Friday, April 24, 2015

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

Source of book: I own this

Man and Superman is George Bernard Shaw’s riff on the Don Juan myth, although the title itself references Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch. Both ideas are blended in the play, which itself reads like an amalgam of a satirical romantic comedy and a class on political philosophy.

Shaw himself reminds me a bit of Oscar Wilde, except without Wilde’s light touch. Shaw can be funny, but there is a bit if an edge on the humor, and he occasionally gets heavy handed with his points. Shaw gives a look of “did you get that?” where Wilde would laugh or wink.

Still, there is humor in this play, and Shaw’s social commentary is often right on point for the issues of 21st Century America. The British oligarchy of the early 20th Century has quite a number of parallels with our own system, and the tendency of the wealthy to moralize at the poor certainly continues today.

Shaw was a Fabian socialist, which helps to explain the direction he was going with his philosophising, but the main point of his argument was directed, not at the social system, but in the relationship between men and women.

In Shaw’s view, there are two primary drives that motivate human behavior: the need to eat, and the drive to reproduce and perpetuate the species. Due to some combination of social factors and innate being, these drives were segregated by gender. Men thus concern themselves with the acquisition of wealth, while women concern themselves with making babies. To make all this work socially, then, women must pursue and trap men into marriage, so the species can continue. (Give Shaw a bit of a pass here on the sexism by remembering the era in which he wrote.)

Shaw was inspired to write this play by a request from critic Arthur Bingham Walkley that he write a Don Juan story. In his extended introduction, Shaw lays out the challenge, and confesses that he didn’t follow the traditional version of the story. Don Juan is no longer the predatory pursuer of women but a rebel bearing enmity to the false gods of society. Shaw apologises in advance for his lecturing, which Walkley apparently complained about. “I have a conscience; and conscience is always anxiously explanatory. You on the contrary, feel that a man who discusses his conscience is much like a woman who discusses her modesty.” I’ll admit that I am like Shaw in this way, having “the temperament of a schoolmaster,” as my long and explanatory posts often prove.

The Don Juan character in the play is Jack Tanner. (The name is essentially an Anglicised version of Don Juan’s full name. The names of other characters are likewise drawn from the original.) Tanner is a radical pamphleteer (one of “his” pamphlets is appended to the play) with socialist and anarchist leanings. His flame, Ann (after Donna Anna), has been left property by her father, but the estate is to be managed by two guardians. One of these is Tanner, while the other is Roebuck Ramsden, an old man (corresponding to the Statue) who loathes Tanner. Neither Ramsden nor Tanner is at all thrilled to be handcuffed together that way, but duty calls. Meanwhile, Octavius is in love with Ann, but she prefers Tanner, who would prefer not to be married at all.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the play concerns itself with Ann’s pursuit of Jack.

While it is obvious that Jack does have some fondness for - and indeed attraction to - Ann, he is nevertheless unwilling to be fettered.

TANNER: All she wants with me is to load up all her moral responsibilities on me, and do as she likes at the expense of my character. I can’t control her; and she can compromise me as much as she likes. I might as well be her husband.

And later, in a conversation with Octavius:

TANNER: Tavy: that’s the devilish side of a woman’s fascination: she makes you will your own destruction.
OCTAVIUS: But it’s not destruction: it’s fulfilment.
TANNER: Yes, of her purpose; and that purpose is neither her happiness nor yours, but Nature’s. Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation. She sacrifices herself to it: do you think she will hesitate to sacrifice you?
OCTAVIUS: Why, it is just because she is self-sacrificing that she will not sacrifice those she loves.
TANNER: That is the profoundest of mistakes, Tavy. It is the self-sacrificing women that sacrifice others most recklessly.

That last line in particular stood out to me as true beyond its context. (And beyond its gender.) Those who are most self-sacrificing are willing to sacrifice others. In fact, they often demand that others be sacrificed to their purposes. As C. S. Lewis once put it, a man will not be content to give up something, but will demand that everyone else give it up too.

After all this talk, there is finally some action. Tanner and his chauffeur head off to the Continent for a road tour. In Spain, they are waylaid by a group of brigands in the Sierra Nevada. I found this a bit amusing. For me, the Sierra Nevada is located in California - in my backyard. It is a place I love very much indeed. So to see the other Sierra Nevada (the “original,” if you will) as place in a story, is jarring.

After the leader of the bandits, Mendoza (who corresponds to the Devil in the legend) realizes that Tanner is more of an ally than an enemy, everyone heads to bed for some dreams.

