Oftentimes in literature an author will use his works as a means for the expression of views. It then becomes the job of the reader to find those views and make an attempt to understand them. George Bernard Shaw is a playwright who layered his plays with opinions and social commentary. It is these views that present themselves after a close reading in which the reader feels he has read more than a play. In his classic work Man and Superman Shaw attempts to further his opinions both sublimely and forthrightly. Though many do not appreciate his attempts and criticize his works, the legacy of Shavian writing lives on.
To the everyday reader the play Man and Superman is a dry love story with an interesting third act. To those well versed in Shavian script, it is more than that, much more. The outset of the play contains the most important lines for this is where first impressions are made. Shaw believed that an impression of his characters should hold true throughout the work (Nethercot 96).
The play opens with the upper class Englishman, Roebuck Ramsden, ordering his maid around. With this Shaw already begins to show the class dichotomy he hates so much. On the surface the most important character is the one who never speaks, Mr. Whitefield, the deceased father of Ann Whitefield, the woman who must be married. Ann becomes the vessel Shaw uses to demonstrate his views on the struggle between sexes. She teases poor Octavius or Tavy as the others call him. The pen name Tavy stems from Ann’s referring to him as Ricky Ticky Tavy, in a sensually sly, almost devious manner because she knows he loves her. This love Octavius has for Ann becomes a main argument in the play because much of the character interaction branches from this.
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The real story begins with the death of Ann’s father and the reading of his will where a shocking revelation is learned. Mr. Whitefield has named the regale elderly Ramsden as well as the radical youthful Jack Tanner to be the guardian of his two daughters. It comes as a great surprise to all (except Ann) that Tanner has been named a suitor because he has such radical social views. In fact, the mention of his book The Revolutionist’s Handbook brings disgust and shock to the room it was uttered in. A guardian for Ann is crucial because she holds the wishes of her father up so high. So high that she becomes a slave to them. This power over Ann is thus transferred to her two new guardians.
The next two acts seem somewhat insignificant to the story, but not to the cause of Shaw. The second act demonstrates how desperately in love with Ann Octavius is and the growing realization that he can’t have her. It is here that we also begin to see Ann trying to manipulate the reluctant Jack Tanner into marrying her. It is also here that a subplot is formed with Violet and her secret husband Hector. When Violet announces that she is married but won’t disclose to whom, a row ensues. It isn’t until later that everyone finds out that the husband is Hector, a friend, and not some disrespectful stranger. Shaw uses this subplot to further demonstrate his distaste for classes because it is Hector’s rich father that is preventing Hector from admitting that he is the husband (Bloom 5).
Hector and Jack go for a joyride in their cars along with the others in the cast. The third act takes place after Tanner and his chauffer ran away from Ann and the passengers in her car. The reason he fled was because Straker, his chauffer, had pointed out that Ann intended to make Tanner her husband and not Octavius. His fleeing brings the play to its most famous and sometimes misunderstood scene, “Don Juan in Hell”. Jack Tanner meets a group of brigands led by Mendoza who steal from the rich by disabling their cars. Jack listens to Mendoza’s stories about life and his social grievances and stays the night with him and his “army.” The dream sequence that ensues is that of Don Juan in hell who encounters the devil, the woman he loved and her father. It is here that Shaw criticizes religion and the government the most. Mendoza and Tanner think little of their dream, but to the reader it speaks volumes of the ideas Shaw is trying to express.
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The fourth and final act of the play is more down to earth and answers most of the questions raised throughout the work. It is in this act that we learn that Ann has been playing with Octavius’ emotions and has been trying to get Jack Tanner to marry her all along. It was she that chose Jack to be her guardian as the best way to get him to marry her. This is also the act where Hector fesses up to being Violet’s husband resulting in a quarrel with his father. Much like the other confrontations in the play this one ends with a conciliatory action, in a way that shows Shaw despises drawn out fighting (Crompton 45).
