Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899
Frequently the subtitles of George Bernard Shaw’s plays are just as informative and clever as the prefaces. Certainly they are always more to the point. Such is the case with Heartbreak House (1913-1919), which is subtitled A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes; Fanny’s First Play, an Easy Play for a Little Theatre (1911), and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, A True History That Never Happened (1939). So, too, with Man and Superman, which is subtitled simply but significantly, A Comedy and a Philosophy. For Man and Superman, though it was written early in Shaw’s career, represents the culmination of Shaw’s theory that the drama is but a device for getting the public to listen to philosophy—social, political, economic, or Shavian. With the possible exception of Back to Methuselah (1921), Man and Superman is Shaw’s most philosophical play.
In its simplest terms, the philosophical meaning of the play is that in the war between the genders, Woman always emerges conqueror (even if Man, her antagonist, is a Superman) and that in a battle between instinct and intelligence, instinct always wins. To develop this theme, Shaw claimed to have written a philosophical interpretation of the Don Juan story, which means that Don Juan is reincarnated as a Shavian hero in England at the turn of the century. The closest resemblance between Shaw’s hero and the libertine celebrated in music and literature lies in their names: John Tanner, Don Juan Tenorio. Any other similarity is purely coincidental, for Shaw transformed literature’s most notorious libertine into a man of moral passion, a Nietzschean Superman who lives a life of pure reason in defiance of the traditions of organized society.
As a Shavian hero, Tanner is impeccably moral, even chaste. The philosophical meaning of the play arises from the fact that Tanner, representing the good man, is unsuccessful in defending his chastity. Pitted against a scheming woman who embodies the sexual, maternal drive, Tanner is forced to surrender his control of sexual instinct. He capitulates and marries. In effect, he commits moral suicide by succumbing to conventionality.
On one level, this theme is worked out in a contrived, almost trivial but nevertheless hilarious plot. On another, more esoteric, level, the philosophical implications of the theme are developed. Tanner has a dream—a play within the play—which turns out to be no less than a Platonic dialogue: “Don Juan in Hell.” In this scene, four of the principals are reembodied as historical or mythical personages and are universalized as moral forces. Tanner appears as Don Juan, the man of moral passion; Ann as Doña Ana de Ulloa, the eternal maternal female; Ramsden as Don Gonzalo, the man of pleasure; and Mendoza (leader of the bandits) as the Devil. These four engage in a debate that Don Juan, speaking for Shaw, monopolizes with a series of lengthy monologues. Herein the theme of the play is recapitulated in abstract but certain terms. The subject is Man.
The end of Man, Don Juan argues, is the cultivation of intellect, for only by exercising it dispassionately can Man discover his purpose, and discovering it, fulfill it. Therefore, the good Man, the Man of moral passion, will eschew anything that subverts the life of reason. Woman, however, will not be eschewed, and it is Woman, with her relentless desire to propagate, and marriage, the instrument by which she domesticates, that undermine Man. If Man surrenders to Woman, he is doomed.
The conclusion of the play is in that sense a gloomy one. By marrying Ann, Tanner admits that Woman, bolstered by the “Life Force,” is bound to triumph; that Man, even Superman, is bound to abandon the pursuit of his own goal to serve Woman in her goal of perpetuating the race. Despite the ending and the verbose dream play, the prevailing tone of the play is comic and light. Above all, the drama, despite its philosophy, is eminently playable, principally because Shaw succeeded in making his characters gloriously human and therefore funny. Tanner, for example, is intensely moral, but he is fallible, even a bit ridiculous, and Ann delights in puncturing his eloquent utterances with the charge of political aspiration. Ann herself is as engaging a heroine as any in Shaw’s plays. An incorrigible liar, an inveterate hypocrite, she is nevertheless thoroughly charming.
The minor characters were invented to fit into the thematic framework of the drama, but they, too, contribute to the fun. Both Ramsden and Mrs. Whitefield represent the authority of the old order that Tanner is trying to overthrow; both, however, have distinctly comic personalities. Octavius, who believes that a man’s duty lies in protecting the so-called weaker sex, serves primarily as a foil to Tanner and provides many laughs as a lovesick youth. Mendoza, the bandit, Straker, the impudent chauffeur, and Malone, the senile American millionaire, figure in Shaw’s design and provide a balance to the underlying seriousness of that design.
Considered as a whole, with the “Epistle Dedicatory,” which serves as a preface, and “The Revolutionary’s Handbook,” which is an appendix of sorts, Man and Superman is one of Shaw’s most important plays. It is neither Shaw’s masterpiece nor his best play, being too obviously a piece of propaganda, but it is central to Shaw’s philosophy, and philosophy is always central to Shaw’s plays.