is cited as an example of Nietzsche's influence upon the playwright. In his preface to the play, Shaw identified Nietzsche as being “among the writers whose peculiar sense of the world I recognize as more or less akin to my own” (Prefaces 162). Shaw further admitted in the preface to Major Barbara that the term “Superman” (“Übermensch”) was “borrowed by me from Nietzsche (Prefaces 117). Perhaps because of these admissions, critics and scholars examining Shaw's career have often focused on the perceived intellectual and philosophical ties binding the men. While Shaw's awareness of Nietzsche is indisputable, the role that the German philosopher played in Shaw's artistic creations not has not been fully explored.

The scholarly view that Nietzsche heavily influenced Shaw's creation of Man and Superman has been widely accepted. Nicholas Grene, for example, wrote: “Nietzsche takes over where Schopenhauer leaves off in the ideological structure of Man and Superman. If the English language owes the word ‘superman’ to Shaw, Shaw owed the concept to Nietzsche (Bloom 128). Certainly there have been scholars who have questioned Shaw's indebtedness to Nietzsche. Nonetheless, the popular assumption has remained that because Shaw sometimes used the philosopher's theories in his work, the playwright was a devotee of Nietzsche. However, a careful examination of Shaw's writings indicates, at best, a grudging acceptance of portions of Nietzsche's philosophy. David S. Thatcher, in fact, wrote that for Shaw, “Nietzsche is mainly used to dress out a philosophy derived from other writers—Ibsen, Wagner, Bergson” (217).

Furthermore, it becomes apparent that Shaw viewed Nietzsche as derivative of earlier writers and their philosophies. It can be argued that with Man and Superman Shaw begins a critical reevaluation of Nietzsche's theories by molding his own vision of the Superman and of a new world order by reversing Nietzsche's views which edified men while denigrating women. The evidence suggests that this step was sparked by Shaw's desire to assert the superiority of his own intellect and social agenda over that of Nietzsche's.

Shaw's first contact with Nietzsche apparently occurred in the 1890s. In an 1894 diary entry Shaw notes that Miss Borchardt, a German mathematician, read his Quintessence of Ibsenism and claimed that Shaw must have been influenced by Nietzsche's Jenseits von Gut und Bose. Shaw balked at this contention by writing, “I protest I had never seen [it], and could not have read [it] with any comfort, for want of the necessary German, if I had seen it” (S. Weintraub 1009). In a footnote to the 1912 edition of his work on Ibsen, Shaw claimed that his reaction was “not with the ridiculous object of vindicating my ‘originality’” (Whitman 128). While this claim may be true, additional evidence suggests Shaw was quite aware of the attention and acclaim Nietzsche was receiving.

In late 1902, during the time period when he was working on Man and Superman, Shaw asserted in a letter to Siegfried Trebitsch how he wanted Germans to view him. Shaw wrote: “I want the Germans to know me as a philosopher, as an English (or Irish) Nietzsche (only ten times cleverer), and not as a mere carpenter of farces like Helden and nursery plays like Candida” (Laurence 298). Even if the above quotation was delivered with a humorous touch, it indicates not only a powerful egocentric force in Shaw's personality, but a wish to be seen as a greater philosopher them Nietzsche.

Although Shaw admitted to borrowing the idea of the Superman for his play, he was careful to subtly distance the concept from Nietzsche. In the Revolutionists' Handbook, where Shaw uses Jack Tanner as a “spokesman” for his “economic and biological criticism” (Crompton 80), it is claimed that “The cry for the Superman did not begin with Nietzsche, nor will it end with his vogue” (Prefaces 168). In that brief statement, not only does Shaw attempt to divorce Nietzsche's originality for articulating the Superman from the concept itself, but he also hints through the use of the word “vogue” that Nietzsche was a popular fad destined to fade.

