Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743

Man and Superman was first published in book form in 1903 before being produced on the stage. Shaw published this early play himself, supervising the work closely. He sold just over 2700 copies in Britain. Essayist and critic G. K. Chesterton, as quoted in George Bernard Shaw: The Critical Heritage, considered the book ‘‘fascinating and delightM ful’’ but called his friend Shaw to task for showing little faith in humanity. Likewise, essayist and critic Max Beerbohm, writing in the Saturday Review, found Shaw’s characters flat and priggish, so much so that ‘‘The Life Force could find no use for them.’’

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By the time the play was produced, in May of 1905 at the Royal Court Theatre, many of the prominent drama critics had already read the printed version of the play. The leading critic of the day, E. A. Baughan, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘‘Vaughan’’ in the Daily News, called Shaw an ‘‘anaemic idealist,’’ who might become ‘‘the comedy writer for men and women who have the modern disease of mental and physical anemia.’’ A. B. Walkley, the critic to whom Shaw addresses his dedicatory epistle in the beginning of the printed play, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Shaw’s ‘‘idea-plot’’ interferes with his ‘‘actionplot,’’ such that finds the former ‘‘soon exhausts itself,’’ while the latter is ‘‘a mere parasite of the other.’’

William Archer, a journalist who had helped Shaw get an early job writing art criticism, and who then wrote for the World, expressed distaste for the character of Ann Whitefield, calling her a ‘‘mandevouring monster.’’ Archer suggested that Shaw approached his subject with too broad a brush, painting male-female relationships in such general terms as to lose the realism demanded by theater. In spite of such criticism, the play ran for 176 performances and served as a turning point in Shaw’s career, because the actor who played Jack Tanner, Granville Barker, was a producer who recognized Shaw’s talent and helped him to stage several more plays at his theater over the next few years. The ‘‘Don Juan in Hell’’ scene was not included in this first production but was separately staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1907. The tradition of producing this scene separately has continued.

Critics evaluating Shaw’s career as a whole often point to his lack of feeling, complaining that his plays are ‘‘as dry and flat as a biscuit’’ according to V. S. Pritchett, quoted in George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey. These critics complained that his characters talk so much that the ideas in the idea play get lost in the verbiage. In his early years, however, Shaw had great influence over young minds, as drama critic Eric Bentley asserted in Bernard Shaw, because he questioned ‘‘marriage, the family, education, science, religion, and—above all—capitalism.’’ His mode was to proselytize through discussion, presenting multiple sides of the debate through a dramatized dialectic. He stirred up the beehive and waited for his audience to reorganize their thinking according to higher principles.

That his audiences often simply enjoyed the show and failed to ‘‘get’’ his message was a source of tremendous disappointment for Shaw. He had the reputation of a gadfly or crank, not a profound social reformer. Misunderstood, Shaw created G. B. S. (George Bernard Shaw), an alter ego who would fight arrogantly with the public while Shaw the man shunned publicity. G. B. S. wrote scathing responses to the critics and was taken for a crank. ‘‘Not taking me seriously,’’ G. B. S. announced, ‘‘is the Englishman’s way of refusing to face facts.’’ Even so, by the time he was seventy, Shaw was ‘‘probably the most famous of living writers,’’ according to a New York Times editorial.

As Bentley pointed out, ‘‘Shaw’s career is ‘sounder’ that any merely popular writer’s, for his books have gone on selling indefinitely and his plays have returned to the stage again and again.’’ Looking back, T. S. Eliot, quoted in Discovering Authors, said of him that ‘‘It might have been predicted that what he said then would not seem so subversive or blasphemous now. The public has accepted Mr. Shaw not by recognizing the intelligence of what said then, but by forgetting it; we must not forget that at one time Mr. Shaw was a very unpopular man. He is no longer the gadfly of the commonwealth; but even if he has never been appreciated, it is something that he should be respected.’’

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