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Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

Man and Superman

by George Bernard Shaw

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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    The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (NancyAf)
    NancyAf: Both plays are hilarious comedies of manners with the interplay between the sexes at the forefront.

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Bernard Shaw

Man and Superman:
A Comedy and a Philosophy

Penguin Classics, Paperback [2004].

8vo. xix+270 pp. Definitive text under the editorial supervision of Dan H. Laurence. Preface (1903) and Postscript (1933) by Shaw titled Epistle Dedicatory [pp. 7-38]. Introduction by Stanley Weintraub, 2000 [vii-xiv].

First published, 1903.
First produced, 1905 [without Act III].
Don Juan in Hell presented as a one-act play, 1907.
First produced complete, 1915.
Revised text published in Collected Edition, 1930.
First published by Penguin, 1946.
First published in Penguin Classics, 2000.
Reprinted with a new Chronology, 2004.



Epistle Dedicatory: To Arthur Bingham Walkley

Man and Superman:
A Comedy and a Philosophy, 1901–2

Act I: Portland Place, London, Roebuck Ramsden’s Study
Act II: Richmond. The Avenue to Mrs Whitefield’s House
Act III, Scene 1: Evening in the Sierra Nevada
Act III, Scene 2: Beyond Space, Beyond Time
Act III, Scene 3: Early Morning in the Sierra Nevada
Act IV: Granada. The Villa Garden

The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion
by John Tanner, M.I.R.C. (Member of the Idle Rich Class)

I. On Good Breeding
II. Property and Marriage
III. The Perfectionist Experiment at Oneida Creek
IV. Man’s Objection to His Own Improvement
V. The Political Need for the Superman
VI. Prudery Explained
VII. Progress an Illusion
VIII. The Conceit of Civilization
IX. The Verdict of History
X. The Method

Maxims for Revolutionists

Man and Superman [cast list for the premiere]
Principal Works of Bernard Shaw


Purely as a play, Man and Superman is a rather mediocre comedy of manners, quite predictable and without a single character left untouched by rigorous stereotyping. Granted the neat construction and the ready wit, many other playwrights could have come up with them in the late nineteenth century, not least the Other Irishman. It is the “philosophy” that makes this work unique. Nobody but Bernard Shaw could have written that.

In his typically concise “Epistle Dedicatory”, mere thirty pages of staggering verbosity, Shaw declares that “most wise men [...] read the play first and the preface afterwards”. I suggest you read it twice, once before and once after the play. Preachy, verbose and long-winded as he is, Shaw is also consistently lucid, amusing and, above all, thought-provoking. It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with him. You are forced to do some intellectual exercise. Now, this is fun. It might even do you some good.

Shaw, much like his beloved Wagner, has a passion for self-explanation and is gloriously devoid of false modesty. He frankly admits he wrote this “trumpery story of modern London life” because he was appalled at the timid and hypocritical treatment of sexual relations on the English stage. He wanted to expose chiefly two things, the romantic fabrications of the male and the predatory instinct of the female: the former were gross exaggerations, the latter wrongly thought to be non-existent. Accordingly, he invented “characters” to illustrate his points. Trouble is, when you get the point, which you do soon enough, it’s not easy to be interested in these “people”.

Octavius (“Tavy”) is the proverbial poetic soul who worships women as the pinnacle of creation. Nothing can shake his conviction, not even his own part as a dupe which he is smart enough to recognise but too stupid to understand. I rather agree with Shaw’s confession that he took him “unaltered from Mozart”, though I must say I find the rather selfish Don Ottavio more interesting. But this may well be a side effect of the music! As for Ann Whitefield, sort of heroine here, she is a nice study of feminine manipulation, a female relentlessly and hilariously pursuing her chosen male, but except for a few flashes of brilliance towards the end (“Getting over an unfavourable impression is ever so much easier than living up to an ideal.”) she is quite a vacuous creature.

