Man and Superman: Introduction to the Play
In the Epistle Dedicatory, a letter to a critic named Arthur Bingham Walkley, George Bernard Shaw talks about the creation of his play “Man and Superman” and his views on comedy. Walkley praised Shaw as an intellectual but doubted his skills as a dramatist. So, Shaw took up the challenge and wrote a play with a love theme, as suggested by Walkley. Shaw humorously admits that he has a “schoolmaster” temperament and sees himself as a reformer, challenging people to be uncomfortable with the status quo and strive for progress. He believes that comedy should criticize the current society and push for a logical and unlimited order, rather than blindly following conventional norms. Unlike older views of comedy that focused on ridiculing individuals outside the norm, Shaw argues that society itself, and its conventions, can be absurd. He believes that as long as society remains afflicted by absurdities, people should not feel too comfortable. This insight into Shaw’s comic theory shows his passion for challenging norms and pushing for change through humour and satire.
Shaw criticizes current romantic plays, calling them “childish” and uninteresting. He believes they focus too much on sexual attraction but are not allowed to show or discuss it openly. Shaw takes up a challenge to write a Don Juan play where the natural attraction between men and women is the main theme. He sees a difference between eroticism and sex, with most dramas focusing on the former. Shaw’s version of the Don Juan story is different from the original one, which was written by a Spanish priest in the 16th century. In that story, Don Juan, a member of a respected family, lived a wild and licentious life, leading to deadly consequences. Shaw’s play will have a different message, not about divine justice but something else.
In Molière’s play “Don Juan,” the character of Don Juan becomes more seductive and amusing compared to the original Spanish version. Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” also contributed to popularizing this new version. Shaw argues that what had attracted readers and audiences to Don Juan from the very first is not the moral lesson but Don Juan’s “heroism of daring to be the enemy of God. From Prometheus to my own Devil’s Disciple, such enemies have always been popular.” Here we have one of the keys to Shaw’s interest in the story: He too could depict a hero who was a rebel on the grand scale, but one who was an enemy of the false gods of society. And surely Walkley knows that Shaw cannot depict Don Juan in an aristocratic society dominated by men. Not only has the middle class come into its own, but woman has become completely emancipated: “Man is no longer, like Don Juan, victor in the duel of sex . . . the enormous superiority of Woman’s natural position in this matter is telling with greater and greater force.” Here writes the man who had hailed the advent of the New Woman in his praise of Ibsen and in his own Candida. A modern Don Juan, Shaw continues, does not even pretend to read Ovid (The Art of Love, Roman classic of eroticism); he has read “Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, studied Westermarck, and is concerned for the future of the race instead of for the freedom of his own instincts.”
The Identification of these authors is quite significant because it accentuates how Shaw approached the theme of sex in English drama in a new and different way. It was the German philosopher, for example, who identified Force—Life Force, to use Shaw’s term—as inner will operating independent of intellect (Shaw was to modify this); who rejected romantic love and argued that sex relates properly to the ups and downs of the species, not merely to the individual. He wrote that woman exists in the main solely for the propagation of the species and in their hearts take the affairs of the species more seriously than those of the individual. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) is perhaps even more widely known as an original and revolutionary philosopher who emphasized self-aggrandizement or the will to power as the chief motivating force of both the individual and society. It was he also who saw woman as a kind of trap of the Life Force, of which she was the instinctive agent.
The modern Don Juan, Shaw continues, is anything but a profligate (recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources). He is a philosophic man, “more Hamlet than Don Juan” of tradition. At this point, Shaw digresses a bit to renew his feud with Shakespeare, criticizing the “mere harmonious platitude (cliché)” in Hamlet’s lines and the “absurd sensational incidents and physical violences of the borrowed story.” The point is that Shaw believed that Shakespeare should have written more like John Bunyan, William Blake, or Shelley (who was for Shaw “a religious force”); he should never have pandered to popular taste but should have been always the artist-philosopher. Or, to put it in other words, Shakespeare should have accepted the role of preacher.
