Don Juan in Hell – George Bernard Shaw’s Man & Superman

Man & Superman
Liberty is Responsibility: That is why most men dread it
As I have said on my numerous reviews on Goodreads (and elsewhere), a play is meant to be watched, not read, and it can be very difficult to truly appreciate a play unless you watch it performed. The problem is that you rarely see many plays performed by playwrights of the past (unless that playwright is Shakespeare – he is still very popular). This means that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to actually see any of Shaw’s works. However, imagine my delight when I jumped onto the website of the Palace Nova Brighton Bay and discovered that they were showing a production of Shaw’s Man & Superman that was recently staged in London. While I have seen movie adaptations of couple of his plays (The Devil’s Disciple and Caeser and Cleopatra – both of which have now been removed from Youtube due to copyright violations), I have yet, until now, seen one of his plays performed. Of all the plays that they could have chosen they selected a relatively obscure one.
What makes me even happier is that I have also discovered that the Sydney Theatre Company, later this year, will be staging a performance of Arms & the Man.

The National Theatre Production

I probably should say a few things about the production itself especially since every production of a play will have it’s own unique twist. However, while I thought the  performance was awesome, and the play had me chuckling quite a few times, I feel that Susannah Clapp and Michael Billington describe it much better than myself. Even then, since the play is now finished I guess we probably won’t have the opportunity to go and see it performed live (even if it means a trip to London).

I don’t really feel comfortable saying that the play was in ‘modern dress’ particularly since it was written in 1903. Sure while the fashion and the trends of the turn of the 20th century were somewhat different to our own, and technology has changed dramatically, there is still some familiarity with our own time. However, considering that many of Shaw’s works were written in the context of Edwardian England we still need to remember that there are probably some in jokes, and some references to ideas that are now obsolete (such as the concept of the superman – more on that later).

It wasn’t until the end that I discovered that Ralph Fiennes played the lead role. Okay, I am not really all that familiar with many of his productions (with the exception of Coriolanus – which I must say is one awesome movie), but I do recognise the name. In fact as I was watching the play I had this sneaking suspicion that John Tanner was somewhat familiar (and it turned out to be Ralph Fiennes) which encouraged me to hang around for the credits.

Anyway, here is a trailer for the production:

Shawvian Theatre
Bernard ShawOne of the things that I have noticed about the Theatre at the turn of the century and that it is anything but minimalist. When I have read Shaw’s plays I have noticed detailed set descriptions and stage directions. This quite different to the Shakespearean plays that have minimal notes at best. The thing about Shakespeare is that his plays are quite minimalist and I have even seen productions where there is little more than a single chair in the centre of the stage. Mind you, most of the ones that I have seen also have flashing coloured lights flying across the stage, but as for the plays themselves, it seems as if Shakespeare has given quite a lot of latitude to the directors (or maybe because he simply didn’t need to write down stage directions since most of the plays from that period are similarly sparse on details beyond the speaking lines).
The funny thing about this play, at least when I first began to watch it, was how similar it was to The Importance of Being Ernest. Not so much the plot (which I will get to in a moment) but rather the style in which the play was written. This is not surprising considering that Oscar Wilde was writing around the same time as was Shaw (though I suspect that Wilde was somewhat older than Shaw). The thing is that the themes were quite different. While The Importance of Being Ernest is a comedy, Shaw gives this play the subtitle of ‘A comedy and a philosophy’, and there are quite a few philosophical points that he makes (as he tends to do with a lot of his plays).
The problem with a Shaw production though is that some of his plays have lengthy prologues and epilogues, and this is very much the case with Man & Superman. The play begins with a lengthy letter and ends with the text of John Tanner’s ‘The Revolutionist’s Handbook‘ (who gives himself the title of MIRC – Member of the Idle Rich Class). There is also a list of Maxims for the Revolutionists, some of which are quite caustic:
A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence university education.
The most anxious man in the prison is the governor
  Your word can never be as good as your bond, because your memory can never be as trustworthy as your honor.
A Romantic-Comedy?
Man & Superman could be considered a romantic comedy, however it doesn’t fall into the category that we normally expect to come out of Hollywood. In fact many of the romantic comedies that appeared in the theatre had their own style and convention. Even then Shaw hated convention and would be more than willing to go his own way. The play is certainly a comedy (as could be seen from the laughter coming from the audience) and it is certainly about how a man and a woman become romantically involved, but it doesn’t fall into the traditional category where the man chases the woman and ultimately succeeds. It certainly doesn’t fall into the category where the man is a hopeless romantic who ends up finding true love.
The story is about John Tanner, a self confessed Member of the Idle Rich Class, and a left wing reactionary (as can be seen by reading his Revolutionist’s Handbook). The thing about Tanner is that he does not believe in marriage, and he certainly does not want to marry Ann Whitefield. In any case he believes (or at least wants to believe) that she is going to marry Octavius, who has been given the pet name Ricky Ticky Tavey. As the play progresses it begins to become clear that she isn’t interested in Octavius, she is interested in him. When he begins to realise this he jumps in a car and tries to drive as far away from her as possible (ending up in the Sierra Nevada’s in Spain) only to discover that she is hot on his heals.
Sierra Nevadas Spain

