Man and Superman

Man_and_SupermanIf playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote a play based on Don Juan, it would be this. Which is good, because that’s exactly what Man and Superman is supposed to be. Shaw wrote this to satisfy his fans who were making the request of him to produce his take on the Don Juan legend, a fact Shaw makes clear in his 37-page dedication at the front of the 1903 published version of the play.

Shaw did not simply update the Don Juan legend, however, and the 4-act play that he produced is considered the first great play of the 20th century. He spent two years crafting this Victorian comedy into a commentary on politics, religion, philosophy, and the eternal struggle between men and women. And just to clear up any confusion over what the title means, it is in reference to the Nietzsche concept of the “superman”, one of the philosophical concepts discussed in the play. It is not a play about Clark Kent and Kal El.

The print versions of the play do not conclude at the end of Act IV. They include a copy of “The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, by John Tanner, MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class). The play centers on Tanner, supposedly a descendant of Don Juan.

John Tanner is a man of not inconsiderable wealth and considerable intelligence who has taken up the cause of anarchy and fancies himself a revolutionary. Tanner has been tasked through the will of a recently deceased man to be the guardian of the man’s daughter. Tanner doesn’t want it, but the daughter, Ann, does. Ann goes to work immediately to change Tanner’s revolutionary ways, as she wants to tame him and make him marrying material.

Act 3 of the play, titled Don Juan in Hell, is often performed as a play by itself. Shaw uses the characters from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to present a lively debate scene covering all the themes Shaw covered through the rest of the play, and at the end, each one decides where they will spend the afterlife. Oh, did I mention that the entire scene is set in Hell? I probably should have mentioned that. In most performances of Man and Superman, this 3rd act is left out because of its sheer length (2 hours!). In 2015, the National Theatre mounted a production of Man and Superman, starring Ralph Fiennes, that included the 3rd act. The running time of the play was four hours (an image from the poster for the play is shown above).

You can listen to Act 3 (Don Juan in Hell) read by Bob Neufeld at Librivox.org (Set aside 2 hours to listen to it).

You can read the play in its entirety for free at Project Gutenberg or the whole play together with the 65-page Revolutionist’s Handbook at The Internet Archive.

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