The predictable ending of Jack Tanner wedding Ann leads some to think this a simple comedy, but it is much more than that. The interactions each character has were Shavian ways of mocking society and life itself. Each act holds its own when placed under a microscope, and that’s the way Shaw wanted it. Critics such as Louis Kronenberger who feel Shaw to be little more than a garrulous writer condemn much of his antics in writing. However, even Kronenberger admits to the genius that the nefarious third act in hell holds (Kronenberger 22).
Bernard Shaw uses character interactions as his main container when spreading his ideas in his plays. There are many interactions in Man and Superman with each one proving a different point of view of Shaw’s, or multiple views of his. There are essentially two themes in this play. One deals with the struggle of the sexes and the other deals with the struggles in society. The predominate theme is that of the sexes because Shaw goes out of his way to mock marriage and the power of both men and women. The struggle of the sexes can be broken down in its simplest terms by the fact that without women there is no life, and without men there is no value (Bentley Bernard Shaw 105).
Shaw writes of the “life force” in his play as a qualifier for marriage. That the sole purpose in a woman’s life is to find a husband and create more children, this is the only way life can go on. Shaw’s close-minded view of the man’s role in life is that men make life worth living. It is the role of man to teach his children the ways of the world and make that world suitable for living. It is the men that make all the decisions in life, and fight for freedoms they cherish. In Shaw’s case he wants nothing else but the end of democracy and the start of socialism where all new children can live together equally.
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Shaw writes Jack Tanner as he would himself in this play (Mayne 22).
In a work of literature there is always a character that embodies the spirit of the author. It is a natural occurrence for an author to put himself in his work. Throughout Man and Superman Ann’s function is to get a husband, never is it spoken, “would you like to get married?” or “if you choose to marry.” It is written, as “I must get married.” Indeed she must because Shaw realizes that at this time in history it is vital for a woman to have a mate. She can do nothing else but breed and comfort her husband. In act II line 74 Tanner says it best with “…what other work has she in life but to get a husband? It is a woman’s business to get married as soon as possible, and a man’s to keep unmarried as long as he can.”
What Shaw tries to express that is sometimes lost on critics is the presence of the “life force” and what it does to both sexes. This “force” drives the two together, in fact Tanner mentions the force as Ann slowly weakens him into marrying her (O’Donnel 81).
Shaw writes the battle for marriage as a battle for freedom and individuality (O’Donnel 81).
To the last line in the play Jack won’t give up his freedom, but the life force proves too strong and he succumbs to it.
It is this period in the play where he runs away, argues and does everything in his power to stay single that Tanner is being forced to learn why superman is needed (Bentley The Life Of The Drama 39).
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Superman in the sense that the next generation needs to be able to combat the evils of democracy, but these “warriors” can only come about from the marriage of a woman like Ann and a man like Tanner. It takes a man with radical ideas and a woman with shrewd ideals to produce a child worthy of a battle for society (Bentley Bernard Shaw 105).
Shaw errs in this play though. He writes with great verbosity the objection Tanner has to getting married and writes pages to demonstrate the determination of Ann to show the need for “supermen” but does not solve the problem (Bentley The Life Of The Drama 39).
He only writes it to break the verbiage of democracy and get the idea out in the minds of his readers. There is no blue print for how it’s done, only that the need is there and waiting for the compliant few. This here is the arrogance that many critics come to hate in Shaw. He is a man of a million ideas with no way to make the flourish.
The feeling of the need for a marriage is ever present but not that of a want for a marriage because Shaw wanted it that way. If he had wanted a romance with sparks flying he would have allowed Ann to marry Octavius. In fact he goes as far to say through Ann that a compassionate man like Octavius never marries (Act IV line 303).
This lack of emotion between Ann and Jack Tanner is Shaw’s way of mocking marriage that there is no need for it other than that of the life force it gives. That marriage picks you; you don’t pick marriage.
To say that Shaw wrote devoid of emotion is an unfair assessment of the play, his romantic writings lacked spark but there is emotion where it is needed. Bruce R. Park stated that Shakespeare showed love and Shaw showed ideas (74).
After reading a Shavian writing this would appear true, where Shakespeare excelled in love Shaw surpassed in opinions. The majority of the third act in hell is jam packed with emotion (Park 75).
