Places Discussed

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Ramsden’s office

Ramsden’s office. London workplace in which Jack Tanner works. As a bastion of ossified conservatism, the office becomes a symbol of Victorian social morality and an arena for Tanner’s ferocious assault on conventional values in act 1. Its stuffy respectability provides an obvious motive for Ann Whitefield’s display of her determination to subvert convention in pursuit of her aims.

Whitefield house

Whitefield house. Suburban home in Richmond, near London, used for an outdoor setting in act 2, that establishes the importance of the automobile for subsequent action and introduces the pragmatic outlook of the modern technological man, Henry Straker.

*Sierra Nevada

*Sierra Nevada. Spanish mountain range in which Mendoza’s comic opera bandits hide out in act 3. It evokes the atmosphere of Spain’s cultural Golden Age and inspires the “Don Juan in Hell” dream sequence, embodying Tanner’s vision of a philosophical Don Juan.


Hell. Act 3 is set either in an empty void in Hell or on Hell’s border. This austere setting presents Shaw’s new version of Hell, a forum for elegant philosophical debate by bodiless spirits outside of time.


*Granada. Province in southern Spain, where act 4 is set in the garden of a villa within sight of the famous Alhambra ruins of early Moorish occupation. Granada’s exotic ambience seems to inspire the emotional power of scenes that reveal the truth about Violet’s secret marriage and present the dramatic climax of Ann’s protracted pursuit of Tanner. The aura of Moorish Spain makes the passionate conflict of Ann and Tanner’s final scene, counterpointed by Shavian comedy, more credible.

Historical Context

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Women’s Suffrage Movement
In 1889, Shaw considered running for public office as a Liberal candidate. His platform would include ‘‘suffrage for women in exactly the same terms as men.’’ During Shaw’s life, women discovered that they could earn an independent living. The next logical step was to demand the right to vote. Women in Britain had been fighting for the vote and the right to own property since 1875. Shaw’s circle of friends included renowned suffragettes such as Emily Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, who endured multiple imprisonments and force-feedings— tube-feedings to prevent them from dying (as a result of the hunger strikes they would pursue) and thus becoming martyrs—in their mission to liberate women.

Shaw supported the suffrage movement and spoke out against forcible feeding, which he considered torture. Although he frequently contributed witty editorials to the suffragettes’ cause, however, he felt that women themselves were completely capable of fighting their own battles and that women should not need men’s assistance to procure what was rightfully theirs. Furthermore, although he insisted that ‘‘the denial of any fundamental rights to the person of woman is practically the denial of the Life Everlasting,’’ he so often couched his criticisms in flippant humor that women were not sure he was actually helping their cause. As it was, the cause dwindled by the turn of the century, after the press lost interest in it.

Finally, in 1918, women over the age of thirty were granted the right to vote and to hold positions in the House of Commons. At the same time, the property clause requiring male voters to own property (amounting to ten British pounds) was removed.

Fabian Society
George Bernard Shaw with his two friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb formed the core of the Shaw’s Fabian Society sought to obtain basic human rights through gradual reforms in society as a way to stave off what might otherwise lead inevitably to revolution. The society members took as their mission the simplification of...

(This entire section contains 616 words.)

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their lifestyles, in order to expend their energy in bettering the lives of others.

The Fabian Society was an outgrowth of the Fellowship of the New Life, founded by Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson in 1883 and centered on achieving ethical perfection in order to serve the larger society through promoting socialism. Cambridge fellow Edward Carpenter honed the group’s belief to specifically endorse vegetarianism, hard physical labor, and handspun clothing, in a blatant rejection of the excesses of the Victorian upper classes. The Webbs and Shaw adopted this philosophy, taking the new Victorian work ethic to an extreme: they worked eighteen-hour days gardening, writing, and distributing pamphlets on socialist ideals. They abhorred any form of personal indulgence, from overeating and sex to the wearing of fine clothing. They abstained from eating meat and led celibate, spartan lives.

Besides their social and political mission, the Fabians also supported the arts, and it was under the auspices of the Fabian Society that Shaw presented a series of lectures about the dramatic influence of Henrik Ibsen (Hedda Gabler), whose work he admired and promoted in Britain. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three founding Fabians lived productively until their eighties (nineties in Shaw’s case), and they were still writing prolifically in their seventies. Their purpose in adopting their strict regime of personal hygiene was to subordinate their needs to greater cause of human equality.

Although others periodically joined the group, H. G. Wells (The Time Machine) the most notable among them, it was this trio that held the society together and made its greatest impact on British society. The Fabian Society was revived in 1960 and still serves as a liberal think tank for Britain’s current Labour Party.