The problem with this play is that it is supposed to be a philosophy, but it was never received as a philosophy (probably because people don’t generally go to the theatre to see philosophical productions). Rather it was taken as another of the many romantic comedies that would regularly plough the stage, though you would hardly consider this to be the traditional romantic comedy (as I have already indicated). The thing with Bernard Shaw is that he is hardly a romantic and from what I can see from this play he has little time for the hopeless romantic.While Man and Superman is not traditionally a romantic comedy, at the beginning we see that Octavius is smitten with Ann and it is believed that he is going to marry her. On the other side we have John Tanner who is the revolutionary philosopher that is not interested in getting married. The problem is that when we think of a philosopher we automatically think of them also being hopeless romantics – Neitzsche was a case in point. What Shaw is pointing out is that this is not the case: philosophers are not necessarily hopeless romantic and John Tanner is proof.

The thing with hopeless romantics is that women tend to be put off by them – I know because I can be one at times. One thing that I have learnt over my life is that women do not like to be told by somebody whom they hardly know, or are friends, that this person is in love with them. This tells them that this particular person is emotionally unstable and has little understanding of what it means to be in a relationship. Sure, understanding whether a woman likes you or not (and vice versa) can be a difficult task at best, however coming to them with flowers and chocolates and declaring your undying love can actually be quite disconcerting. As Ann says: Octavius is the type of person who will end up being the perpetual bachelor whom is loved by the landlady because he is just so nice.

The Hopeless RomanticThe problem with Hollywood is that they love hopeless romantics, namely because they can be really funny. In fact having the hopeless romantic as the centre piece of the production is what gives the production its life. We see this in the Importance of Being Ernest. The problem with this is that the Hollywood production cannot simply have an ending where it is agreed that they can only be friends – they have to over come their difficulties and live happily ever after. Take Leonard Hoffsteader from the Big Bang Theory – he is the classic example of the hopeless romantic. In real life he would have never got into a relationship with Penny, and in fact the best part of the series was when they weren’t in a relationship. The problem is that we want Leonard and Penny to get together, however for those who have followed the show, when they actually did get together, and became engaged, the show ended up going downhill. It is actually more believable that Howard Wolowitz got married because, well, he is a sleaze, and the thing with sleazes is that they simply don’t give up and sooner or later will meet somebody who actually likes that time of behaviour. However hopeless romantics always dream about that relationship that is forever out of their grasp.

The Question of Marriage

Home is the girl’s prison and the woman’s workhouse.

One of the problems that we have when we approach this play is marriage. Throughout the play Tanner repeatedly tells us that he does not believe in marriage. To us in the modern day we see this as meaning an unwillingness to commit, whether it to be one partner, or to a single partner beyond that of a long term relationship. What I am suggesting is that we have two types of people – one who sows their wild oats and one who is generally monogamous but feels that marriage is just a layer of commitment that one does not walk to accept (though it has always baffled me why there is a different between being married and living as if a couple were married – the only differences in the eyes of the human law are with tax and welfare benefits, and even then that is changing). Since John Tanner is equated with the legendary philanderer Don Juan later on in the play, we automatically assume that he is the first type.This may be true, but marriage was a lot different in England during the turn of the 20th Century than it is today. For instance, when a woman married all of her property would pass onto the husband – in fact women weren’t allowed to own property. Any property that the woman ‘had’ was actually the possession of her father, and in marriage this would pass onto the husband (in the form of a dowry). Secondly, women didn’t have a choice as to who they were to marry. Even these days the tradition still exists where a suitor must get the father’s permission to marry his daughter. This is why, at the beginning of the play there is so much talk about the wishes of Ann’s father, and why there is a belief that she was going to marry Octavius.

