Arguably George Bernard Shaw's most profound play, Man and Superman, blends social satire with a fascinating philosophy. Today, the comedy continues to make readers and audiences laugh and think - sometimes simultaneously.
Man and Superman tells the story of two rivals: John Tanner (a wealthy, politically-minded intellectual who values his freedom) and Ann Whitefield (a charming, scheming hypocritical young woman who wants Tanner as a husband). Once Tanner realizes that Miss Whitefield is hunting for a spouse (and that he is the only target), he attempts to flee, only to find out that his attraction to Ann is too overwhelming to escape.
Re-inventing Don Juan
Although many of Shaw's plays were financial successes, not all of the critics admired his work. While many reviewers were intrigued by Shaw's ideas, they did not appreciate his lengthy scenes of dialogue with little-to-no conflict. One such critic, Arthur Bingham Walkley once said that Shaw is “no dramatist at all.” In the late 1800s, Walkley suggested that Shaw should write a Don Juan play. Beginning in 1901, Shaw accepted the challenge; in fact, he wrote an extensive albeit sarcastic dedication to Walkley, thanking him for the inspiration.
In the preface of Man and Superman, Shaw discusses the way Don Juan has been portrayed in other works, such as Mozart's opera or Lord Byron's poetry. Traditionally, Don Juan is a pursuer of women, an adulterer, and an unrepentant scoundrel. At the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Don Juan is dragged to Hell, leaving Shaw to wonder: What happened to Don Juan's soul? Man and Superman provides an answer to that question. The spirit of Don Juan lives on in the form of Juan's distant-descendant John Tanner. Instead of a pursuer of women, Tanner is a pursuer of truth. Instead of an adulterer, Tanner is a revolutionary. Instead of a scoundrel, Tanner defies social norms and old-fashioned traditions in hopes of leading the way to a better world.
Yet, the theme of seduction - typical in all incarnations of Don Juan stories - is still present. Through each act of the play, the female lead, Ann Whitefield, aggressively pursues her prey. Below is a brief summary of the play.
Man and Superman - Act One
Ann Whitefield's father has passed away. Mr. Whitefield's will indicate that his daughter's guardians shall be two gentlemen:
- Roebuck Ramsden: The steadfast (and rather old-fashioned) friend of the family.
- John Tanner: A controversial author and “Member of the Idle Rich Class”
The problem: Ramsden cannot stand Tanner's morals, and Tanner cannot stand the idea of being Ann's guardian. To complicate things, Tanner's friend Octavius “Tavy” Robinson is head over heels in love with An. He hopes that the new guardianship will improve his chances of winning her heart.
Ann flirts harmlessly whenever she is around Tavy. However, when she is alone with John Tanner (AKA “Jack”) her intentions become obvious to the audience. She wants Tanner. Whether she wants him because she loves him, or because she is infatuated with him, or merely because desires his wealth and status is entirely up to the viewer's opinion.
When Tavy's sister Violet enters, a romantic subplot is introduced. Rumor has it that Violet is pregnant and unmarried. Ramsden and Octavius are outraged and ashamed. Tanner congratulates Violet. He believes that she is simply following life's natural impulses, and he approves the instinctive way Violet has pursued her goals despite society's expectations.
Violet can tolerate the moral objections of her friends and family. She cannot, however, abide Tanner's praise. She admits that she is legally married, but that the identity of her groom must remain secret. Act One of Man and Superman concludes with Ramsden and the others apologizing. Jack Tanner is disappointed; he wrongly thought that Violet has shared his moral/philosophical outlook. Instead, realizes the bulk of society is not ready to challenge traditional institutions such as marriage.
The Last Line of Act One
Tanner: You must cower before the wedding ring like the rest of us, Ramsden. The cup of our ignominy is full.