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In an epistolary preface to Man and Superman (1903), Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw writes a letter to Arthur Bingham Walkley, his friend and a theatre critic for The Times, who had inspired the play by asking Shaw why he had never written a play based on Don Juan, the legendary fictional Spanish lothario. This presented a particular challenge for Shaw, who had been writing works that challenged the popular romanticism that dominated theatre at the turn of the century. Shaw complied by employing the Don Juan featured in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, a lover-turned-philosopher who has rejected romance in favor of higher thought.
The first performance of Man and Superman in 1905 at the Royal Court Theatre in London did not include the third act; no performance did until 1915. Though subsequent productions have typically omitted the scene, “Don Juan in Hell,” it’s often performed as a separate play. As a whole, Man and Superman questions the nature of love and whether a married man can remain a revolutionary, or if he will stagnate with domestic life. This guide references page numbers from the public domain edition of the text, available on Project Gutenberg.
When a man named Mr. Whitefield dies, he entrusts the guardianship of his daughter, Ann, to two men: the revolutionary young Jack Tanner and the stodgy, rich Roebuck Ramsden. Jack, a sworn bachelor, has chosen to devote his life to philosophical pursuits. Meanwhile, Octavius Robinson, who was like a son to Mr. Whitefield, becomes infatuated with Ann and determines to marry her, unaware that Ann is truly in love with Jack.
Shaw’s Jack Tanner is a modern-day Don Juan, who has tired of womanizing and has begun questioning the purpose of life. Instead of settling for a wife, he is continually striving to become a Superman, an idea devised from Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of the ubermensch, a man like Prometheus who, according to Greek mythology, defied the will of the gods by bringing fire to humanity.
Similarly, Jack Tanner seeks to break with social convention and the will of social propriety by refusing to marry and making his own destiny. His book, The Revolutionist’s Handbook, has scandalized more than a few members of the wealthy British elite. With Jack as the protagonist, Shaw inverts the comedy of manners style, which typically formulates the battle of the sexes around romantic and sexual attraction and the negotiation of marriage. For Jack, marriage is not the goal, but the ultimate social convention that he cannot escape. Like many of Shaw’s plays, Man and Superman is a drama of ideas. It serves as a forum for the discussion of Shaw’s philosophies rather than focusing on action.
In Man and Superman, women serve to disrupt and distract men from their purpose. Ann, the eligible young ingenue, is a master manipulator. Her desire to marry Jack makes their marriage a foregone conclusion, even before the play begins. No matter how Jack denounces marriage, he discovers in the end that the woman’s job is to ensnare the man and reproduce. Similarly, Violet uses her feminine wiles to contort her new father-in-law, easily convincing him to accept her. Even Mrs. Whitefield helps to manipulate Jack into marrying her daughter. Shaw subverts the usual trope of naïve and gullible virgin, writing women who look at their suitors with wide eyes while easily controlling their actions. Shaw’s witty battle of the sexes is a fight for the progression of humanity at odds with the propagation of the species.
By George Bernard Shaw