John Tanner didn’t want to marry simply because he wanted to sow his wild oats across as many fields as possible, but rather because he saw it as a form of institutionalised slavery. Men and women had specific roles in that the man was the bread winner and the woman would stay home caring for the children and looking after the house. In many cases it was expected (and still is to some degree) that when a couple marries, they do so for the purpose of child bearing (and this concept will become important a little later on). Once a woman married she had to quit her job to basically become a housewife.

It is this idea of marriage, the idea that the woman becomes the slave to the husband, and that the woman has little choice or freedom as to whether she wishes to enter into (or even leave) the union that is being riled against. However, Shaw is not completely against marriage because there is an important role that marriage plays in Shaw’s philosophy, which is probably one of the reasons why marriage is one of those cross cultural phenomena.

The Devil and Don Juan

This is sort of a play within a play, or more aptly a dream sequence that occurs halfway through Act III. John Tanner has fled to Spain where he is ambushed by bandits, however after a bit of a tet-a-tet where the bandit leader Mendoza tells Tanner that his profession is to rob from the rich to which Tanner replies that his job is to rob from the poor, they end up becoming friends. The funny thing about these bandits is that one is introduced as an anarchist, and the remainder as three different types of socialists (thus suggesting that there is little unity in the left, yet they are all able to work together for the common goal – robbing from the rich). As night falls all go to sleep and the dream sequence begins.This mini-play, which is sometimes cut out, and sometimes performed as a one act play, begins with Don Juan, who looks remarkably like John Tanner, sitting alone on stage and a elderly woman enters (the production I saw had her dressed in black with a veil over her head) and they begin to talk. While the thrust of this mini-play follows the thrust of the play as a whole, it was the discussions on heaven, hell, and the afterlife that intrigued me.

Don Juan in Hell


Okay, Shaw actually didn’t believe in heaven or hell, namely because he was an atheist, however the discussions about the nature of the afterlife that occur here I found quite intriguing, and somewhat interesting, which is why I want to touch on them specifically.

The thing about Heaven and Hell is that the idea about the gulf that none can pass separating them, as we are told, is little more than a parable. This gulf is not a physical gulf but a psychological gulf (and C.S. Lewis explores this concept in The Great Divorce). While most analogies fall down somewhere, the example that Shaw uses is that of the opera and the race track. The thing is that people who go to the race track simply do not want to go to the opera, and those who go to the opera would not be seen dead at the racetrack. A more modern example would be that a person who goes to a rave would not necessarily go to the theatre and vice versa (though I have been to both on the same day, so I guess that analogy falls down – or I’m just one of those unique people). The thing is that we are dealing with two different societies – that of the working class and that of the propertied class. While they are found in the same city, you will not see members mixing simply because of the cultural differences.

However, that does not necessarily mean that members of these classes do not mix. In this instance we see the commander descending from heaven to spend time in hell, and Don Juan ascending from Hell to spend time in Heaven. In fact, as I think about it, it seems that Shaw seems to be using the concept of Heaven and Hell to paint a picture of the two classes. The thing about the propertied classes, as is painted in this scene, is that they put up with things that they simply hate because this is what is expected of them. They won’t go to the race track simply because that is a place that people of that class simply do not attend. Even in the modern day we see similar things – people who go to the theatre simply do not go to raves (which is not really true, but you know what I mean).

The thing about Heaven is that people put on this sense of virtue, a virtue that is not created through divine law but rather through human law. We believe that this is the way people in heaven behave, therefore we behave as such, and the people of hell (the working classes) are vulgar and distasteful. However it is interesting that Don Juan, at the end of the piece, ascends into heaven willingly, but Ann, who wants to pursue him up the elevator, is forbidden – she simply would not like the place. Don Juan ascends through choice, Ann wants to ascend because she is pursuing Don Juan, and there a major reason as to why she is pursuing him, a reason that is hinted at throughout the play, and spelt out clearly here – she wants to give birth to the Superman.

Birth of the Superman

When most of us hear the word Superman there is one person who immediately comes to mind:



Look, when Shaw first wrote this play the Man of Steel simply did not exist (though I’m sure Shaw was alive when he made his first appearance in 1938 (and it would have been interesting to see his reaction). No, the superman that Shaw is referring to is Neitzsche’s Ubermensch (better translated as overman). However Shaw’s belief differs from Neitzsche’s namely because he was influenced more by Darwin’s concept of sexual selection (I will explain Neitzsche’s approach below).

