Chapter Three Man and Superman: The Language of ... Three Man and Superman: The Language of Philosophy and Comedy 62 In the intervening period between Candida and Man and Superman,

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  • Chapter Three

    Man and Superman:

    The Language of Philosophy and Comedy


    In the intervening period between Candida and Man and Superman, Shaw wrote

    a number of plays with considerable theatrical success -plays such as, The Man

    of Destiny, You Never Can Tell, The Devil 's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, in

    which he has amended some of his earlier technical lapses. Now his theatre

    idiom incorporates more innovative components. His stage with elaborate setting

    shows greater complexity in the representation of even non-realistic themes and

    motifs. He shows much technical novelty in using music, light/shade and other

    stage effects along with spectacular projection of situations and characters,

    though the basic element of discussion is utilized in different modes. In the

    1890s there was a belief that the English actors of that time could not possibly

    cope with the flood of dialogue - that their tongues were not glib enough to

    rattle it off at the lightning speed required. Shaw took the challenge and

    introduced long solo speeches in Man and Superman, fusing them with ample

    amount of comedy and philosophy, so as to draw the audience to his main

    purpose - to give them a foretaste of his philosophy of Creative Evolution, and

    to show how his vision is staged. All this has been done with the aid of verbal

    dialogues and non-verbal visual elements. An atmosphere of dream and fantasy

    constitutes an important portion of the play in Act III.

    Man and Superman is a more mature play than Candida in respect of its subject

    and dramatic technique. Here we have "a biological comedy with spiritual

    overtones, or a spiritual comedy with a biological ground bass" (Bentley 16).

    Thematically viewed, the domestic comedy material with its eternal triangle in

    Candida changes into a superb blending of comedy and philosophy in Man and

    Superman. Louis Crompton calls Tanner "a comic Prometheus" (81 ), committed

    to the ideals of social reconstruction for an egalitarian society. Tanner, in the real

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    Shavian manner, denounces the cruelties, injustices and stupidities of society

    through his impassioned rhetorical arguments. All through the theatre speeches

    here Shaw is able to create in us a perception that we are listening to a

    philosopher who is right in all his major philosophic premises and amusingly

    wrong as to his minor ones (81).

    The play opens in Portland Place, where Roebuck Ramsden consoles the

    mournful young man Octavius on the death of Whitefield, friend of Ramsden

    and father of Ann (whom Octavius is expected to marry as per her father's

    wish). Ramsden also warns Octavius about the bad influence of his friend John

    Tanner, who suddenly appears there to announce that Mr Whitefield in his Will

    has appointed Ramsden and Tanner joint guardians of his daughter. Ramsden

    (who dislikes Tanner for authoring a 'licentious' book "The Revolutionist's

    Handbook") and Tanner (who dislikes Ramsden on socio-political grounds) are

    unwilling to share the joint responsibility, but Ann appears there and beguiles

    them into accepting the charge. Meanwhile, a scandal breaks upon them

    concerning Violet (Octavius's sister) who has got into a secret marriage but

    adamantly refuses to disclose the husband's name. In the next Act at Richmond

    (house of Ann's mother) Octavius informs Tanner that Ann has rejected him.

    Tanner plays it down with his peculiar philosophy of woman as a huntress

    playing with the intended victim. Later on, when Ann complains about her

    mother's interfering role, he jokingly suggests that Ann should break her chains

    by taking a motor-ride to the continent with him. To his horror, she agrees. His

    horror doubles, when his chauffeur Straker informs him that he is actually Ann's

    "marked-down victim." Tanner immediately flees in his car to Spain. The third

    Act shows Tanner and Straker captured by brigands in the Sierra Navada. While

    listening to the brigand-chief Mendoza's pathetic love story; Tanner has a

    dream, that forms a di~logue-sequence called "Don Juan in Hell" - in which

    Tanner becomes Don Juan, Ramsden becomes Don Gonzalo, Mendoza the

    Devil, and Ann the Dona Ana of Mozart's Opera. This dream-sequence becomes

    a discussion about Heaven, Hell, Woman and the philosophy of the Life Force.