For a presumably feminist writer (“No man is a match for a woman, except with a poker and a pair of hobnailed boots. Not always even then.”), Shaw seems to have, at least in this play, a pretty narrow view of “Woman”. It never seems to occur to him that a woman may pursue a man, not to fulfil “her highest purpose”, but simply because she thinks the sex with him might be enjoyable. Nor does he think that a woman may have intellectual interests of her own. He does blame the misogynistic society for treating women as marriageable furniture, but he doesn’t stop to reflect that plenty of women, from the dawn of history right down to his own times, have quite successfully escaped this fate. Names like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Caterina Sforza, Elizabeth I, Maria Theresa, Catherine the Great, Madame de Pompadour, Queen Victoria, Sarah Siddons, Jane Austen, Georges Sand, George Eliot, Lola Montez, Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt and Beatrice Webb, whatever the verdict of history or your personal opinion might be, cannot be accused of being ordinary women by any stretch of the definition.

The protagonist is one John Tanner, nicknamed Don Juan for no reason at all, progressive philosopher and scandalous revolutionist. He is on the stage entirely to shock the others with opinions like “marriage is the most licentious of human institutions: that is the secret of its popularity.” He is by far the preachiest and most irrelevant character of all. I suppose he was the reason for this play to become inflated from a mere “comedy” into the incomparably grander “a comedy and a philosophy”. But you can’t say you haven’t been warned from the beginning. Presumably talking to Mr Walkley, Shaw is typically blunt:

But my conscience is the genuine pulpit article: it annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable; and I insist on making them think in order to bring them to conviction of sin. If you don’t like my preaching you must lump it. I really cannot help it.

As a professional propagandist, Shaw knew only too well that “the lesson intended by an author is hardly ever the lesson the world chooses to learn from his book”. Thus Tirso de Molina, a Spanish monk from the seventeenth century, invented a story about a trickster from Seville in order to teach the lesson that dissolute life is punished severely. “The moral is a monkish one: repent and reform now; for tomorrow it may be too late.” But the public at large, far from accepting Don Juan as a cautionary tale, has embraced him as an inspiring example, partly for his conquests at the venereal front, which are the ultimate dream of many a stupid male, partly because of his heroic defying of God, a type of character which has been popular “from Prometheus to my own Devil’s Disciple”.

Among many other things in the preface, Shaw mounts massive attacks on Byron, Dickens and Shakespeare. As usual with him, he blames them for not being propagandists, moralists and philosophers – in short, for not being like him. They “had much to show and nothing to teach”. This is true, of course. It is also missing the point completely, to say the very least. Yet Shaw has plenty of positive things to say about Dickens and Shakespeare; and it would be foolish to dismiss his criticism outright, however outrageous some parts of it may be. A monstrous quotation is due here, but I’m sure you’ll agree it is justified. Brace yourselves and read:

I read Dickens and Shakespear without shame or stint; but their pregnant observations and demonstrations of life are not co-ordinated into any philosophy or religion: on the contrary, Dickens’s sentimental assumptions are violently contradicted by his observations; and Shakespear’s pessimism is only his wounded humanity. Both have the specific genius of the fictionist and the common sympathies of human feeling and thought in pre-eminent degree. They are often saner and shrewder than the philosophers just as Sancho Panza was often saner and shrewder than Don Quixote. They clear away vast masses of oppressive gravity by their sense of the ridiculous, which is at bottom a combination of sound moral judgment with light-hearted good humour. But they are concerned with the diversities of the world instead of with its unities: they are so irreligious that they exploit popular religion for professional purposes without delicacy or scruple (for example, Sydney Carton and the ghost in Hamlet!): they are anarchical, and cannot balance their exposures of Angelo and Dogberry, Sir Leicester Dedlock and Mr Tite Barnacle, with any portrait of a prophet or a worthy leader: they have no constructive ideas: they regard those who have them as dangerous fanatics: in all their fictions there is no leading thought or inspiration for which any man could conceivably risk the spoiling of his hat in a shower, much less his life. Both are alike forced to borrow motives for the more strenuous actions of their personages from the common stockpot of melodramatic plots; so that Hamlet has to be stimulated by the prejudices of a policeman and Macbeth by the cupidities of a bushranger. Dickens, without the excuse of having to manufacture motives for Hamlets and Macbeths, superfluously punts his crew down the stream of his monthly parts by mechanical devices which I leave you to describe, my own memory being quite baffled by the simplest question as to Monks in Oliver Twist, or the long lost parentage of Smike, or the relations between the Dorrit and Clennam families so inopportunely discovered by Monsieur Rigaud Blandois. The truth is, the world was to Shakespear a great ‘stage of fools’ on which he was utterly bewildered. He could see no sort of sense in living at all; and Dickens saved himself from the despair of the dream in The Chimes by taking the world for granted and busying himself with its details. Neither of them could do anything with a serious positive character: they could place a human figure before you with perfect verisimilitude; but when the moment came for making it live and move, they found, unless it made them laugh, that they had a puppet on their hands, and had to invent some artificial external stimulus to make it work. This is what is the matter with Hamlet all through: he has no will except in his bursts of temper. Foolish Bardolaters make a virtue of this after their fashion: they declare that the play is the tragedy of irresolution; but all Shakespear’s projections of the deepest humanity he knew have the same defect: their characters and manners are lifelike; but their actions are forced on them from without, and the external force is grotesquely inappropriate except when it is quite conventional, as in the case of Henry V. Falstaff is more vivid than any of these serious reflective characters, because he is self-acting: his motives are his own appetites and instincts and humours. Richard III, too, is delightful as the whimsical comedian who stops a funeral to make love to the corpse’s widow; but when, in the next act, he is replaced by a stage villain who smothers babies and offs with people’s heads, we are revolted at the imposture and repudiate the changeling. Faulconbridge, Coriolanus, Leontes are admirable descriptions of instinctive temperaments: indeed the play of Coriolanus is the greatest of Shakespear’s comedies; but description is not philosophy; and comedy neither compromises the author nor reveals him. He must be judged by those characters into which he puts what he knows of himself, his Hamlets and Macbeths and Lears and Prosperos. If these characters are agonizing in a void about factitious melodramatic murders and revenges and the like, whilst the comic characters walk with their feet on solid ground, vivid and amusing, you know that the author has much to show and nothing to teach. The comparison between Falstaff and Prospero is like the comparison between Micawber and David Copperfield. At the end of the book you know Micawber, whereas you only know what has happened to David, and are not interested enough in him to wonder what his politics or religion might be if anything so stupendous as a religious or political idea, or a general idea of any sort, were to occur to him. He is tolerable as a child; but he never becomes a man, and might be left out of his own biography altogether but for his usefulness as a stage confidant, a Horatio or ‘Charles his friend’: what they call on the stage a feeder.

Shaw admits his debt to Moliere and Mozart, but he would not admit that he borrowed the concept of Don Juan pursued by women from Byron. He is right that Byron’s hero is “not a true Don Juan at all”, as the poet undoubtedly intended, but to say that “Byron’s fragment does not count for much philosophically” is, again, missing the point with a vengeance. Just because a writer does not produce a comprehensive and coherent philosophic system does not mean that he is not a philosopher, still less that his work lacks philosophical depth. The hero of Byron’s Don Juan was Byron himself, and he was quite a match for any previous Don Juan as far as defying everything from common morality to God is concerned. Nevertheless, though I disagree with him, Shaw does suggest an interesting parallel:

Byron was as little of a philosopher as Peter the Great: both were instances of that rare and useful, but unedifying variation, an energetic genius born without the prejudices or superstitions of his contemporaries. The resultant unscrupulous freedom of thought made Byron a bolder poet than Wordsworth just as it made Peter a bolder king than George III; but as it was, after all, only a negative qualification, it did not prevent Peter from being an appalling blackguard and an arrant poltroon, nor did it enable Byron to become a religious force like Shelley.

Whom does Shaw admire, if anybody? “Bunyan, Blake, Hogarth and Turner (these four apart and above all the English Classics), Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, Morris, Tolstoy and Nietzsche are among the writers whose peculiar sense of the world I recognize as more or less akin to my own.” He almost made me pick up The Pilgrim’s Progress. Almost. For the record, in the play itself (The Devil speaking), he also destroyed the most famous depictions of Hell and Lucifer in all literature:

Hell is a place far above their comprehension: they derive their notion of it from two of the greatest fools that ever lived, an Italian and an Englishman. The Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street. The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible. What else he says I do not know; for it is all in a long poem which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through.

