Daniel J. Leary (essay date February 1963)

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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.

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[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...

(The entire section contains 8234 words.)

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