It is here that Man and Superman earns its tragic in tragic comedy. It would have been literary suicide for Shaw to incorporate the sometimes mystifying “Don Juan in hell scene” if he didn’t want it to mean something. All strange things must hold some idealistic standing otherwise they wouldn’t be strange. It is here that Shaw attacks his main targets of religion, marriage, democracy and the deception of society.
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The interaction between Don Juan and the Devil is just as important as that of Ann and Jack Tanner. Due to the fact that Tanner dreams up this sequence and is said to be Don Juan in his dream we can now parallel the two characters. After juxtaposing Don Juan and Tanner it becomes apparent that Shaw is using Don Juan as a vessel for his revolutionary ideas (Brustein 108).
He becomes a rebel against God and is transformed into a saint and thus an idealist, it is he who becomes and predicts a superman who is God defying. It can be said that Don Juan is Tanner not bound by earthly obligations, in fact Shaw makes it a point to write Don Juan opposite from his normal stereotype as a womanizer and even goes so far as to mock those in hell who do look for sexual satisfaction. Don Juan embodies everything Shaw feels his superman is to be. He holds the ideals of libertine such as Tanner but owes nothing to the life force that would ground him to earth. However, it is this life force that stops a great man like Tanner, that ultimately chooses who will become a superman. Don Juan states that evolution strives to make god-like men, but only those men seen fit by the life force, which Shaw considers himself as a chosen one (Ohmann 37).
The satire Shaw uses in this section is great for not only does he write that hell is a place that can be enjoyed but also that he was brought there due to a duel over a woman. It took a less than noble death and a trip to hell to make him into what is needed to overcome the failure of democracy (Brustein 100).
Shaw writes Don Juan as the opposite of the womanizer he is commonly referred to for a comical effect and to make the dream sequence all that more unreal. His sexual drive is taken away because the ecstasy two people bring each other is basically impersonal and thus leads to conflict. Shaw is avoiding this conflict and adding a vital character trait of unselfishness needed to combat society and become a superman (O’Donnel 81).
It is the interaction between Don Juan and the Devil that Shaw uses to advance his ideals in the play. It seems to be a fascinating conversation but in actuality it is didactic in the eyes of Bernard Shaw.
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The relationship Don Juan has with the Devil can be seen as neither negative nor positive, however, the relationship with Ann and Octavius is another story. From the first scene of the play the audience realizes that Octavius is meant to have his heart broken. The shrewd character of Ann only teases Octavius to become someone that can be called less than a man. Shaw uses this negative influence of Ann on Octavius to demonstrate the power women have and to show the fact that the life force is the only factor that can truly create a marriage. It can also be said that the dead father of Ann had and still has a negative influence on his daughter. He runs her life even from beyond the grave because she honored every wish he had. Tanner has to confront her several times to get her to live her own life, not knowing that this is exactly what she wants to hear from her future husband. Octavius and Tanner are at opposite ends of the spectrum and Shaw uses this to demonstrate how the misunderstood radical is the one who is chosen by the life force to thrive over the failed democracy (Bloom 5).
Roebuck Ramsden has a positive influence on Ann and the others but is seen as an outdated person. He is the idealistic liberal that is made the butt of Shaw’s jokes. No information is given to him and it seems as if the younger more shrew cast members take advantage of him (O’Donnel 89).
However, all have much respect for the man and wouldn’t dare dishonor him. Despite the fact that Tanner and Ramsden dislike each other immensely they hold a great deal of respect for one another and they both stand strongly by their beliefs. Much like Octavius and Tanner are polar on romance, Ramsden and Tanner are opposites on the matter of government. Bernard Shaw uses personal feelings as a means for ironic amusement as a fact of life; much of the satire in Man and Superman is done this way. The relationships and conflicts we see are nothing more than ironic twists with a message used by Shaw to get a laugh by the educated few (Fiske 62).
Perhaps that is the problem with Bernard Shaw that his humor and themes are written so only he and those like him can understand them. If he had written in a more universal tone possibly he would be praised more today than he is. Despite all this, the points are made and a Shavian style survives.
