Man and Superman
by George Bernard Shaw

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Constable: London, 1903
xxxvii + 175 + 48 + 20 pages

first staged in part: London, 1905
first staged complete: Edinburgh, 1915

January 2015

Super-Who? And the super-Why of it

The four-act Man and Superman is one of George Bernard Shaw's major plays, in the sense that it staggers under a heavier burden of theory and propaganda than his run-of-the-herd plays. The hard-working fictional "mule", as we'll call the play itself, staggers under the awkward burden of its deliberately inverted "Don Juan" plot, pushing a cart of Preface ahead of it and dragging a sledge of Handbook after it. Considering that the main plot carries about enough energy to power a jackrabbit, the wonder is that the mule can move at all.

Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) deliberately confounds two meanings of the word superman, both more or less contrasted with man in the play's title and its theme. The first is a careless scrap from an important theme in Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, contrasting a superman (or "overman") or leavening admixture of them, with limited mankind as it is now and has been. Nietzsche's ideas were enjoying a vogue in Britain before the Great War with Germany began in 1914, whereupon many lightweight intellectuals proclaimed that somehow the anti-Reich German philosopher must bear some responsibility for the war. Beyond the bare understanding that future supermen must be qualitatively different in ways that we cannot anticipate, design, or understand (a reasonable demurral), Shaw offers little speculation about them. Contra Nietzsche, Shaw assumes they will be Socialists by nature, necessity, and desire.

In the play itself, in its action and dialogue as opposed to the lengthy attached essays and a few brief narrative interpolations, superman almost entirely refers to woman. In a number of his plays Shaw was not without sympathy for the drudgery and sufferings of women even in advanced societies. Despite the scandalized reactions of many contemporaries, Shaw's attitude seems the impersonal Socialist resonance with oppressed units of society: ideological concern rather than living empathy for individuals.

Shaw's major male characters in Man and Superman think and feel under a handicap apparently drawn from the author's own nature: they all are buffaloed by individual women, and by the idea of womankind. Some men's sharp intelligence, pitiless realism, and sardonic wit may buttress masculine independence for a while. Eventually the "Life Force" vitally embodied in all women must prevail. The race will be propagated whether men will it or not.

It is this Life Force which eventually will breed the new race of super-humanity, the race capable of achieving and maintaining Socialism. Presumably Shaw's anticipated super-men still will be outwitted and outmaneuvered by his new super-women. Even when the mule (as we're calling the play) takes a surprising jackrabbit leap from England to land in a bandit-gang's hideout in the Spanish mountains, the Life Force pursues the protagonist. Here the play becomes so silly that it's funny for a while.

From the Spanish mountains we go further afield. The famous fantasy sequence "Don Juan in Hell" reflects on the historical Don Juan theme somewhat in the manner of the more seriously theological "Grand Inquisitor" scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Even in Hell the Life Force of Woman is on the alert for what it must do.

Of course women using their sexual allure to manage their men is not a new topic for the theater. See Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata, first performed in Athens in 411 B.C.

A deep personal despair lurks in Shaw's thesis. Despite being a lifelong Socialist, tireless propagandist, and pillar of the Fabian Society, he had come to believe by the time he wrote Man and Superman (halfway through his long life) that no reform movement, including his beloved Socialism, can improve mankind's lot more than temporarily. Shaw's career of savaging the established order is allied with contempt for people in the abstract, whether as individuals or in larger groupings. Only a new-bred super-humanity can escape the relentless ills, failures, and shallowness of humanity as it is and has been to date.

And the mere chapter of accidents has left a small accumulation of chance discoveries, such as the wheel, the arch, the safety pin, gunpowder, the magnet, the Voltaic pile and so forth: things which, unlike the gospels and philosophic treatises of the sages, can be usefully understood and applied by common men; so that steam locomotion is possible without a nation of Stephensons, although national Christianity is impossible without a nation of Christs. But does any man seriously believe that the chauffeur who drives a motor car from Paris to Berlin is a more highly evolved man than the charioteer of Achilles, or that a modern Prime Minister is a more enlightened ruler than Caesar because he rides a tricycle, writes his dispatches by the electric light, and instructs his stockbroker through the telephone?

Enough, then, of this goose-cackle about Progress: Man, as he is, never will nor can add a cubit to his stature by any of its quackeries, political, scientific, educational, religious, or artistic. What is likely to happen when this conviction gets into the minds of the men whose present faith in these illusions is the cement of our social system, can be imagined only by those who know how suddenly a civilization which has long ceased to think (or in the old phrase, to watch and pray) can fall to pieces when the vulgar belief in its hypocrisies and impostures can no longer hold out against its failures and scandals. When religious and ethical formulae become so obsolete that no man of strong mind can believe them, they have also reached the point at which no man of high character will profess them; and from, that moment until they are formally disestablished, they stand at the door of every profession and every public office to keep out every able man who is not a sophist or a liar.

The above provocation is not entirely wrong, although in the first paragraph Shaw manages to misrepresent inventors and engineers and sages, Christ and Christianity, evolution and enlightenment; and in the second paragraph, how true character operates in civilization. Given his despairing of the success of Socialism for present-day mankind, why does Shaw bother to advocate it? Despite the vehemence of Shaw's Preface to the play, and the strident appendix "The Revolutionist's Handbook" (quoted above) carrying the male protagonist's byline, Shaw scarcely is more a philosophical essayist than he is a poetical playwright. He often ably wields the reformer's satiric needle. Yet there is scarcely any idea, be it ever so grand or subtle, that with his ideological blinders he cannot misunderstand and misrepresent, indeed often miss by a country mile.

Shaw's simplistic caricature of the Superman idea exemplifies why he ought not to be considered a popularizer of Nietzschean philosophy. Nietzsche despised socialism and its devaluation of the individual. More deeply, Nietzschean profundity and subtlety is quite beyond Shaw's ken. And basically, Shaw is a Nay-sayer to the world and those who live in it as best they can; Nietzsche is a Yea-sayer.


© 2015 Robert Wilfred Franson

Man and Superman
with Shaw's supporting material
available online at Project Gutenberg

Don Juan legend & retellings at Wikipedia

Friedrich Nietzsche at Troynovant

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