The preceding evidence indicates that Shaw, through his various writings, questioned the elevated status accorded Nietzsche, and that he was interested m placing the philosopher m a modified critical context which would reduce the intellectual acclaim he enjoyed. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Shaw would manipulate one of Nietzsche's most popular theories, that of the Superman, and dramatically invert it for his own social and political agenda.

In what can be seen as Shaw's attempt at Shavianizing Nietzsche, the Irish playwright attempted to redefine the German's theories surrounding the Superman and women's roles. It makes sense that Shaw would focus on these issues, particularly as it relates to women, because the two men differed most strikingly in their views regarding women's position in society.

Labeling any thinker who might conceive of “equal rights, equal education, equal claims and obligations” for women as dangerously “shallow,” Nietzsche also wrote in Woman De-feminized that women should be viewed “as property that can be locked, as something predestined for service and achieving her perfection in that” (Roszak 6-7). Conversely, Shaw was aware and outspoken about how social institutions and societal customs were oppressive to women's well-being. He wrote, “Men are waking up to the perception that in killing women's souls they have killed their own” (Prefaces 831). Thus, a strong case can be made that Shaw used Man and Superman, in part, as a critique of Nietzsche's philosophy by defining a powerful modern woman in the form of Ann Whitefield, who did not fill the strict, subservient role that Nietzsche envisioned for women.

Nietzsche contended that men would be most fulfilled if they could achieve a condition he described as the “Superman.” He believed that “Our very essence is to create a being higher them ourselves. We must create beyond ourselves. That is the instinct of action and of work” (Ludovici 269).

Hesketh Pearson argues that Shaw articulated his own philosophy in Man and Superman through the following words given to Don Juan: “I can tell you that as long as I can conceive something better them myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it. That is the law of my life” (221). Shaw labeled this desire as the Life Force.

For Nietzsche, the ideal was in the Superman. For Shaw, the essence of the Superman was embodied in the Life Force. While these concepts can be seen as similar, the two philosophers sharply differed in their views concerning the contribution women could make in creating the Superman. Nietzsche acknowledged that women had the power to use the “force of the will” and “that the most influential women of the world … owed their power and ascendancy over men to the force of their will” (Roszak 9). However, the philosopher certainly viewed this as the unacceptable exception to the rule of male privilege. Clearly believing in the inferiority of women, Nietzsche also proposed fear of men as a feminine necessity. He wrote that “the woman who ‘unlearns fear’ surrenders her most womanly instincts” (Roszak 7). Nietzsche apparently feared women's will, while Shaw welcomed it.

In the created world of Man and Superman Shaw introduces fear, but this time it is the man, Tanner, who battles an inner terror. The frightened Tanner flees from the steady pursuit initiated by Ann who confidently exerts her independent will. Sally Peters Vogt has observed, “Nietzsche's simplistic avowal that ‘everything in women hath a solution—it is called pregnancy,’ however, is modified by Shaw's Schopenhauerian belief in will” (R. Weintraub 53). Ann's will, according to Barbara Bellow Watson, is centered around something more noble “than her own pleasure, either the pleasure of physical sensations or the vanity which is so large a sexual motive” (63). Instead, her desire is for a father who can sire the Superman (Watson 63), the first step towards truly empowering humanity. Furthermore, Thatcher asserts that Shaw “differs from Nietzsche in his reasons why a superman should be bred” (199). Shaw's purpose is poetically motivated, the desire for an invigorated form of socialism (Thatcher 199).

By acknowledging that women have a role in contributing to the social advancement of humanity, Shaw was at odds with Nietzsche's misogynistic views. Shaw's ennoblement of women, through Ann, and his redefining of the “Superman” concept can be seen as a critical reassessment by the playwright of at least this portion of Nietzsche's philosophy. Perhaps the notion that Shaw would be so bold as to attempt a reevaluation of Nietzsche partially explains why so few people have credited Shaw with such a dramatic reinterpretation. The fact that Shaw's play was so far afield of the German's ideas has been explained in various ways. Harold Bloom, for instance, simply charges Shaw with being “a bad Nietzschean, who has misread rather weakly the sage of Zarathustra” (2).