After reading Shaw’s Man and Superman several themes are apparent. However, there are two main themes that can be combined into one grievance with society, the superiority of man and the fallacy of democracy. Eric Bently wrote in his book The Life of The Drama that Shaw didn’t just want to show us his ideas but he wanted to make us understand through the relationships between the characters (49).
These relationships are where one can find the clues to the themes in the play. Though Ann ultimately gets what she wants in a marriage with Jack, it is his decision in the end. Throughout the play we see the dominance of men, it’s not as visible as in other literature but it is ever present. There is an air present that every decision must be approved by a male and that there are different levels of superiority. These levels go as deep as heaven and hell with Don Juan and his former lover. Don Juan’s former lover needs his accompaniment even in the afterlife but even her father turns her down. Shaw is making the point with the third act taking place in hell that on earth men are bound by rules but in the afterlife is where true freedom can take place. This theme is ever present because we see the moral and social obligations that each character has, Hector to his father, Ann to her father, and even Straker to Jack Tanner (Brustein 109).
On earth there is always an obligation to someone, but Shaw makes the point that in hell there is nothing to worry about but you.
The different levels of superiority are a major theme that can be taken away from Man and Superman. The play brings the rebellion Shaw has in conflict with flesh and blood reality to where he balances the ideals of philosophical moralist against the neutrality of the natural historian (Brustein 108).
Shaw uses the relationships between the characters to promote this theme and when looked at even deeper it becomes a commentary on society. Shaw is an avid socialist who constantly argues with current dogma and criticizes civilized society calling it “one huge Bourgeoisie” (Ohmann 27).
In the play Shaw attempts to demonstrate the lack of social awareness that people have and the corruption that results due to it. This is how the morass of man due to woman can be compared with that of society. Robert Brustein wrote that Man and Superman is like heaven and hell (109), similar in function but very different in ideology. It is this quest for supermen that Shaw wants to portray. These are the people who will champion his cause and it will only come about though the limitations and actions seen in Man and Superman.
The style of George Bernard Shaw is that of many different writers. He is someone who has been influenced greatly by a variety of people, both in his diction and in his views. This becomes the focal point of many pejorative critics of the man. They denounce him for his unoriginal ideas and trite styles. Shaw didn’t write for acclaim, however. He seldom cared what others felt or said about his writing, as long as he got his point across that was good enough. It becomes apparent why so many critics disapprove of him when one looks at the list of contributors to his work. They range from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Butler, Marx, Ruskin, Morris, Caryle and Wagner to Ibsen, Chokhov and even Jesus (Ohmann 30).
During the time period of his life people as radical as these were feared and thus shunned by society. A number of people on that list are great reformers and socialists.
Today we have the term Shavian when discussing the radical type of literature produced by Bernard Shaw. The simple definition of Shavian would be to describe his style of writing, but the real meaning as J. Percy Smith put it is that Shavian means to vigorously object to doctrine (2).
That is exactly what he does in Man and Superman; he attacks marriage, government and religion, subtlety and very powerfully. When a man writes in the public eye and is considered a radical he is oftentimes misunderstood. Shaw never wanted to destroy religion or see it removed from the fabric of society. No, he wanted to affirm religion, that it is needed and available. Though hypocritical in many ways it should persist (Smith 3).
Shaw would write letters to Tolstoy for his opinion on his writings. In a letter about Man and Superman Tolstoy replied to Shaw that it was obvious that Shaw recognized that God has definite aims (Bentley The Life Of The Drama 44).
Shaw never wanted to proclaim himself an atheist because he made it apparent in his works that there was a God and this God had power.
Possibly the reason Shaw received a bad reputation from many critics was because of his attitudes, not solely his writings. In a statement made after the conclusion of one of his plays Shaw compared himself to Shakespeare and stated he was better than him. This arrogant socialist went up against one of the most loved authors in history and expected to exit with a clean reputation. Shaw hated Shakespeare; he hated everything he stood for and every way he wrote. Though there was always respect for the man, Shaw despised the man. He may have hated Shakespeare but he was no better, writes Harold Bloom (1).