The (in)famous Don Juan in Hell sequence, John Tanner’s dream among the brigands of Sierra Nevada which occupies nearly the whole of Act III, has often been staged separately as a one-act play ever since 1907. It is sort of sequel to Don Giovanni (brush up your Mozart, or your Wagner and Goethe for that matter, if you want to get the inside jokes) in which Don Juan meets again the Commendatore (as a statue, of course), whom he has murdered on earth but are now on very friendly terms with, his daughter Donna Ana whom he tried to seduce, and of course The Devil. The four of them have a mighty philosophical discussion that bears little relation to the rest of the play. I doubt it would work well on the stage, but it makes for a magnificent reading. The subject is no less than the destiny of Man.

Don Juan is an unflinching believer in the “Life Force”. This is yet another name of the so-called “Creative Evolution”, a concept which Shaw developed at greater length, as he is the first to recognise in the Postscript to the “Epistle Dedicatory”, some twenty years later in Back to Methuselah. Briefly, Don Juan contends that the Life Force works more or less consciously towards the production of the Man capable of knowing and understanding Nature. The use of this is “to be able to choose the line of greatest advantage instead of yielding in the direction of the least resistance.” Common men may be unaware of the Life Force and all the happier for that. But the philosopher is firmly in its grip, he is “possessed with a purpose”. He is the closest approximation, or rather the right way, to the Superman.

Except for the desire to know and understand nature, all this is, of course, pure nonsense. It is funny that a man of Shaw’s formidable intelligence could have believed it, but there is little doubt that he did. Ironically, Shaw was born only three years before the publication of The Origin of Species, the book which once and for all shattered all illusions of purpose in nature, at least as far as life on this planet is concerned. Not that it was impossible to disbelieve the Life Force before 1859, but it had to be done on shaky, non-scientific grounds. After Darwin’s masterpiece, it could be done much less subjectively. But Shaw never did get good marks in science; his notorious crusades against vivisection and vaccination are well-known. Unlike Darwin, who was a scientist par excellence and went where the evidence led him, Shaw had unshakable belief in his own prejudices and bent the evidence to defend them.

But Shaw must nevertheless be given some credit for intellectual honesty. The opposite point of view is clearly presented, if less densely argued, by The Devil. Shaw’s version of Mephisto is less witty, less intellectual and less compelling than Goethe’s Spirit of Negation (“Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint”, I.1338), but that is no reason to neglect his reflections.

The Devil asserts that “men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell; and that all history is nothing but a record of the oscillations of the world between these two extremes.” Ergo, the Life Force, though it may exist, is nothing but a giant pendulum that swings to no ultimate effect whatsoever. To this Juan can answer with nothing but another rhetorical outburst. It sounds as hollow as they come. Juan refuses to believe that this “colossal mechanism” has no purpose. But The Devil is devastating: “None, my friend. You think, because you have a purpose, Nature must have one.” To this Juan cannot reply at all: he ventures into the perfectly idiotic (but very common, alas) argument that mistakes practical utility for divine purpose. The Devil’s two most deadly blows, as rhetorical yet substantial as anything in the whole play, argue that the Life Force is neither much of a force nor life-affirming at all:

As to your Life Force, which you think irresistible, it is the most resistible thing in the world for a person of any character. But if you are naturally vulgar and credulous, as all reformers are, it will thrust you first into religion, where you will sprinkle water on babies to save their souls from me; then it will drive you from religion into science, where you will snatch the babies from the water sprinkling and inoculate them with disease to save them from catching it accidentally; then you will take to politics, where you will become the catspaw of corrupt functionaries and the henchman of ambitious humbugs; and the end will be despair and decrepitude, broken nerve and shattered hopes, vain regrets for that worst and silliest of wastes and sacrifices, the waste and sacrifice of the power of enjoyment: in a word, the punishment of the fool who pursues the better before he has secured the good.

In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man’s industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons. This marvellous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness. [...] I could give you a thousand instances; but they all come to the same thing: the power that governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death; and the inner need that has nerved Life to the effort of organizing itself into the human being is not the need for higher life but for a more efficient engine of destruction. The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of the sword and gun and poison gas; above all, of justice, duty, patriotism and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.

The surest sign of a great work of fiction is that there is nobody for whom to root wholeheartedly. Judged like this, Man and Superman is certainly a great work. I find myself torn between Don Juan and The Devil, and likewise I find Tanner’s progressive views quite a mixed bag. To be sure, the comedy did run away from Shaw, or rather with him in the realms of philosophy, but this is quite acceptable if you can do it that well. The play and the preface are the thing. Still, by way of conclusion, a word about the “bonus tracks”.