What follows is an extended dream sequence, “Don Juan in Hell,” which is often omitted from productions of the play. It is easy to see why. It is not narratively connected to the rest of the play, does nothing to further the plot, and in fact disturbs the momentum. (It is around an hour long in an otherwise long play.)

That said, it is also one of the most fascinating parts of the play, with some pretty amazing dialogue, and many memorable lines. This act, while omitted from the greater play, is often performed by itself.

The discussion takes place between Don Juan, the Devil, Donna Anna (who comes to hell as an old woman), and the Commendatore, who has adopted the Statue as his preferred manifestation. He is on a visit from heaven, and is considering relocating to hell. Donna Anna is irate at finding herself in hell, but Don Juan attempts to persuade her that she will actually be much happier in hell. Juan himself wishes to go to heaven, because he finds hell tedious.

In Shaw’s conception, hell is a place of art, beauty, love, and pleasure. The only problem is that nothing is real. It’s all just as fake and artificial as it was on earth during the mortal life. (In fact, it is a continuation of life on earth in most ways.) Thus, those who were at home with artifice and propriety during their lifetimes will be quite at home in hell. In contrast, heaven is a place devoted to rational discourse and thought, and the pursuit of the “Life Force,” which isn’t clearly defined by Shaw. Thus, the Commendatore tires of heaven, and wishes to be in hell, where he is a bit of a celebrity, while Don Juan wants to continue his lifetime pursuit of the “Life Force.” The four characters - particularly Don Juan and the Devil - offer their opinions on these matters, and many others related to society.

Shaw, as a non-religious person, and thus an “enemy” of the Church, has the outsider’s perceptiveness about hypocrisy within religion and society in general, and many of the best lines are pointed observations about these topics. (Personally, I wish that we religious sorts would spend less time complaining about people like Shaw and more time examining the ways that they are right about us, and making some corrections.) Here are the tidbits that I found most interesting.

DON JUAN: ...Hell is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues. All the wickedness on earth is done in their name: where else but in hell should they have their reward? Have I not told you that the truly damned are those who are happy in hell?

Shaw is right in good part about this. The worst of evil is that which is baptized by calling it “virtue.” No hate so great as that which is done in the name of “love.”

THE STATUE: ...Well, there is the same thing in heaven. A number of people sit there in glory, not because they are happy, but because they think they owe it to their position to be in heaven. They are almost all English.

THE DEVIL: An Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable.

The Devil is right on this occasion - and not just about Englishmen. In fact, I think the statement applies even more appropriately to the puritanical streak in American religion. From Prohibition to the current ascetic dietary fads, this isn’t just about traditional religion at all, but a belief that to be uncomfortable is to be moral. As noted above regarding the self-sacrificing, this discomfort isn’t morality, but moralistic self-righteousness.

Probably the most famous quote of them all from the play, however, comes from Don Juan’s argument with Donna Anna about marriage. Juan claims that marriage is really just a man-trap set by Nature to ensure the “greatest number of children and their closest care.” He points out that women are expected to learn arts that make them pleasing to men, but that these usually lapse after marriage. (Juan grants that men do this too.) It is Don Juan’s clinching argument that asks the question that demands to be answered.

DON JUAN: ...Those who talk most about the blessings of marriage and the constancy of its vows are the very people who declare that if the chain were broken and the prisoners left free to choose, the whole social fabric would fly asunder. You cannot have the argument both ways. If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?

Now, to be clear, I am a happily married man, and believe in the benefits of marriage. At least a good marriage. As a divorce attorney, I don’t see bad marriages as having the same benefits. In fact, bad marriages harm everyone involved, including the children.

That said, Shaw is absolutely right. And not just on marriage. Those who talk the most about the “blessings” of a particular system do tend to also preach fear that if the system were not vigorously and rigidly enforced, everything would go to hell.

I think in particular about those who claim that gender hierarchy and gender roles are necessary. On the one hand, they claim that everyone is happier when women stay home and obey their husbands without question. On the other, they insist on the enforcement of these rules with as heavy of a hand as necessary, realizing that many do not actually find these roles and hierarchies to be a blessing.

You cannot have it both ways. “If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?”

And thus, I believe that the secret to creating lasting marriages isn’t to force people to stay in bad ones, but to teach and assist them to have good ones. Don’t lock the cage. Destroy the cage.