Returning to his main subject, Shaw emphasizes his view that the modern Don Juan is not to be confused with Casanova (1725-98), that gifted Italian who is popularly identified as the prototype of the libertine. Shaw’s Don Juan, then, is “a figure superficially quite unlike the hero of Mozart.” But since the dramatist has not the heart to deprive Walkley of a view of the original Don Juan’s nemesis, the ambulatory statue, he has resorted to a kind of trick: He has introduced into a perfectly modern three-act play a “totally extraneous act.” This is the Don Juan in Hell intermezzo, which Shaw describes as “a Shavio-Socratic dialogue” and which gives Don Juan the opportunity to philosophize at great length in his talk with the lady, the Statue, and the Devil.
Returning to the discussion of the play proper, Shaw again emphasizes the fact that he has merely executed Walkley’s commission, the dramatization of “sexual attraction to wit.” And in doing so, he has been steadfastly realistic: He has not adulterated the product with “aphrodisiacs” nor “diluted it with water.” All this, of course, is another hit at the current romantic drama which was an anathema to Shaw. His is a story of modern London life, where the ordinary man strives to maintain his position as a gentleman, and the ordinary woman is concerned with marriage. After all, the law of nature is involved: Money means nourishment, which is man’s first concern; marriage means children, which are woman’s prime interest.
Shaw comes pretty close to reducing the average human being to an amoeba at this point in his discussion of these two basic drives. Or, perhaps more accurately, he shows the influence of the relatively new naturalism, according to which the instinctual was emphasized and sex and hunger identified as the ultimate sources of human behaviour. Early and late he had been interested in the institution of marriage. Some of his ideas found expression in his fifth novel, An Unsocial Socialist (1884), in which Sidney Trefusis is an outspoken rationalist like Jack Tanner in Man and Superman. He had been especially influenced by Samuel Butler, whose The Way of All Flesh is a keenly satiric criticism of English family life in the middle classes. But what Shaw is leading up to immediately is an endorsement of Socialism. The prosaic Englishman, he states, is like all prosaic people—stupid. Such a person does not realize that the present system where at all costs every man wants to be rich and every woman to be married “must produce a ruinous development of poverty, celibacy, prostitution, infant mortality, adult degeneracy, and everything men most dread.” Socialism would make possible a highly scientific social organization which would eliminate all these evils.
This play is going to focus on sexual attraction, not food. According to Shaw, men leave the serious matter of sex to women, while they take care of nourishment. He suggests that this is not a revolutionary idea, as Shakespeare’s plays also portray women as the ones taking the lead in relationships, whether in joyful or dark comedies. Shaw calls it the “Shakespearean law” when it comes to romance. Thus, he makes clear the basic plot line of Man and Superman: the tragicomic love chase of man by woman.
The dramatist concedes that some friends who had heard him read the play were shocked at woman’s unscrupulousness in her pursuit and capture of man. They should realize that woman is doing no more than following the law of nature; if she did otherwise there would be an end of the human race. Shaw pokes fun at man’s hypocrisy and capacity for deluding himself–his view of woman as the lesser man, his “speaking of Woman’s ‘sphere’ with condescension, even with chivalry, as if the kitchen and nursery were less important than the office in the city.” Among the unrealistic and the uninformed, it is assumed that woman must wait motionless until some man proposes marriage to her. If she does wait motionless, it is as the spider waits for the fly!
Shaw explains that great literature and art often depict sex unrealistically because ordinary men would show fear of women’s predatory nature, while genius individuals, free from sexual tyranny, approach love with pleasure, excitement, and contemplative tranquillity, presenting a self-consciousness of specific artistic talent and temperament rather than a true reflection of the world.
According to Shaw, the fact that women take the initiative in relationships has significant political implications. He believes that democracy, which he describes as “the last refuge of cheap misgovernment,” can be harmful if not kept in check to prevent wrongdoing and excessive demands. Shaw then examines the political situation in Britain, which he refers to as a “tight but parochial (narrow minded) little island.” In the past, aristocracy and plutocracy (rule by the rich) held control over the government, and one had to be born into a selected class to have a say. Now, the commercial class, determined by wealth, has gained political power. This shift occurs as Great Britain becomes a Commonwealth of Nations and witnesses the partition of Africa and possibly Asia. Shaw questions whether this new class is capable of handling the significant responsibility facing the nation. He compares voters’ decision-making at the polling booths to their behaviour at public theatres, implying that intelligence may be lacking in both situations. Quoting Edmund Burke, Shaw concludes that the nation is now under the control of “the hoofs of the swinish (pertaining to swine, gluttonous, greedy) multitude.”