The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion is, in the words of one character from Act I, “the most infamous, the most scandalous, the most mischievous, the most blackguardly book that ever escaped burning at the hands of the common hangman.” In fact, it is a sort of outline for the next Revolution under the form of 30-page pamphlet, densely packed with detail and not very easy to go through.

Shaw’s general ideas, however, are clear enough. They sound bold, not to say shocking, even today, but it won’t do simply to ignore them. Property is to be abolished, of course, and so is marriage at least in terms of procreation, though as a form of companionship it may remain. Breeding is to be highly selective on eugenic principles. We now know this is much more complicated than they thought in the early twentieth century, but Shaw does have a point. Many people are simply unfit to be parents and must not be allowed to have children. Parenthood should be a subject of rigorous selection. If you need a hard-earned diploma to practice medicine or law, why should you need no hard-proven qualities for the tremendous responsibility of raising children? Of progress and prudery Mr Tanner (or Mr Shaw) does not want to hear, still less patience does he have with democracy: “riff-raff can neither govern nor will let anyone else govern except the highest bidder of bread and circuses. [...] The overthrow of the aristocrat has created the necessity for the Superman.”

Finally and significantly, Shaw does recognise that if we are to achieve all this, we must first make some fundamental changes in human nature. We must, that is, build a race of supermen. He is rather vague, however, on the rather important question how we are going to bring that about.

“Maxims for Revolutionists” is a bunch of epigrams by which Shaw intends to show that he can do that stuff just as well as the Other Irishman. Much like “The Preface” of Dorian Gray (1891), this “postscript” contains some dreadfully obvious things:

No elaboration of physical or moral accomplishment can atone for the sin of parasitism.

He who gives money he has not earned is generous with other people’s labour.

It is dangerous to be sincere unless you are also stupid.

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.

Some pure nonsense:

All men mean well.

Every man over forty is a scoundrel.

And some pure wisdom:

The most intolerable pain is produced by prolonging the keenest pleasure.

If you begin by sacrificing yourself to those you love, you will end by hating those to whom you have sacrificed yourself.

Men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience.

No specific virtue or vice in a man implies the existence of any other specific virtue or vice in him, however closely the imagination may associate them.
( )
  Waldstein | Nov 30, 2017 |
Review first published on BookLikes: http://brokentune.booklikes.com/post/801175/man-and-superman

"... the book about the bird and the bee is natural history. It's an awful lesson to mankind. You think that you are Ann's suitor; that you are the pursuer and she the pursued; that it is your part to woo, to persuade, to prevail, to overcome. Fool: it is you who are the pursued, the marked down quarry, the destined prey. You need not sit looking longingly at the bait through the wires of the trap: the door is open, and will remain so until it shuts behind you for ever."

I liked Man and Superman as a comedy of manners. But saying I liked it because of the flippant interplay between the characters, the witty dialogue and the satire of Edwardian society is hardly an analysis of Shaw's most philosophical work.

However, the sad truth in my case is that I just cannot remember what Shaw's point was in Man and Superman. I'm sure he had one but I got distracted by the candy-floss comedy in which he wrapped his message.

