Ideological Contradictions in Shaw's Play and in His Nature.

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1552

Shaw’s Man and Superman holds a myriad of comic inversions, from the role reversal in which Peter O’Toole in a scene from a Haymarket Theatre production of Shaw’s play the woman pursues the man, to the satiric switching of heaven and hell. His inversions confuse even the play’s characters, whose conventional responses to unconventional situations make up the comedy of his play, while the underlying truths expressed by the inversions make up its philosophical content. For example, Ana, having recently arrived in Hell, finds it a delightful paradise, and she cannot wait to get into Heaven, since to her mind, ‘‘if Hell be so beautiful as this, how glorious must Heaven be!’’

Don Juan, the Devil, and her deceased father, the Commander, protest: they too once shared her delusion, but they now know the truth. Don Juan is in Hell, where one would expect him to be after having killed the Commander. Having led a life of sin, Don Juan might well look forward to reveling in Hell, but in fact he cannot stand it. However, his reasons reveal an inversion in Shaw’s structuring of heaven and hell. Don Juan’s problem is not that heaven and hell are switched, but that what he expected from each is also switched. Hell is the Heaven of earthly imagination—but it is based on misguided imagination. Thus Shaw’s inversions occur on multiple and intersecting planes.

Hell is a beautiful paradise (a commonplace inversion) that is hellish in its tedium (not an inversion) and the tedium consists of the continuation of earthly hopes and dreams (the key inversion). The latter inversion proves to be the most perverse and is one of the cornerstones of the philosophy Shaw explores in this play. In Shaw’s Hell, the Devil is an earnest fellow, not an evil being. But his rather unexpected plea for sincerity and warmth make Don Juan ill. At the same time, the Commander, a good and kindly man, has gone to heaven as he might have expected. But because Heaven too is inverted, he finds it a place of boring contemplation, full of hypocrites. Don Juan wants to go to Heaven to contemplate reality, while the Commander wants to escape this ‘‘most angelically dull place in all creation.’’

Further inversions occur in the Devil’s perception of humankind. The Devil abhors (rather than revels in) humanity’s obsession with Death and deadly inventions, from the rack and gallows to patriotism and other ‘‘isms’’ that insidiously encourage destruction in their name.

With so many inversions competing for attention, Shaw is not able to avoid certain logical contradictions. For example, Hell is Hellish to someone like Don Juan partly because of the Devil’s longing for ‘‘love, happiness, and beauty.’’ Rather than feeling inferior to God’s creation, the Devil claims to have created Hell as a haven away from Heaven’s hypocrisy. Such fatuousness nausates Don Juan, who finds soul-searching hypocritical, although he himself wants to abide in Heaven where he can contemplate reality. He’ll find only hypocrisy in Heaven, according to the Commander, who leaves Heaven ‘‘forever,’’ having recently converted from hypocrisy himself.

According to the Commander, the truly blessed go to Hell. Meanwhile, the Devil finds offense in Dona Ana’s preference for Heaven’s brand of hypocrisy over his. In other words, both places harbor hypocrites as well as enlightened individuals who seek the reality they left behind on earth. Such contradictions led critics such as Bertrand Russell to declare Shaw ‘‘more bounder than genius’’ because the logic of his philosophy did not make sense.

Shaw’s penchant for turning things upside down extended to real life as well as the...

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closed fictional world of the stage and again inherent contradictions caused him difficulties. His almost perverse tendency towards opposing conventional thought rankled the suffragettes he tried to help when he suggested that the women’s voting rights movement should, by definition, not need to enlist the support of men. He told his sister Lucy that women were better off speaking for themselves than making use of men’s entreaties. He wrote several essays in their support, but then, treating women as he did men, he ridiculed them for their voting follies once they were empowered. As he was quoted inThe Genius of Shaw:

Only the other day the admission of women to the electorate, for which women fought and died, was expected to raise politics to a nobler plane and purify public life. But at the election which followed, the women voted for hanging the Kaiser; rallied hysterically round the worst male candidates; threw out all the women candidates of tried ability, integrity, and devotion; and elected just one titled lady of great wealth and singular demagogic fascination, who, though she justified their choice subsequently, was then a beginner. In short, the notion that the female vote is more politically intelligent or gentler than the male voter proved as great a delusion as the earlier delusions that the business man was any wiser politically than the country gentleman, or the manual worker than the middle class man.