After reading Man and Superman and other Shavian writings that statement holds true. However, as stated earlier, Shakespeare was a master of romance and love on paper, but his works had little political substance. Shaw wrote for purpose not praise that is why he hated the use of allegory. The comedy Shaw used was dry social wit that might be offensive to some. Shaw felt that allegory took advantage of people’s ignorance, where its only use was for a laugh and nothing else (Park 47).
How Shakespeare made allegory his own and part of his style lies at the root of the conflict between Shaw and Shakespeare.
Each one of Bernard Shaw’s plays has a character with radical beliefs that are misread. Shaw did this to place himself in his works. There is always a shattered or an oppressor like Jack Tanner whose birth stems from his author (Ohmann 30).
This is a style all Shaw’s own yet it is not uncommon for an author to write himself into a play. It is certainly no surprise that the activists in his plays are the ones who bear a relation to Shaw. It should be stated though that Shaw did not hide the fact he used ideas of many extremists. In the foreword to Man and Superman Shaw writes that he owes the work to the men Bunyan, Hogarith and Turner. Never does he pretend to be original like many critics blast him for doing (Fiske 62).
It seems that Shaw writes his plays with influence from a triplet of contributors. Man and Superman is said to be a change in Shavian writing from his previous plays, such as Candida, that got their influence from Ibsen, Becque and Brieux (Valency 76).
It is no wonder Shaw admired Marx after reading Man and Superman because one would believe Jack Tanner to embody the spirits of that man and the comparison can even be made that Tanner’s The Revolutionist’s Handbook is similar in theory to that of the Communist manifesto. There are many philosophers and radicals that Shaw got his ideas from, but he does not deserve scorn for it. This proves his willingness to read others views and adopt them as his own. The criticism still remains though. Shaw saw himself as an “advanced thinker” and this attitude is what turns off many people about him. The feeling that his views are better than others creates conflict in his work when read by someone of a more conservative stance. Eric Bentley writes that Shaw was more of an old fashion thinker, that his brand of an “advanced thinker” is closer to those advanced thinkers of Nietzsche’s time not today’s (71).
Hopefully the idea that Man and Superman was written for the purpose of sending a message is apparent. This play is highly political in nature for it holds a number of grievances with common institutions in England and the world. Coupled with the fact that Shaw brought the ideas of many ideological thinkers into this work there becomes an overwhelming feeling that this is more than a dry love story. The third act holds the “Don Juan in hell” scene that many refer to as a play in itself. This “play” holds more of the political commentary than found throughout the real play. It is here that Shaw writes how democracy will fail and that there needs to be a strong few to pick the country up after its demise (Smith 110).
The institution of marriage that Shaw continually attacks in Man and Superman is in fact more than just an attack on that institution. It is an attack on what the government has created through that institution. Marriage has become something forced upon the two due to a life force. Some critics feel this life force is a biological thinking; in fact many hold this belief. However, others feel the life force is a term used for the state. There are so many more benefits that await a couple who marry that it seems that the government is endorsing marriage and condemning bachelorhood (Valecy 100).
Like that of so many things in literature the symbolism is in the eyes of the beholder. In Man and Superman the political beliefs pressed upon the reader can be interpreted a number of ways. Some interpretations Shaw never intended to be thought, but others he is adamant about sharing. One thing he wanted in writing this and his other plays was to stir controversy. He wanted his work to be more than a simple one-tier comedy. Shaw loved to spark controversy because he had so many opposing views and that is what he strived for in writing one of his most famous works, Man and Superman.
Literature can be seen as a barometer of the times, it holds the views and opinions dear to each author. George Bernard Shaw was a writer who did not care what waves he made, because he wanted that turbulence. In his classic work Man and Superman Shaw used character interactions to voice his objections to common institutions. There is more to this play than a love story and a son’s struggle for his father’s approval. It is this approval that each character strives to achieve that introduces conflict into the plot. Shaw uses the conflict he created to further his cause and lay the blueprint for what he feels is needed in a superman to combat the doomed democracy.