So, I may have to read this again sometime - or go and watch the play. I hear there is also a film version with Peter O'Toole. ( )
  BrokenTune | Aug 21, 2016 |
If you remove the Don Juan in Hell sequence, this is actually an entertaining play, but GBS goes off on his tangents until you just want to slap him. Some very well-written, entertaining characters in an amusing situation. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 22, 2014 |
Shaw's tour de force, this is a work that combines realism with the supernatural to create a memorable piece of work. The section known as Don Juan in hell is justifiably renowned, and is a philosophical discussion that reminds me of Montesquieu and Machiavelli's Dialogue in Hell. The philosophy of the work is pessimistic; while it still retains a flavor of the socialist ideals of the author, there is an undertone of disillusionment. The roles of the sexes are skewered, by the means of characters upholding them to the letter, showing them for how ridiculous they really are. The leisure class comes off poorly, and the institution of marriage is, as usual in works by Shaw, reduced down to a condition of bondage. An interesting read, probably much too long to stage in this day and age, and certainly the long speeches would make any modern director cringe. Well worth the extra effort for a reading. ( )
  Devil_llama | Apr 29, 2014 |
We admit that when the divinity we worshipped made itself visible and comprehensible, we crucified it.
This phrase above, which appears in the epilogue, pretty much sums up the theme of the entire play, and that is that it is impossible for man to evolve simply because we do not want to evolve, and everytime somebody comes along to show us how to evolve we either kill them, or completely corrupt their teachings so as to bring us back to the position that we were in prior to this person coming along. I will discuss examples of this later on in this commentary (which will actually be quite long because there is quite a lot in this play) and I will also how Shaw's philosophy, as I see it, applies to the teachings of the Bible.
One of the things that I really like about Shaw's plays is that he begins a lot of them with a commentary on the play, thus (unlike many other authors) he will actually tells us what he intends to demonstrate in the play in these commentaries. In some cases he also has a epilogue at the end (as he does in this one) which ties up all of the ideas that he has explored and outlines his conclusions. Now, this is one of Shaw's earlier plays so we see more immature thought and insight into his philosophy here, and in fact the play, while playing an important role in his philosophy, is only a part of the bigger picture, which only comes out at the end.
His opening (or dare I call is a prologue) is a letter to a fellow named Arthur Walkely (I am unsure if this person existed or not, but I will assume that he does, and the main reason I say this is because his conclusion is a 'handbook' written by the play's protagonist) and he appears to be about writing a Don Juan play. Now, we have probably all heard of Don Juan and how he attacked windmills (actually I think that is Don Quioxte), but that is not the purpose of the play or the character. Shaw indicates that Don Juan was originally conceived by a monk who wanted to write a story about the futility of putting off one's salvation. The idea was that Don Juan rejected the church, wanting instead to live a wild life, and then become Christian later on in life when he is no longer old enough to have fun. However he does not get to live to an old age as he dies young, and in sin. While the story was supposed to be a warning, it had the opposite effect in that the story was not received as a warning but as the romaticised idea of a rebellious hero, one that everybody wanted to be, but did not have the courage to do so for fear of going to hell.
Much of the letter involves sexuality and sexual coupling and one may wonder what this has to do with evolution, but this will be explained later as we move through the play. He discusses how the modern theatre of his day explored sexual attraction, but only to a certain point. Victorian England saw itself as civilised and above these base ideas of sexual pleasure. It was not a concept of lust but a concept of romantic love, and unfortunately sex does not play a part in Victorian romantic love (it is too disgusting). He explores the impossibility of writing such a play in this era as ideas have changed, but in many cases nothing has actually changed. He points out that in Shakespeare pretty much all of the lovers are naturally lovers and no pushing needs to occur to bring them together, however it is still done so as to add depth to the play. The only play in which a character goes out to win a wife is in The Taming of the Shrew, in which Petrucchio pursues Katerina, however there is no love involved in this, rather it is purely a commercial choice, and if it was not for the fact that Katerina had money, then Petruchio would not have been interested.
Unrequited love, as he explored in Shakespeare, is dangerous and leads to madness, as he points out in Hamlet. It is natural for Ophelia and Hamlet to come together and couple, there is that natural attraction there, however, ignoring the intrusion by Polonius, Hamlet rebuff's Ophelia's advances, and continues to do so with tragic consequences (namely her suicide). We must remember that at this stage Hamlet was feigning madness to learn if Claudius really is a murderer, and while he may have loved Ophelia, he did not trust her, and as such did not bring her into his plans. Thus Ophelia sees a man whom she loves descending into madness, and in turn she herself also descends into madness. This unrequited love ends very badly as the action moves pretty much straight from the funeral to the throne room, which results in a fencing match in which everybody dies.
Now, remembering that this is a play about the philosophy of evolution, I will continue exploring Shaw's ideas as I encountered them in this book. As we know England at this time was undergoing a period of great change. The industrial revolution was behind them and through pressure many reforms to the social network had been made including universal education and the universal male voting franchise. However Shaw is concerned as to whether this would actually raise the working class and the poor into the bourgeoisie. He says that it does not and in fact it dilutes the voting power by giving it to people that have no understanding of the nature of government and governing a country. In fact he does not seem to believe that it is possible to raise such a person out of their class, not due to the lack of mobility, but rather due to a lack of willpower to actually want to move out of that class. I disagree as John Wesley had proven otherwise in that when he established his church he went out among the poor and the dispossessed and preached to them, and built a church from them. Within at least one generation it was discovered that the poor were no longer poor and had entered the middle class. Mind you, during this time the theatre was still portrayed the wealthy as the upper class elite as the main characters while the poor were portrayed as comical and ignorant. This has always been the case, and in many ways, still is the case today.
As a side note, Shaw also discusses what he considers a good writer and what he doesn't. Dickens and Shakespeare, as far as he is concerned, are not good writers as they have no overarching philosophy which they explore, while others, such as Shelly, Goethe, Nietzsche, Blake, Bunyan, and Tolstoy, do, and he would prefer to be influenced by somebody who has a philosophy rather than somebody who does not. I agree with him to an extent on this, but I feel that because we know so little about Shakespeare as a person, as opposed to Shakespeare the legend, I feel that it is not possible to comment on his philosophy or not.