Shaw compares his disappointment in women voters with his disappointment in businessmen and manual workers. Even though common sense would predict that novice voters would necessarily lack political sophistication, Shaw derides women for it. He glosses over the fact that having never had the vote, they need time to get used to their new responsibility. It is as though, as a way of chiding others to live up to his ideals, Shaw stubbornly refuses to see things as they are but as they should be. At the same time, because he sets himself up as a critic and judge, he fails to attend to his own logical inconsistencies.

Shaw comes by his inversions naturally: born a Protestant in the Catholic city of Dublin, Ireland, he was never to enjoy either acceptance or shared values with his peers at school or at play. His religious and cultural otherness led him to experience painful isolation within a teeming city. He wrote of his year-long stint at a mostly Catholic school in a piece entitled ‘‘Shame and Wounded Snobbery,’’ applying the phrase often applied to Hell and which he reiterates in Man and Superman: ‘‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here.’’

As a strategy for survival, Shaw eschewed relations with the lower class Catholic boys and instead ‘‘was a superior being, and in the play hour did not play, but walked up and down with the teachers in their promenade.’’ Meanwhile, because of the ‘‘downstart’’ nature of his family’s fortunes, he was also shunned by the more affluent Protestant middle-class boys of the neighborhood. If his outsider status trained his eye for social injustice, it also gave him the time and inclination to train his wit for imaginary reversals of fortune. Doubly shunned, he became doubly aloof, feeling philosophically and economically superior to his Catholic peers even though seen by them as socially inferior.

His memories of this period of his life so haunted him that he said ‘‘when ghosts rise up from that period I want to lay them again with a poker.’’ He took his escape route into fantasy, creating an internal world where he righted the wrongs around him. What may have begun as playful imagining, became an ingrained habit of mind. In the preface to his long autobiographical essay Immaturity, he explains the creation of his G. B. S. persona as a derivative of his escape into fantasy:

Whether I was born mad or a little too sane, my kingdom was not of this world: I was at home only in the realm of my imagination, and at my ease only with the mighty dead. Therefore I had to become an actor, and create for myself a fantastic personality fit and apt for dealing with men . . . I was outside society, outside politics, outside sports, outside the church. If the term had been invented then I should have been called the Complete Outsider.

Later within that preface Shaw notes that whenever he addressed ‘‘music, painting, literature, or science . . . the positions were reversed’’ and he became ‘‘the Insider.’’ Being an Insider in Shaw’s terms meant being perceived as capable of judging authoritatively, but ironically, this status implies being outside. In other words, essential inversion lies at the very core of Shaw’s personality and in fact serves as a defining characteristic of all that is best in his nature and intellect. Just as he inverted his own self to become an ‘‘Insider,’’ he went about constructing fictional worlds that he could breath into life on the stage. Worlds where his upsidedown logic could flourish. An Outsider is at heart a critic who serves the world that rejects him by rejecting that which is offensive in the world.

In Man and Superman, Shaw applies his inversions to no smaller a target than Humankind and its most important dreams and delusions: the relations between man and woman, the purpose of life, and the structure of the hereafter. In so doing, he chides his fellow humans to reconsider the structures of the mind that delude them, and he builds a bridge, albeit shaky and tentative, between his world and theirs.

Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Don Bernardo in Hell

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208

The heroine of ‘‘Man and Superman,’’ Ann Whitefield, is one of Shaw’s strong-minded women. Like Candida, Barbara Undershaft, and Vivie Warren, she knows the world and what she wants out of life. But Ann isn’t as immediately likable as Candida, Barbara, and Vivie; she lacks their forthrightness and their gift for argument. Where Barbara and Candida can hold their own with fathers, suitors, and husbands, Ann comments on speech instead of engaging in it, and she manages people— particularly men—instead of trying to reason with them. She’s forever getting caught out in some manipulative lie—usually by Jack Tanner, the selfstyled radical who seems so anxious to escape her machinations. It’s an undignified position for a young woman to put herself in, and one can easily see that Ann Whitefield might offend modern female sensibilities—especially since Jack’s main attraction for Ann seems to lie in the regularity with which he insults and abuses her.