The thing with sexual selection is that the woman is not the passive subject of the relationship, but rather the active participant (which is why Shaw’s concept went against the grain). The idea is that the goal of the woman is to give birth to the superman, thus she will purse the male that she believes is the best mate to reach that goal. This is why Shaw was so objectionable against the institution of marriage – it hindered the goal of giving birth to the superman because men who were not worthy of such a task were partnered with women who were, thus making it difficult, if not impossible for the superman to be born.

The thing about the superman is that a specific specimen is required. A member of the working class is simply not suitable because while they may be strong, they tend not to be intellectuals, meaning that strength and intelligence simply could not flow through to the progeny. While the rich class had money, meaning that the progeny could afford an education, they tended to be idle, and in a way useless. Because they have money they can get other people to do all of their hard work. Sure, they can spend time studying, but they didn’t do that either. Thus the rich class are not strong, nor do they have the intelligence, to be able to give birth to the superman.

Certainly John Tanner, by his own admission, is a member of the idle rich class, and being a member he is reliant upon others to do the meanial tasks for him (which is demonstrated through the use of his chauffeur – the chauffeur isn’t just a driver, but also an engineer, which gives him skills that Tanner could never have and thus making him incapable of performing such tasks). Yet Tanner portrays an intelligence that makes him a suitable candidate, which is why Ann pursues him. Octavius, being emotionally immature, could never give birth to the superman, which is why he is doomed to live his life as a perpetual bachelor. However, there is one problem – Tanner does not want to get married.

The Evolution of Ideas

From what I gathered from Thus Spake Zarathustra, Neitzsche’s idea is that the ubermensch is not born but created, and is created through ideas. In the book Zarathustra (an ancient Persain prophet) is teaching his disciples, and as the book progresses his disciples ascend to become ubermensch through these teachings. This is my understanding of how the ubermensch is created – not through procreation but through ideas and through eduction. This type of education is not about learning how to do a skill, but rather how to think, to reason, and through this process, evolving. Mind you, some capacity to be able to think and reason is required, and I do accept that there are some biological elements, but the thing is that if somebody is not taught how to think and reason, despite them being able to do so, they will not be able to do as such.

It is at this point that I now jump through to my spiritual beliefs (I hate the term religious simply because, to me, religion is simply a set of rituals that people follow in order to attain a good afterlife). My belief is that there has existed, at one point in history, an ubermensch – Jesus Christ. It’s not so much that he was able to do all of these miraculous things that made him as such, but rather through the life that he lived and his teachings. The thing about Jesus is that he demonstrated to us, through his life and his teachings, a path that we as humans can take to evolve ourselves. The thing about humanity is that we hold back our evolution through our belief in following sets rituals, and indulging in luxury, and the accumulation of material wealth. We also live selfish lives seeking only our pleasure and gain for ourselves and in living such lives we as humans do not grow.

Okay, while I might sound like some head-in-the-clouds Christian, or hippy that dances around putting flowers into the guns of soldiers, or some Buddhist that suggests that we must reject wealth and pleasure, I do not believe that is what Christ is saying. Sure, he does suggest that materialism is quite destructive, and that decadency is basically unhelpful, but he does not go as far as suggesting that we should all become paupers. When he told the rich man to sell all that he had, he was not telling him to become a beggar on the street adding to the numbers of the poor, he was pointing out to him that the thing that was holding him back was his wealth. For him to evolve (that is, enter the Kingdom of Heaven – yes, the Kingdom of Heaven does have an earthly aspect to it) he needed to discard that which was acting as a barrier to that ascension. The thing is that there are many barriers that we must overcome to reach that final point – that point where we can lie on our death bed with a certainty, not blind faith, but a certainty, that when we finally die all is not over but rather we will ascend into glory and become ubermensch.

There is an awesome commentary on the play on Diary of an Autodidact.

Creative Commons License

Don Juan in Hell – George Bernard Shaw’s Man & Superman by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you  wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me directly.

Man & Superman soucre: National Theatre used under the fair use laws of the United States for illustrative purposes only, and also because it is a pretty cool opening picture.

Sierra Nevadas Source: Antonio Morales Garcia used with permission under creative commons attribution-share alike 2.0 generic 

Leonard Hoffsteader Source: Wikipedia used under the fair use laws of the United States for illustrative purposes only – I’m talking about hopeless romantics, and he is the classic example.

Marriage source: Joshuajohasen used with permission under creative commons attribution-share alike 2.0 generic

Superman source: Listloves used under the fair use laws of the United States for illustrative purposes only – and also sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.


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