Now, I should get onto the play, and as he indicates at the opening to the play, it is a philosophy and a comedy. The first part of the play is very difficult to follow, but once we get to act three, everything begins to come to light. In a way this is a romantic comedy, but he indicates at the beginning is that it is not the man who initiates the romantic relationship, but the woman. While it is traditional for the man to approach the woman, it is the woman who has the power to say yes or no. One quote of his, in relation to polygamy, is that a woman would rather have a tenth of a first rate man than a whole of a third rate man. We see this in the play with Ann because at the beginning of the play it is implied that her relationship will form with Octavian, however we suddenly discover at the end that this was never her intention, and it was Tanner that she wanted, and while he resists, she continues to push and persist until he capitulates.
Shaw uses the concept of a play within a play in Man and Superman, in a sense because by moving the main philosophy out of the immediate play, he takes it out of his mouth and puts in into the mouth of the protagonist, Tanner. He does the same at the end where the handbook is written not by himself but by Tanner, and he even uses the idea of a socialist meeting to push through the idea of Tanner's revolutionary nature. The play within a play could be termed as 'The Devil and Don Juan' or 'Don Juan in Hell'. The characters in the main play also take roles in this play, and we see a continual movement in action from the home to Spain, to the play within a play, and out again.
Shaw's concept of hell, as outlined in the play, is that while it is a place for those who reject God, it is not necessarily bad. Don Juan, who never wanted to go to hell in the first play, suffers, however Ann, who had resigned herself to being a denizen of hell, does not. They ask about the gulf, and Shaw (as taken up by Lewis later) indicates that the idea of the gulf is a parable, and that the gulf exists not in reality but in our mind. While it is possible to move between heaven and hell, and to connect with the denizens of hell, it is the mindset of the denizens that create the gap. He uses the example of the philosophy class and the bull ring, or the concert hall and the race track. People who go to one, do not go to the other, and if they do, they dislike it intensely and want to escape. Therefore, in their mind, they create a gulf, and to be trapped in the place where their mind is not set creates for them a hell.
While people have written about hell, Shaw indicates the impossibility of actually truly understanding its nature, as he writes 'the Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire … this ass, when he was not lying about me (the devil is speaking) was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street. The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton thinks this jolly story is in the Bible'.
Now, I have written quite a lot so far and I still have not got to the main theme of evolution. Now, when we speak of evolution we are not talking about a physical process that moves us from an ape (if we believe that) to our current form. Nietzsche was not talking about that either, and Hitler's idea that the German people were more highly evolved was taking Nietzsche completely out of context. The problem with Nietzsche though was that he was insane. It seemed that the idea of the superman, and the fact that he could never attain that ideal was too much for him. Fortunately Shaw is very compus mentus, and unlike Nietzsche, is easy to read. The idea is that we do not evolve physically but rather socially and spiritually. Unfortunately we do not want to evolve that way, we want to become like the X-men, namely superheroes. However this is not the Shaw's (and Nietzsche's) idea of evolution.
It appears that Shaw's idea is that the first step towards us becoming further evolved, is to shed these ridiculous ideas of civilisation. The fact that we have telephones, motor cars, planes, televisions (and the list goes on) does not necessarily mean that we have become evolved, in fact it is quite the opposite. As Shaw says, the gentleman relies on his servants more than the servants rely upon the gentleman. Our pursuit of wealth and luxury has not made us more evolved, but rather more dependant on our current lifestyle (as is evidenced by 'Lifestyle Packages' offered by insurance companies, so that wealthy people can maintain their lifestyle in the event of a tragedy). It is much easier to go from being poor to being rich than the other way around (and just look at the number of suicides that occur whenever there is a massive economic downturn).
As I indicated at the beginning, the reason we are not evolving is because we do not want to evolve. Take the idea of coupling again and how Shaw indicates that it is not the man's choice but the woman's. The man puts himself out to stud and the woman says either yes or no. However, you have probably heard the saying 'nice guys finish last' and that women would prefer a jerk than a decent guy. Look, I am not saying that it is true (there are a lot of nice married guys out there), but if the case is that bad men get the girls while the good men miss out, then is it not the case that the decent, evolved, people are dying out to pretty much be replaced by jerks.
Let us also consider what happens whenever somebody comes along to try to move us towards evolving. Basically it is human nature to silence anybody who preaches a message of evolution that does not involve us becoming powerful beings, but rather evolving by becoming more socially orientated and ethical beings. The classic case is Jesus Christ: he was crucified (though biblically that was always going to happen, and while he died, he rose again from the dead). Other examples include Martin Luther King, who was heavily involved in the civil rights movement, but the idea of treating people as equals was repugnant. Let us also consider a movement towards socialism. It is rejected and attacked at every turn, and not just in the United States. Take Russia for example. Russia was supposed to be turned into a 'worker's democracy' however the pure ideal never even had the option to bud before the seed was destroyed by Stalin. This is the same with the church, for Christ's moving humanity to evolve was first viciously attacked by the Roman State, and when that failed, the church was infiltrated and taken back full circle to where it begun.
I suspect this idea is biblical, and remember Shaw nowhere in this play attacks the teachings of Christ or the Bible, but rather the way humanity teaches from the Bible. The concept of the Bible is that humanity was created perfect, but something happened that caused us to degenerate. Thus the entire Bible (or at least the first part) demonstrates the downward spiral of degeneration (spiritual and social) that we have been afflicted with. The second part is not only a biography of Jesus Christ, but also an indication of how we can cease that degeneration, and then move back onto the path of evolution, however we cannot do it on our own, we need God's help (and that is where Christ came in, and why he died) to cease degenerating and to return to the path of evolution. ( )
1 vote David.Alfred.Sarkies | Mar 26, 2014 |
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Roebuck Ramsden is in his study, opening the morning letters.
There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it.
A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.
The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is.
Beware of the man whose God is in the skies.
Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140437886, Paperback)