‘‘Man and Superman’’ is Shaw’s great treatise on sex, morality, and the war between men and women. Written between 1901 and 1903, it was both his answer to the conventional romantic comedy and a response to the joking suggestion, made some years earlier by the London Times critic Arthur Bingham Walkley, that he attempt a play about Don Juan. Shaw’s modern ‘‘libertine’’ is a man who runs from Woman instead of pursuing her and who outrages not her person or her honor but the tenets of conventional morality. Shaw referred to the long dream sequence in Act III, in which Tanner falls asleep and imagines a conversation, in Hell, between the Devil and the characters in Mozart’s opera, as a ‘‘pleasantry’’ and ‘‘a totally extraneous act.’’ But the play is full of lines that look yearningly forward—or hauntingly back—to the dream sequence: ‘‘Octavius, it’s the common lot. We must all face it some day,’’ ‘‘A lifetime of happiness! It would be hell on earth,’’ ‘‘I’ll call you after your famous ancestor Don Juan,’’ ‘‘That’s the devilish side of a woman’s fascination,’’ ‘‘There is a rascal in our midst, a libertine,’’ ‘‘When you go to heaven, Ann . . .’’ And, finally, in Act IV, Tanner’s ‘‘When did all this happen to me before? Are we two dreaming?’’ Whatever Shaw thought (or said he thought), ‘‘Don Juan in Hell’’ contains the key both to Tanner’s essential character as an idealist and to the nature of his attraction for women.

The latest revival of ‘‘Man and Superman,’’ at the Roundabout Theatre, does not include ‘‘Don Juan in Hell.’’ Instead, the production (which excises Act III entirely and renumbers Act IV as Act III) teases the audience with snippets of Mozart. (In Act II, Tanner’s chauffeur, Henry Straker, keeps whistling the opening bars of ‘‘Là ci darem la mano,’’ from ‘‘Don Giovanni.’’) The revival is standard Roundabout Theatre fare: it contains execrable performances by David Birney and Frances Conroy as Jack Tanner and Ann Whitefield and glorious performances in nearly all the secondary roles—Straker (Anthony Fusco), Taw (Michael Cumpsty), the American Hector Malone (Jonathan Walker), his father (John Carpenter). Kim Hunter proves a charming Mrs. Whitefield once she gets going, and of the supporting parts only Tavy’s sister Violet is overplayed (by Harriet Harris).

It’s typical of New York Shaw that secondary roles are played to perfection and leading roles to no purpose whatever. In recent seasons, what might have been first-rate productions of ‘‘Arms and the Man,’’ ‘‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession,’’ and ‘‘You Never Can Tell’’ were marred by the performances of such leading ladies as Glenne Headly, Uta Hagen, and Amanda Plummer. (The Pearl Theatre Company’s recent revival of ‘‘Candida’’ was an exception, held together, as it was, by Rose Stockton’s performance in the title role.) What’s unusual about the production at the Roundabout is the degree of difference between the levels of performance: Mr. Cumpsty and Mr. Fusco are so deft, Mr. Birney and Miss Conroy so inept that the credit for good performances must clearly go to the actors rather than to their director, William Woodman. Mr. Birney’s characterization is lodged entirely in the sort of mannerisms that Shaw worked so hard to abolish from the nineteenth-century stage: in putting his hands in his waistcoat pockets, scratching his nose, pulling his ear, brushing his forehead, and striking attractive poses against convenient pieces of furniture.

Miss Conroy’s performance, meanwhile, seems motivated wholly by dislike for the character she is playing. She blinks a lot and speaks in a peculiar, repressed fashion (as though her jaws had been wired together) to show what a hypocrite Ann is, and emphasizes Ann’s coquetry by reacting to everything onstage with an affected little moue. She fixes her hair when Tanner’s back is turned. Her portrayal is openly hostile, as though she were anxious to divorce herself from the low, scheming creature that Jack divines Ann (and, by extension, all women) to be. I sympathize with Miss Conroy— I’m not wild about Ann Whitefield myself—but her performance seems dictated by an inability to take in the shape of the play. Even without the ‘‘Don Juan in Hell’’ sequence, ‘‘Man and Superman’’ takes us far beyond Jack Tanner’s inadequate views of ‘‘the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman.’’ It is Ann, after all, who proves to have the clearer vision, while Tanner, for all his intellectual chatter, is a fool.