In closing the play, Jack Tanner (or Don Juan, if you will) observes the universal hypocrisy of humankind. He knows Ann is unscrupulously pursuing him, but also that this charge against her could be easily brought against us all.

“We all lie; we all bully as much as we dare; we all bid for admiration without the least intention of earning it; we all get as much rent as we can out of our powers of fascination.”

And like Ann, we “do just what she likes herself whilst insisting on everybody else doing what the conventional code prescribes.”

It is good to look in the mirror sometimes, and Shaw is one of those writers whose mirror has a great deal of polish indeed.

Note on the Stage Directions:

Not only did Shaw write a long introduction and a weighty appendix to this play, his stage directions are incredibly detailed. Before some of the scenes, these directions for the setting go on for literally pages on end, following philosophical rabbit trails, and giving ludicrously detailed and yet vague descriptions of how a character should look. For example, here is a small part of the description of Roebuck Ramsden:

How old is Roebuck? The question is important on the threshold of a drama of ideas; for under such circumstances everything depends on whether his adolescence belonged to the sixties or to the eighties. He was born, as a matter of fact, in 1839, and was a Unitarian and Free Trader from his boyhood, and an Evolutionist from the publication of the Origin of Species.

And it goes on. And on. Shaw’s dialogue, while rather long as well, is quite snappy compared to the stage directions.

Don Juan in Hell, the classic recording:

There is a marvelous classic audio recording of this scene available online, starring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead. They took this show on the road, and it was a hit.

More GBS:

I reviewed The Perfect Wagnerite a few years ago.


  1. "I think in particular about those who claim that gender hierarchy and gender roles are necessary. On the one hand, they claim that everyone is happier when women stay home and obey their husbands without question. On the other, they insist on the enforcement of these rules with as heavy of a hand as necessary, realizing that many do not actually find that these roles and hierarchies to be a blessing."

    I think this is one of the most valid points feminists make. On the one hand gender essentialists insist that the sexes are SO DIFFERENT that we practically need translation manuals to communicate (here's looking at you, Mars and Venus - gag me with a spoon!). But then on the other hand, stringent training programs and strictly enforced roles and scripts are needed to make sure everyone stays in line. Except why would those things be necessary if almost everything about us is, in fact, a hardwired sex difference? Shouldn't we be falling into those roles naturally? Not surprisingly, essentialists can only ever answer this question with hand-waving.

    (For the record, I don't deny ALL hardwired sex differences, I just think they're not what most people think they are and/or that there are way fewer of them than is commonly argued.)

    1. This is really the basis for a future post that I want to write (after I figure out how to make bell curve graphics...), but here is my thought on the subject:

      The vast majority of what gender essentialists say are "hardwired" differences are really *statistical* differences, similar to, say, height. Nobody denies that men are, on average, taller; but that doesn't change the fact that many, many women are taller than me. (I'm 5'7") Thus, these gender differences really look like overlapping bell curves - and the overlap is *much* greater than was thought even a hundred years ago. So it really shouldn't be a surprise to find a couple like my wife and me, where I skew further toward the "feminine" side on some things than my wife does.

      And, without the "stringent training programs and strictly enforced roles and scripts," many, many couples are making different decisions.

  2. Great review of a great play. Did you see the recent National Theatre production? I've referenced your post in my post on Man & Superman (thought I probably take a different track than you). Oh, I agree about the similarities between Shaw and Oscar Wilde, though I find that Wilde tends to be less political (but that it based on only one play).

    1. Alas, I did not see the National Theatre production. Living on the West Coast of the United States makes for a long commute to Britain for that sort of thing - although if someone ever leaves me a few million, that would be a great way to spend it.

      I enjoyed your review as well. You brought up many interesting and thought provoking points. However, for some reason, your link isn't to the right place. I found it anyway, and here is the link:

      I very much agree with you that play are best seen live if possible. Alas, Shaw is rarely performed, for some of the reasons you mention. I have been fortunate to live in a town with a good local theater scene, and have had the chance to see several more obscure old plays as a result. The Cherry Orchard isn't *that* rare, I suppose, but I was also able to see a couple of Moliere plays in the last few years. (The Misanthrope and The Bourgeois Gentleman.) In a related genre, our local university put on productions of Puccini's short operas, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi (in which I was part of the orchestra), and Britten's Albert Herring. There is nothing quite like seeing these live, as you point out.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment. I always enjoy finding others who enjoy the stage and the greats of literature.