How tantalizing to hear Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, Schindler's List) but not be able to see him! And hear him one does in his role as Jack Tanner, the antihero of Shaw's 1905 classic drama Man and Superman. Fiennes is a veritable mouthpiece--and a frequently sarcastic one at that--for the burning issues on Shaw's philosophical and social laundry list: the state of the English working class, the arms race, women's rights, unwed mothers, the evils of industry and capitalism, and English morality in general. The seriousness of the discussions is tempered by delightful Shavian wit ("There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it."), which prevents the dialogue from collapsing under its own weight, although it does teeter at times. The four-act play, directed by the esteemed Peter Hall for BBC Radio, begins in the English countryside and ends in the mountains of Spain after a curious detour to Hell, where, in act 3, the famous dream sequence unfolds and the main characters take on such roles as Don Juan and the Devil to further hash out the meaning of existence, the definition of life force, and the power of the female sex. This is a spirited production of Shaw's imperfect but intellectually challenging work. (Running time: 225 min; four cassettes)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:17 -0400)

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"John Tanner is horrified to discover that he is the object of Ann Whitefield's ambitions in her search for a satisfactory husband. For Tanner, political pamphleteer and independent mind, escape is the only option. But Ann is grimly resigned to society's expectations and ready for the chase." "In this caustic satire on romantic conventions, Shaw casts his net wide across European culture to draw on works by Mozart, Nietzsche and Conan Doyle for his re-telling of the Don Juan myth. As Stanley Weintraub comments, it was Shaw's ability to combine popular comedy with intellectual seriousness that made Man and Superman 'the first great twentieth-century English play', and one that remains a classic expose of the eternal struggle between the sexes."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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