Shaw was, in his way (as Eric Bentley has repeatedly observed), as subversive as Ibsen and, later, Strindberg when it came to recognizing women’s sexuality. The whole point of ‘‘Man and Superman ’’ is the role reversal in the courting game: here woman is the pursuer, not (as Jack thinks) because she is basically predatory but because there is something she wants. More subversive than any of Jack’s verbal flying in the face of convention is the governing idea behind the play’s dramatic situation: that the man a woman wants to marry is not the one who idealizes her but the one who knows how rotten she can be. What distinguishes Tanner from the crowd of other speechifying Shavian heroes is the pleasure—almost erotic in its intensity—with which we look forward to the moment when he will stop talking.

It’s not impossible to play a character one doesn’t have much sympathy with. Rose Stockton, in the circular issued by the Pearl Theatre Company, stated her basic discomfort with some views about women that Shaw espoused, but that discomfort was not discernible in her portrayal of Candida Morell—though it very well might have been. Similarly, though Michael Cumpsty is clearly aware that Tavy is there to parody conventional idealism, that knowledge doesn’t prevent him from making us care about Tavy. Perhaps in some future dream sequence there will be a meeting place imagined for the Rose Stocktons, the Michael Cumpstys, and the Anthony Fuscos of this world, where, without the distracting influence of commercially minded producers and casting directors, they can all come together and perform Shaw.

Source: Mimi Kramer, ‘‘Don Bernardo in Hell’’ in the New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, no. 49, January 25, 1988, pp. 85–87.