This statement might surprise those who assumed that a devoted Socialist would have affection for the common people. Shaw didn’t actually hate them; he just lacked confidence in their ability to govern effectively. He also didn’t trust formal education, progress, or the influence of heredity. Shaw believes that progress can only improve us to the extent of our current abilities. He rejects the idea of hereditary ruling classes like the aristocracy or the new commercial class. Distressed, he predicts that, unless an electorate of capable critics is found, modern civilization will collapse as did those of Rome and Egypt. His intensity echoes sentiments expressed in the first two lines of Wordsworth’s famous sonnet written a century earlier:
The world Is too much with us late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
Shaw continues to say that in British newspapers and melodramas, there is much talk about the destiny of the British Empire, but the public is more interested in the American millionaire. This is also true in Shaw’s play “Man and Superman,” where the American millionaire plays a significant role. Some might think that Shaw was feeling very negative at this point. It’s true that as a Fabian, Shaw had become disillusioned with political theories as the answer to humanity’s progress. However, he still held onto his ideals and remained optimistic. He believed that political changes alone wouldn’t solve social issues, and he was preparing to present a new solution.
Shaw wants to assure Walkley that he hasn’t included all the strong opinions in his comedy. Only his modern Don Juan character, Jack Tanner, acts as a political writer, and his views are in The Revolutionist’s Handbook, which is added to the play. Shaw doesn’t want to be like those writers who claim their heroes are superior but then keep their works hidden from the audience. In the handbook, Shaw shows how Don Juan’s ancestors understood the “politics of the sex question” according to his vision. He admits that, at certain dramatic moment, Tanner’s views represent his own. Shaw is aware that some people believe there’s only one right point of view, but he disagrees. He believes that truth can be elusive, and important issues wouldn’t exist if honest and reasonable people didn’t strongly differ on them.
Shaw expects criticism as an artist, as he may not fully understand how the common person perceives sex. He had previously claimed that artists are free from its influence, so some might question his decision to write a Don Juan play. However, he explains that Walkley encouraged him to do so, and his approach may have value for artists, be entertaining for amateurs, and be understandable and thought-provoking for the average person. Shaw believes that recording one’s illusions contributes to scientific psychology. He admits that his work may not be easily grasped by the general public but rather suits a more philosophical audience. In essence, his play is a comedy of ideas, as indicated by its subtitle “A Comedy and a Philosophy.”
Shaw makes his acknowledgement of sources and influences in his creation of leading characters in Man and Superman. Declaring that the unknown author of Everyman was “no mere artist, but an artist-philosopher,” Shaw pays his tribute to these superior beings and complains once more against melodrama and romance. Among his heroes are Mozart, Bunyan, Blake, Hogarth, and Turner, and he claims literary kinship with Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, William Morris, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche. Shaw conceded that although he reads Shakespeare and Dickens, he finds their observations and demonstrations lacking a coherent philosophy or religion. He discusses various characters in Shakespeare’s plays and Dickens’ novels, praising artist-philosophers like Bunyan and Nietzsche for their realistic and courageous portrayals of life. Shaw criticizes Dickens’ sentimental assumptions, which he believes contradict his observations, and he flatly states that to Shakespeare the world was “a great ‘stage of fools’ on which he was utterly bewildered.” Above all, the great writer is one who has the courage to attack the conventional and what passes for morality.
Shaw concludes, at long last, by stating that for art’s sake alone he “would not face the toil of writing a single sentence.” “Art for art’s sake” is the doctrine which holds that the aim of art should be creation and the perfection of technical expression rather than the service of amoral, political, or didactic end.
Outlined by Coleridge and given early expression in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Poetic Principle, the doctrine had been evolving ever since the Romantic period and was widely popular at the time Shaw was writing. Little wonder that he should reject it, for Shaw advertises the fact that he is a man with a message. But he is wise enough to know that he cannot gain or hold an audience unless he can present it entertainingly.
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