The following analysis of Man and Superman was originally published in The British and American Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915. pp. 76-80.
In the best of George Bernard Shaw's work up to the production of Man and Superman the thinker and preacher, while eternally trying to assert himself, was somehow subordinated to the dramatist. In this comedy -- and a philosophy -- however, the play itself is used only as a framework for a thesis. In the preface to the popular edition the author wrote: "As I have not been sparing of such lighter qualities as I could endow the book with for the sake of those who ask nothing from a play but agreeable pastime, I think it well to affirm plainly that the third act, however fantastic its legendary framework may appear, is a careful attempt to write a new Book of Genesis for the BIble of the Evolutionists...." Not content with a long prefatory letter, he added a seventy-five page "Revolutionist's Handbook" to his 190-page play, in order to expound what of his philosophy he was unable to crowd into the incidental comedy.
As a brilliant achievement, an amusing collection of pamphlets, as a piece of sustained clear thinking, the volume is a noteworthy achievement, yet Man and Superman, as a play in the ordinary sense of the word, comes near to being spoiled: there is so much dissertation and so vast a sermon, that the play -- what there is of action and character -- occasionally appears as an impertinent intrusion. Still, there is enough left when it is presented -- minus the third act, which has [rarely] been played with the rest -- to allow one to see how good it might have been.
In his everlasting protest against the "incorrigibly romantic" Englishman, Shaw has written good plays according to the old dramatic formulas, and equally good ones after he threw them aside. In his splendid revolt against all that he considers false in art and life he has been consistent. Still, his contribution has been for the most part a negative one. In Arms and the Man his message was the destruction of the conventional "heroic" soldier; in Widower's Houses he made of Blanche a cold and unsympathetic girl, largely because he felt that Pinero and G.R. Sims would have made her a little friend of the poor. And so, in Man and Superman the love-scenes are reversed, as it were: the aggressive Ann Whitefield pursues the unwilling Jack Tanner. The conventional dramatists of all times have pictured the lover at the feet of his mistress, who is usually haughty and distant. Not content with telling the mere truth, and unwilling to utter half-truths about poverty and war and sex, Shaw has stated what appears to his normal eyes as the rule, from what seems to the average reader and playgoer a decidedly oblique angle. This he has done for the sake of emphasis.
Shaw's "love-scenes" are highly characteristic of his dramatic methods. Take the lovers in Widowers' Houses, those in Mrs. Warren's Profession, Arms and the Man, You Never Can Tell, The Doctor's Dilemma, and Pygmalion; compare them with the lovers in Pinero's Iris, Jones's Michael and His Lost Angel, and Edward Sheldon's Romance. As a rule, Shaw is mortally afraid of anything touching upon the romantic -- yet in Candida, The Doctor's Dilemma, and The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, he indulges in his own peculiar way in the universal failing. He never approaches the Latin method, where lovers express in words and gestures every breath in the whirlwind of passion. It should not be too hastily concluded that Shaw is averse from the depiction of true passion -- Mrs. Dubedat in The Doctor's Dilemma is intended as a deep-feeling woman -- but rather that he was dissatisfied with the conventional treatment which too often masqueraded as such, and not that he was, in the words of Vaughn in his own Fanny's First Play, "psychologically incapable of the note of passion." Shaw is too much an artist not at least to try to make use of such powers as he possesses.
The first act is as good a first act as Shaw ever wrote: there is little discursiveness, the plot is carefully, amusingly, and interestingly, begun. But is it quite clear? Is, for instance, the mistake as to Violet's position -- the scene occupying the last few pages of the act -- made unmistakably plain? The act closes on this scene, and great importance is assumed as belonging to the episode. Technique or no technique, the end of an act is a conspicuous place, and what is put there is bound to attract attention.
The second act is on the whole good drama, concerned for the most part with the Ann-Tanner story; it progresses straight up to the little climax. The starting of the motor, visible to the audience, is a clever device for thrusting the plot forward. Straker is possibly a little puzzling, but he is so amusing that we may excuse his dramatic "superfluity." So far, then, so good.
The third act is never played -- except independently, as Don Juan in Hell -- the reason given being that the entire play would prove too long for a single representation. But Bernard Shaw [was] always so scrupulous and uncompromising in the matter of the presentation of his plays, that this excuse must be taken as tantamount to a confession of failure: the act is practically negligible so far as the play itself is concerned. Fortunately, there was scarcely any preparation in the two preceding acts for this act, nor does the third contain much that concerns the fourth. Only a very few minor changes are made for the stage version.
Read the third act, and try to determine what relation it has with the rest of the play.
The last act is good and bad, dramatically. In nearly every play of Shaw the dramatic qualities should be carefully differentiated from the intellectual, the didactic, the intrinsically amusing. The earlier pages of this fourth act are interesting and amusing, but Malone's talk about Ireland properly belongs to John Bull's Other Island. Man and Superman is only resumed when Tanner and Ann take the stage again, and Ann, summoning up all her power in order to fulfil her mission in regard to the "Life Force," finally captures Tanner.
Some of the more striking difficulties under which the dramatist labored in trying to weld together many utterly foreign elements in this play have been touched upon in this outline. Can you discover others? There is little need to indicate the redeeming features of Man and Superman: the intellectual agility, the wit, the good humor, the essential truth of the ideas set forth. These are evident, but only because Shaw is so ... great [a] dramatist is it worth the student's while to observe his shortcomings.
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