Mr. Shaw's New Dialogues

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2198

Aristotle, often as he sneered at Plato, never called Plato a dramatist, and did not drag the Platonic dialogues into his dramatic criticism. Nor did Plato himself profess to be a dramatist; and it would need a wide stretch of fancy to think of him dedicating one of his works to Aristotle as notable expert in dramatic criticism. On the other hand, here is Mr. Bernard Shaw dedicating his new book to ‘‘my dear Walkley,’’ that pious custodian of the Aristotelian flame, and arguing, with Platonic subtlety, that this new book contains a play. Odd! For to drama Mr. Shaw and Plato stand in almost exactly the same relation. Plato, through anxiety that his work should be read, and his message accepted, so far mortified his strongly Puritan instincts as to give a setting of bright human colour to his abstract thought. He invented men of flesh and blood, to talk for him, and put them against realistic backgrounds. And thus he gained, and still retains, ‘‘a public.’’ Only, his method was fraught with nemesis, and he is generally regarded as a poet—he, who couldn’t abide poets. Essentially, he was no more a poet than he was a dramatist, or than Mr. Shaw is a dramatist. Like him, and unlike Aristotle, for whom the exercise of thought was an end in itself, and who, therefore, did not attempt to bedeck as a decoy the form of his expression, Mr. Shaw is an ardent humanitarian. He wants to save us. So he gilds the pill richly. He does not, indeed, invent men of flesh and blood, to talk for him. There, where Plato succeeded, he fails, I must confess. But he assumes various disguises, and he ventriloquises, and moves against realistic backgrounds. In one direction he goes further than Plato. He weaves more of a story round the interlocutors. Suppose that in the ‘‘Republic,’’ for example, there were ‘‘Socrates (in love with Aspasia),’’ ‘‘Glaucon (in love with Xanthippe),’’ etcetera, and then you have in your mind a very fair equivalent for what Mr. Shaw writes and calls a play. This peculiar article is, of course, not a play at all. It is ‘‘as good as a play’’—infinitely better, to my peculiar taste, than any play I have ever read or seen enacted. But a play it is not. What is a dramatist? Principally, a man who delights in watching, and can portray, the world as it is, and the various conflicts of men and women as they are. Such a man has, besides the joy of sheer contemplation, joy in the technique of his art—how to express everything most precisely and perfectly, most worthily of the splendid theme. He may have a message to deliver. Or he may have none. C’est selon. But the message is never a tyrannous preoccupation. When the creative and the critical faculty exist in one man, the lesser is perforce overshadowed by the greater. Mr. Shaw knows well—how could so keen a critic fail to detect?—that he is a critic, and not a creator at all. But, for the purpose which I have explained, he must needs pretend through Mr. Walkley, who won’t believe, to an innocent public which may believe, that his pen runs away with him. ‘‘Woman projecting herself dramatically by my hands (a process over which I have no control).’’ A touching fib! The only things which Mr. Shaw cannot consciously control in himself are his sense of humour and his sense of reason. ‘‘The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.’’ That is one of many fine and profound aphorisms printed at the end of the book, and written (one suspects) joyously, as a private antidote to the dramatic tomfoolery to which Mr. Shaw had perforce condescended. Well! Mr. Shaw will never be manumitted by Reason. She is as inexorable an owner of him as is Humour, and a less kind owner, in that she does prevent him from seeing the world as it is, while Humour, not preventing him from being quite serious, merely prevents stupid people seeing how serious he is. Mr. Shaw is always trying to prove this or that thesis, and the result is that his characters (so soon as he differentiates them, ever so little, from himself) are the merest diagrams. Having no sense for life, he has, necessarily, no sense for art. It would be strange, indeed, if he could succeed in that on which he is always pouring a very sincere contempt. ‘‘For art’s sake alone,’’ he declares, ‘‘I would not face the toil of writing a single sentence.’’ That is no fib. Take away his moral purpose and his lust for dialectic, and Mr. Shaw would put neither pen to paper nor mouth to meeting, and we should be by so much the duller. But had you taken away from Bunyan or Ibsen or any other of those great artists whom Mr. Shaw, because they had ‘‘something to say,’’ is always throwing so violently at our heads, they would have yet created, from sheer joy in life as it was and in art as it could become through their handling of it. Mr. Shaw, using art merely as a means of making people listen to him, naturally lays hands on the kind that appeals most quickly to the greatest number of people. There is something splendid in the contempt with which he uses as the vehicle for his thesis a conventional love-chase, with motors and comic brigands thrown in. He is as eager to be a popular dramatist and as willing to demean himself in any way that may help him to the goal, as was (say) the late Mr. Pettitt. I hope he will reach the goal. It is only the theatrical managers who stand between him and the offchance of a real popular success. But if these managers cannot be shaken from their obstinate timidity, I hope that Mr. Shaw, realising that the general public is as loth to read plays as to read books of undiluted philosophy, will cease to dabble in an art which he abhors. Let him always, by all means, use the form of dialogue— that form through which, more conveniently than through any other, every side of a subject can be laid bare to our intelligence. It is, moreover, a form of which Mr. Shaw is a master. In swiftness, tenseness and lucidity of dialogue no living writer can touch the hem of Mr. Shaw’s garment. In ‘‘Man and Superman’’ every phrase rings and flashes. Here, though Mr. Shaw will be angry with me, is perfect art. In Mr. Shaw as an essayist I cannot take so whole-hearted a delight. Both in construction and in style his essays seem to me more akin to the art of oral debating than of literary exposition. That is because he trained himself m speak before he trained himself to write. And it is, doubtless, by reason of that same priority that he excels in writing words to be spoken by the human voice or to be read as though they were so spoken.

The name of this play’s hero is John Tanner, corrupted from Don Juan Tenorio, of whom its bearer is supposed to be the lineal descendant and modern equivalent. But here we have merely one of the devices whereby Mr. Shaw seeks to catch the ear that he desires to box. Did not the end justify the means, Mr. Shaw’s natural honesty would have compelled him to christen his hero Joseph or Anthony. For he utterly flouts the possibility of a Don Juan. Gazing out on the world, he beholds a tremendous battle of sex raging. But it is the Sabine ladies who, more muscular than even Rubens made them, are snatching and shouldering away from out the newly-arisen walls the shrieking gentlemen of Rome. It is the fauns who scud coyly, on tremulous hoofs, through the woodland, not daring a backward-glance at rude and dogged nymphs who are gaining on them every moment. Of course, this sight is an hallucination. There are, it is true, women who take the initiative, and men who shrink from following them. There are, and always have been. Such beings are no new discovery, though their existence is stupidly ignored by the average modern dramatist. But they are notable exceptions to the rule of Nature. True, again, that in civilised society marriage is more important and desirable to a woman than to a man. ‘‘All women,’’ said one of Disraeli’s characters, ‘‘ought to be married, and no men.’’ The epigram sums up John Tanner’s attitude towards life even more wittily than anything that has been put into his mouth by Mr. Shaw. John Tanner, pursued and finally bound in matrimony by Miss Ann Whitefield, supplies an excellent motive for a comedy of manners. But to that kind of comedy Mr. Shaw will not stoop—not wittingly, at least. From John Tanner he deduces a general law. For him, John Tanner is Man, and Ann Whitefield is Woman— nothing less. He has fallen into the error—a strange error for a man with his views—of confusing the natural sex-instinct with the desire for marriage. Because women desire marriage more strongly than men, therefore, in his opinion, the sexinstinct is communicated from woman to man. I need not labour the point that this conclusion is opposite to the obvious truth of all ages and all countries. Man is the dominant animal. It was unjust of Nature not to make the two sexes equal. Mr. Shaw hates injustice, and so, partly to redress the balance by robbing Man of conscious superiority, and partly to lull himself into peace of mind, he projects as real that visionary world of flitting fauns and brutal Sabines. Idealist, he insists that things are as they would be if he had his way. His characters come from out his own yearning heart. Only, we can find no corner for them in ours. We can no more be charmed by them than we can believe in them. Ann Whitefield is a minx. John Tanner is a prig. Prig versus Minx, with the gloves off, and Prig floored in every round—there you have Mr. Shaw’s customary formula for drama; and he works it out duly in ‘‘Man and Superman.’’ The main difference between this play and the others is that the minx and the prig are conscious not merely of their intellects, but of ‘‘the Life Force.’’ Of this they regard themselves, with comparative modesty, as the automatic instruments. They are wrong. The Life Force could find no use for them. They are not human enough, not alive enough. That is the main drawback for a dramatist who does not love raw life: he cannot create living human characters.

And yet it is on such characters as John and Ann that Mr. Shaw founds his hopes for the future of humanity. If we are very good, we may be given the Superman. If we are very scientific, and keep a sharp look out on our instincts, and use them just as our intellects shall prescribe, we may produce a race worthy to walk this fair earth. That is the hope with which we are to buoy ourselves up. It is a forlorn one. Man may, in the course of æons, evolve into something better than now he is. But the process will be not less unconscious than long. Reason and instinct have an inveterate habit of cancelling each other. If the world were governed by reason, it would not long be inhabited. Life is a muddle. It seems a brilliant muddle, if you are an optimist; a dull one, if you aren’t; but in neither case can you deny that it is the muddlers who keep it going. The thinkers cannot help it at all. They are detached from ‘‘the Life Force.’’ If they could turn their fellow-creatures into thinkers like themselves, all would be up. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they have not that power. The course of history has often been turned by sentiment, but by thought never. The thinkers are but valuable ornaments. A safe place is assigned to them on the world’s mantelpiece, while humanity basks and blinks stupidly on the hearth, warming itself in the glow of the Life Force.

On that mantelpiece Mr. Shaw deserves a place of honour. He is a very brilliant ornament. And never have his ornamental qualities shone more brightly than in this latest book. Never has he thought more clearly or more wrongly, and never has he displayed better his genius for dialectic, and never has his humour gushed forth in such sudden natural torrents. This is his masterpiece, so far. Treasure it as the most complete expression of the most distinct personality in current literature. Treasure it, too, as a work of specific art, in line with your Plato and Lucian and Landor.

Source: Max Beerbohm, ‘‘Mr. Shaw’s New Dialogues’’ in his Around Theatres, Simon & Schuster, 1954 , pp. 268–72.


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