Man and Superman (George Bernard Shaw)

A first for this blog, I’m reviewing a play. But not any old play, one of the greatest of all time, penned by one of the greatest playwrights. The central question the play explores is the one that confronts every one of us: what is the most important thing I’m going to spend my life’s energies on, given our temporary time on this earth? In the preface to this play, Shaw said: “This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. The only real tragedy in life is being used by personally minded men for purposes you recognize to be base.

Shaw has two distinct classes of follower: there are those who enjoy his vivid characters and humour, and those who idolize him as a revolutionary spiritual force. Each appreciates a different side of Shaw’s character, and each of his plays presents a struggle between his creative instinct and his revolutionary ambitions. His need to play the iconoclast was not limited to his socialism, his vegetarianism, and his contempt for medicine. Shaw was never afraid to adopt unpopular ideas, especially when they were novel and contentious. This work, published in 1903, contains three parts: a “Epistle Dedicatory”; the play itself; and “The Revolutionist’s Handbook”. The first is a letter to the author’s friend, Arthur Bingham Walkley, who had originally suggested that GBS write a play on the subject of Don Juan.

The play proper is in four acts, the third being a long digression from the main action often referred to as “Don Juan in Hell.” Although the characters are other than in the remaining three acts, they are played by the same actors, and this subplot is closely related to the primary action. Nonetheless, this act is sometimes omitted in performance and is occasionally presented as a one-act play in itself. The play starts with a Roebuck Ramsden, a haughty bald intellectual old-timer, sitting in his library. After a while, a very romantic fool called Octavius joins him and professes his love for the girl under his guardianship. John Tanner, a philosopher and political reformer, comes barging in like mad because Ann’s father has granted him her guardianship too. Ramsden and Tanner are now livid over the joint custody, almost getting at each other’s throats. They loathe each other if you haven’t already guessed and the two clearly epitomize the conflict between the old and the new.

The philosophic comedy continues with a car crash, a man’s attempt to run away from marriage, a hold up by generous brigands, a dream about Lucifer and Don Juan having a philosophical debate (two mouthpieces for Shaw’s ideas), a man’s willful descent from aristocracy and a final yielding to the Life Force. And that stands for sex. “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” is an appendix written by John Tanner, the play’s chief protagonist and presumably GBS’s stand-in. It is delightfully idealistic and presents the argument and supporting details for GBS’s own Fabian Socialism. There is a passing nod to Nietzsche’s use of the term “Superman,” but this does not play a big role in GBS’s argument. The “Handbook” is often amusing, and I wonder to what extent it is truly a reflection of GBS’s beliefs and to what extent it is purely fictional. It may be that the author is presenting his own ideas under a patina of humour to make them more palatable to unsympathetic readers. This is a rich work, filled with sparkling funny writing, and containing a substantial core of thought-provoking ideas that deserve extensive pondering and reflection long after the back cover is closed. 🙂



  1. What an erudite review! I certainly need to experience this play soon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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