Man and Superman

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

The action begins shortly after the death of Ann Whitefield’s father. She has made certain that one of the two guardians designated for her in his will is John Tanner, a radical writer whose views are essentially Shaw’s. While professing to be the most demure of young women, Ann is a predatory huntress who has set her cap for Tanner and stalks him relentlessly while he talks endlessly. She pursues Tanner across most of Europe, catches him in the Sierra Nevada, and triumphs over him through her irresistible sexual lure, which Shaw prefers to call the “Life Force.”

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The interlude in Hell is a dream vision that Tanner has while captured by bandits. It is a dazzlingly sustained discussion of ideas, with Shaw converting several of his leading characters from the core play into the cast of Mozart’s opera, DON GIOVANNI (1787). Thus John Tanner becomes Don Juan, but an inverted, Shavian hero: His reputation as a heartless libertine is here ill-founded; he protests that he kept running away from women in fear and self-defense, as Tanner ran away from Ann Whitefield. Ann is now Mozart’s Donna Ana, as prudishly pious as Ann was adventurously avant-garde. Roebuck Ramsden, a reactionary foil for Tanner, becomes Ana’s father, “The Statue.” And the genially romantic leader of the Sierra brigands, Mendoza, turns into an equally affable Devil, respectable and democratic.

After a brilliant verbal duel in which Don Juan becomes Shaw’s advocate of evolutionary progress through eugenic breeding, he and Ana repair to Shaw’s Heaven, there to create a “Superman” in the “Life to Come.” The dramatist’s Heaven is a Puritan’s delight, enshrining a “philosophic man” largely superior to the temptations of the flesh and organizing the highest sphere as a celestial workshop. Shaw’s Hell, on the other hand, is the world as we know it, dominated by conventional illusions. Bored by Heaven, Ana’s father prefers the Devil’s companionship and descends to it in exchange for his daughter’s and the Don’s ascension.

Bibliography:

Crompton, Louis. “Man and Superman.” In Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. Discusses the play’s social, philosophical, and historical background. A clear presentation of Shaw’s ideas and their sources in the nineteenth century intellectual tradition.

Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw. 3 vols. New York: Random House, 1988-1991. In the first two volumes of this detailed and indispensable biography—The Search for Love and The Pursuit of Power—Holroyd emphasizes Shaw’s musical structure in the play and shows how Shaw inverts popular conventions as part of his attack on conventional morals.

Nethercot, Arthur H. Men and Supermen: The Shavian Portrait Gallery. 2d ed. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1954. Elaborate treatment of Shaw’s ideas on the superman. Discusses Man and Superman and its underlying philosophy and relates the work to a number of other plays.

Silver, Arnold. “Man and Superman: Erecting a Creed.” In Bernard Shaw: The Darker Side. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1982. Starts with the premise that the play is a fairly standard romantic comedy and relates it to Shaw’s courtship of Charlotte Payne-Townshend at the time he was writing the play.

Wisenthal, J. L. “Man and Superman.” In The Marriage of Contraries: Bernard Shaw’s Middle Plays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Discusses how Shaw presents and ultimately unifies the varying view and philosophies represented by the play’s characters.

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