When critics and scholars largely failed to recognize Shaw's attempt at criticism and further attempted to link the two men intellectually, Shaw responded with more pointed, deflating assessments of Nietzsche. In his public writings after Man and Superman, the playwright continued to articulate a critical reevaluation of Nietzsche by suggesting that he was derivative of earlier literary and philosophical figures.

It is interesting to note that in 1905, when Shaw wrote the preface to Major Barbara, he mentioned Nietzsche more times than he ever did in his preface to Man and Superman. Perhaps not surprisingly, the references to Nietzsche were almost all tinged with an air of intellectual dismissal. After admitting his borrowing of the term “Superman” from Nietzsche, Shaw wrote: “But even the less recklessly superficial critics seem to believe that the modern objection to Christianity as a pernicious slave-morality was first put forward by Nietzsche. It was familiar to me before I ever heard of Nietzsche.” (Prefaces 117) Identifying Stuart-Glennie as the originator of the concept, Shaw added: “Here was the slave-morality view formulated by a Scotch philosopher of my acquaintance long before we all began chattering about Nietzsche” (Prefaces 118) The word “chattering” obviously carries a dubious connotation.

In outlining a motif in Major Barbara, Shaw was careful to note that his dramatic idea was not “borrowed from Nietzsche or from any man born beyond the Channel” (Prefaces 122) Seeming almost petulant that Samuel Butler was not identified as the source, Shaw bemoamed: “I am met with nothing but vague cacklings about Ibsen and Nietzsche, and am only too thankful they are not about Alfred de Musset and Georges Sand (Prefaces 123).

Writing about Bizet's Carmen in the preface to The Irrational Knot, Shaw found another occasion to subtly attack Nietzsche while inferring his own personal superiority. He wrote, “Not that Bizet's music could infatuate me as it infatuated Nietzsche. Nursed on greater masters, I thought less of him than he deserved. … (Prefaces 681).

Years later, in 1921, Shaw continued his effort at critically reevaluating Nietzsche's intellectual status. In the preface to Back to Methuselah, Shaw pointed out the unoriginality of Nietzsche's views by writing: “Thus Nietzsche, by the two or three who had come across his writings, was supposed to have been the first man to whom it occurred that mere mortality and legality and urbanity lead nowhere, as if Bunyan had never written Badman (Prefaces 501). This link between Bunyan and Nietzsche had also been made in the earlier preface to Major Barbara (Prefaces 164).

The evidence clearly suggests that Shaw was actually one of the early voices calling for a critical reexamination of Nietzsche's elevation as an original thinker. Shaw's writings and his manipulation of Nietzschean ideas, as demonstrated in Man and Superman, further indicate his interest in debunking the idolization of the philosopher and his views. By doing so, he attempted to put Nietzsche in a revised critical context while also calling attention to his own strongly held feminist and socialist agenda.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold., ed. George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Crompton, Louis. Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Woman De-feminized.” Masculine/Feminine: Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women. Eds. Betty and Theodore Roszak. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969.

———. The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Anthony M. Ludovici. Ed. Dr. Oscar Levy. Vol. 16. New York: Gordon Press, 1974.

Pearson, Hesketh. George Bernard Shaw, His Life and Personality. New York: Atheneum, 1963.

Shaw, Bernard. The Complete Prefaces of Bernard Shaw. London: Paul Hamlyn, LTD, 1965.

———. Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters 1898-1910. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. London: Max Reinhardt LTD, 1972.

———. Bernard Shaw: The Diaries 1885-1897. Volume II. Ed. Stanley Weintraub. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1986.

Thatcher, David S. Nietzsche in England 1890-1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

Watson, Barbara Bellow. A Shavian Guide to the Intelligent Woman. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1964,

Weintraub Rodelle, ed. Fabian Feminist: Bernard Shaw and Woman. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1977.

Whitman, Robert F. Shaw and the Play of Ideas. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

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