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...
(The entire section is 899 words.)