    Don Juan is the exponent of this philosophy. The dream ends. Next morning

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    Tanner wakes up to find himself confronted by Ann (along with her mother and

    sister). Soldiers arrive too. All are safe - including the brigands whom Tanner

    introduces as his escort. The fourth Act opens in a hotel at Granada, where

    Violet resolves the mystery of her marriage and Ann completes her capture of


    Though Shaw sometimes calls the play a tragi-comedy, it has always been

    treated as a philosophical comedy or a high comedy. In stray perfonnances the

    play was sometimes treated as a farce or a burlesque. A correct production of the

    play must bring out the spirit of polished and skilful comedy. The interior setting

    in Acts I, II, and IV must show evidence of wealth and aflluence. The play

    (minus the Hell Scene) was first perfonned at the Royal Court Theatre on 21

    May 1905 under the auspices of the Stage Society. There were two perfonnances

    there. Then on 23 May 1905 the play was staged in public by Vedrenne and

    Barker at the same theatre, and they continued it for twelve matinees. All these

    performances avoided the "Don Juan in Hell" sequence of Act III. The first

    American production was held on 5 September 1905 by Robert Loraine at the

    Hudson Theatre, New York. Later on, Loraine toured the whole ofU. S. with the

    production. The "Don Juan in Hell" scene as a separate unit was first perfonned

    at the Royal Court Theatre by Vedrenne and Barker on 4 June 1907. The entire

    play (i.e. with the Hell scene) was first produced by Esme Percy on 11 June 1915

    at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh; in London the first full production was

    presented on 23 October 1925 at the Regent Theatre. The Hell scene became so

    popular that many groups performed it as a separate dramatic sequence, and

    even as a group-reading sequence in evening dress without scenery or costumes.

    Charles Laughton toured the U.S. with this Hell scene-sequence. Among all

    productions of the play (with or without the Hell scene), the one under the

    Ve~enne-Barker management was supposed to be the ~ost ideal performance,

    bringing out the real Shavian spirit of a serious comedy that would not degrade

    itself into farce, while retaining the full splendours of wit and humour.

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    The play opens with a situation that reminds us of the opening of Candida.

    Ramsden prides himself on being a liberal democrat and a man ahead of his

    time, but actually his ideas are as conventional as Morell's Christian Socialism.

    Like Morell, he implicitly accepts and rather cherishes the existing patriarchal

    social structure: both of them depend on such a social system and advance their

    ideals within it. Ramsden is the fatherly guardian of Ann Whitefield, who, like

    Candida, perplexes others about her real motive to achieve some future end of

    her own. Ann's suitor is the passive and poetic Octavius who idolises her, as

    Eugene does Candida. The character types, such as, Ramsden, Octavius and

    Tanner have some striking resonances with Morell, Lexy and Eugene in

    Candida, and the situation bears superficial resemblance to the earlier play. But

    all these potential ingredients have been developed not into an emotional triangle

    for another domestic comedy, but into a philosophical comedy with wider

    spheres of action and vision.

    Shaw has advanced the dramatic action in two different structures: the ostensible

    one of surface-drama which unfolds the familiar incidents and episodes of comic

    romance, with its stereotypes of the pursuer and the pursued; and a conceptual

    deep structure which exploits the Don Juan1 legend in a novel and innovative

    manner. Its forward movement directs the surface action. The two structures do

    not merely co-exist, they are interrelated, with the second, grounding the first.

    Right from the start, Shaw has used his theatre language to explore different

    chords of the psychic world of his characters. His dialogues are marked by

    inflation-deflation movement. Thus, when Ramsden is informed that Tanner has

    come to his house and wishes to see him, he is first surprised, and then gets

    angry, because their mutual hatred for each other is well known, and even

    Octavius is surprised at Tanner's visit. Ramsden refuses to see him. The fact that

    Tanner has come here in company with- among others- Ann, further infuriates

    Ramsden. But whenOctavius says that Tanner is "desperately afraid of Ann,"

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    and he must have something really serious to say to Ramsden, the latter allows

    Tanner to see him:

    [ ... He is now in the panic-stricken phase; and he walks straight up to

    Ramsden as if with the fiXed intention of shooting him on his own hearthrug. But what he pulls from his breast pocket is not a pistol, but a foolscap

    document which he thrusts under the indignant nose of Ramsden as he


    TANNER Ramsden: do you know what that is?