Literary Style

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The Idea Play
Typical of nineteenth-century drama was the ‘‘parlor comedy,’’ which had its roots in the ‘‘comedy of manners’’ popularized during the Restoration period (late-seventeenth century). The dominant theme of the comedy of manners was society life, specifically as it related to courtship and marriage. In a comedy of manners, the plot both reflects and satirizes the moral behavior of the characters, who represent ‘‘types’’ of people rather than fully rounded individuals. The parlor comedy moved the action to the parlor, or sitting room, where the characters discussed their predicaments.

Shaw advanced the parlor comedy into the play of ideas. The play of ideas had evolved from Henrik Ibsen’s serious parlor dramas, where characters discussed deep moral or social crises. There was more talk than action in Ibsen’s work, and Shaw adapted the ‘‘talking’’ play into a dramatized dialogue between conflicting ideas instead of characters. Whereas Ibsen’s plays put realistic characters into a parlor to discuss at some length their conflict with antagonists, Shaw loads the dialogue with philosophical ideas voiced by ‘‘types’’ who discuss ideas at great length. In an idea play, it is not the action or the characters but the ideas that take center stage.

Compare and Contrast

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1903: In Britain, women suffragettes take to the streets in protest marches. They also publish feminist newspapers in an effort to obtain the right to vote.

Today: As of 1928, all British citizens over the age of twenty-one may vote and hold public office. Although inequalities still exist, women hold equal legal rights with men.

1903: Socialism is a new political ideology fast gaining support from intellectuals throughout Europe. Shaw’s Fabian Society promotes it as the solution to Britain’s social inequalities. In its infancy, socialism promotes a communistic economic model.

Today: Socialists have strong organizations in Britain and Europe and still strive for worker rights and social equality. The economic model has shifted to contain elements of capitalism.

Media Adaptations

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The classic version of the Don Juan in Hell segment of Act III was recorded in the 1950s by actors Charles Laughton, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Boyer, and Agnes Moorehead for Columbia; it is available on audio tape.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Evans, T. F. George Bernard Shaw: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1997.

Kronenberger, Louis. George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey, World Publishing, 1953.

Further Reading
Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw, Methuen, 1967. A leading drama critic looks at Shaw’s drama from the perspective of his political and social ideas and the impact he has had on the theater.

Berst, Charles A. Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama, University of Illinois Press, 1973. A close analysis of Shaw’s major plays.

Brecht, Bertolt. ‘‘Ovation for Shaw’’ in Modern Drama, translated by Gerhard H. W. Zuther, Vol. 2, no. 2, 1959, pp. 184-87. Brecht, the author of such plays as Mother Courage and Her Children and a fellow innovative playwright and social reformer, praises Shaw’s art.

Dukore, Bernard F. Bernard Shaw, Playwright, University of Missouri Press, 1973. Dukore praises Shaw as a watershed playwright of the twentieth century.

Hardwick, Michael, and Mollie Hardwick. The Bernard Shaw Companion, John Murray, 1997. Contains summaries of the plays and a brief biography of Shaw.

Hill, Eldon C. George Bernard Shaw, Twayne, 1978. A monograph on Shaw and his plays, part of the Twayne writers series.

Holroyd, Michael. The Genius of Shaw, Hodder and Stoughton, 1979. A biographical study of Shaw’s life and times, including pictures of many of his associates and early productions.

Innes, Christopher. The Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw, Cambridge University Press, 1998. Recent essays on Shaw and feminism, his dramatic structure, and his influence on the theater.

Kaye, Julian B. Bernard Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Tradition, University of Oklahoma Press, 1955. Describes the legacy of eighteenth-century ideas of sociology and the socialist agenda of the nineteenth century and Shaw’s place in this world of ideas.

MacCarthy, Desmond. Shaw, MacGibbon and Kee, 1951. In this biography, an esteemed drama critic evaluates Shaw’s social agenda as it appears in his plays.

Meisel, Martin. Shaw and the Nineteenth-Century Theater, Princeton University Press, 1963. Shaw is assessed in relation to the conventions of nineteenth-century popular theater.

Weintraub, Stanley. ‘‘Bernard Shaw’’ in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 6: Modern Writers, 1914-1945, Gale, 1992, pp. 348-68. Weintraub surveys Shaw’s personal life and his work, focussing on his creation of the play of ideas.

Weintraub, Stanley. The Unexpected Shaw: Biographical Approaches to G. B. S. and His Work, Ungar, 1982. Weintraub makes connections between Shaw’s personal life and his work, including a chapter on the influence of certain paintings on Shaw.

Whitman, Robert F. Shaw and the Play of Ideas, Cornell University Press, 1977. Examines Shaw as a proselytizer of philosophical, social, and religious ideas.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide