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So many things have been said, and so many things have been written about Mr. Bernard Shaw, that it would be difficult to say anything new. So much has been said and written also on "Man and Superman" that the same difficulty is experienced as regards the play. To suggest that "Man and Superman" deserves the position of its author's masterpiece may not be new to Mr. Shaw; but the almost frantic applause to which the present revival is subjected surely warrants the reiteration. According to generally accepted records, "Man and Superman" was produced at the Court Theatre in May, 1905, since when it has seen several revivals, which in nearly every case have proved successful.
There is little or nothing in the story. A young man who possesses what is commonly called "advanced ideas" finds himself surrounded by a set of ordinary beings who are abject slaves to convention; and the main idea consists of an endeavour to show how utterly futile are modern ideas and "advanced" thought when brought into practice amid the social conditions of our present 'civilised' state.
John Tanner, the advanced young man in question, is regarded by his friends with horror. He has written a book in which he promulgates views and thoughts so foreign to the modern English mind that many of its readers are astounded at the author's audacity in putting such a book before the public. Among those who damn the work without reading it is an old gentleman, Roebuck Ramsden. He forbids John Tanner his house, but finds that it is impossible to carry his command into effect, inasmuch as he is appointed joint-guardian with that same young man over the fortunes of his friend's daughter, Ann Whitefield.
Ramsden refuses to act, and Ann is appealed to. She must release the one or the other. Ann refuses. As will be discovered from the play, she had her own private reasons for doing so. John Tanner's views on marriage are very fully and definitely expressed as the play goes on, but the wily Ann sets her trap for him in spite of all. No one realises the position of affairs more than John Tanner himself. He feels himself being gradually drawn into the net, little by little, against his will. He is the victim of circumstances over which he, even with his strong views, has less control than the simple, unsophisticated girl, who has nothing to guide her but her own natural femininity.
He runs away from her, but Ann follows. He finds himself placed in positions from which he is powerless to free himself, and finally, accepting the inevitable, beaten in spite of himself, he marries her. One is almost forced to believe that the play was not written for the stage. But the stage was used as an outlet for the play, and the play, in its turn, does duty as an outlet for the whimsical thoughts of one of the cleverest men of the century.
Mr. Bernard Shaw's plays are actually not plays at all, when viewed in the light of modern theatrical criticism; but that a Shavian play, which is not really a play, should draw playgoers in their thousands to see it is a remarkable fact. and one almost as Shavian as that the author should have written it.
That so many people take Mr. Bernard Shaw seriously is as astounding to me as it probably is to the author himself. If Mr. Bernard Shaw does not take himself seriously, what grounds have others for doing so? To me he is a brilliant humorist, with an abnormal imagination and an almost uncanny faculty for taking ideals and placing them side by side with the realisms of ordinary life.
In "Man and Superman" it is nothing but the brilliant dialogue that attracts. There is no real love interest or, as a matter of fact, no real human interest, in all the three acts; while the ending of the story becomes obvious before the finish of the first act. We know perfectly well that John Tanner will marry Ann Whitefield or rather that Ann Whitefield will marry John Tanner. We do not need the insight of a Straker to tell us that.
The wonderful power of the author shows itself here for even with the knowledge of its ultimate conclusion, the interest of the audience grows keener as the play proceeds. While we blame nine out of every ten authors who commit the sin of making their characters talk irrelevantly, we not only condone the offence in "Man and Superman," but we encourage the author in his wickedness by our vigorous applause.
We want to hear John Tanner's views - that is, Mr. Bernard Shaw's views through John Tanner - on every conceivable subject; and although we admit the truth of them and try to imagine what an ethereal world this would be if we adopted them in the conduct of our lives, we are distinctly relieved to see how impossible they would be to follow. Throughout the story of John Tanner's life between the first rising and the final fall of the curtain we admire the high principles upon which he is endeavouring to shape his ends, but we are mightily glad when we see this strong-minded and exceptionally 'advanced' young man come a terrible cropper before the simple, hypocritical devices of an inexperienced, feather-brained young girl.
Roebuck Ramsden is a character not drawn from a small section of Society. We meet him every day; we respect him for what we consider his respectable traits, and until we have such a facile pen as that wielded by Mr. G. Bernard Shaw to show us how small he really is, we go on respecting and admiring him. As John Tanner points out, he and his friends are at cross-purposes with Nature, but the author is too clever to let the purposes predominate over the cross-purposes.
We cannot imagine a Roebuck Ramsden with the thoughts of a John Tanner occupying a position of worldly trust. Octavius, too, is drawn from a common type. He has a longing to do the right thing, but his outlook is so warped that his conception of the right thing is moulded by his conventional environments. As much may be said of all the characters in the play-except John Tanner. They are taken from the crowd, put before us exactly as we know them, and then roasted alive by new thoughts and doctrines, the truth of which we cannot gainsay, but which, if we want to live happily, we are powerless to adopt.
There is much to think about in "Man and Superman," much to strive after, and a good deal to learn; but he who attempts to model his life on the dogmas of John Tanner will suffer a disappointment equal only to what we can imagine would be suffered by the author should he find anyone seriously trying the experiment!
(from DRAMA AND LIFE by A. B. WALKLEY - METHUEN & CO., 36 ESSEX STREET W.C, LONDON, 1907)
BERNARD SHAW - MAN AND SUPERMAN
(COURT, May 1905)
It has been bruited abroad that Mr. Bernard Shaw is a somewhat lukewarm admirer of Shakespeare. If this be so, it is only one more illustration of the familiar gnomic saying of Euripides that there is no enmity so fierce as that of brother against brother. For Mr. Shaw and Shakespeare have at least one conspicuous bond of fraternal relationship; they both use the same stage technique. To Mr. Shaw as to Shakespeare organic plot-development is a matter of indifference, as compared with the systematic exhibition of ideas. They both ignore the liaison des scenes with a splendid carelessness, and ruthlessly sacrifice imitation of external life to any passing velleity for propagandism.
It is not the same propagandism, of course. Shakespeare's is the propagandism of current morality or beauty or sheer poetry; Mr. Shaw's is the propagandism of paradox or inconoclasm or sheer antinomianism. But the effect on the dramatic form is the same. Hamlet interrupts the action on the platform at Elsinore to expatiate on alcoholism, Gertrude keeps Ophelia's bier waiting in the wings while she gives a "word picture" of a river bank, John Tanner brings everybody and everything to a standstill (always "talking," as Ann pithily puts it) in order to give forth so much of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as Mr. Shaw has chanced to assimilate. Thus for the sake of something which may be very fine, but certainly is not drama, both dramatists cheerfully let the quintessential drama go hang. Neither of them is, for stage purposes, a man "looking before and after"; they are both playhouse Cyrenaics, living in the moment for the moment's sake.
This identical result has arisen from very different causes. For Shakespeare there were the limitations and the licence of the platform-stage, together with a tremendous energy of creation which was perpetually driving him outside the bounds of drama. For Mr. Shaw there are his own limitations; he, too, is perpetually energising outside the bounds of drama, and if for a moment he gets inside them it is by a mere fluke. It is piquant to find identity of form so absolute with such a world-wide difference of content. No need, is there, to account for that difference? On the one hand a born dramatist, and that the greatest; on the other a man who is no dramatist at all. Let me not be misunderstood. When I venture to say that Mr. Shaw is no dramatist I do not mean that he fails to interest and stimulate and amuse us in the theatre. Many of us find him more entertaining than any other living writer for the stage. But that is because he is bound to be an entertaining writer in any art-form - essay or novel or play. All I mean is that when he happens to choose the play as the form in which he shall entertain us there is a certain artistic waste. There is waste, because Mr. Shaw neglects, or more probably is impotent to fulfil, what Pater calls the responsibility of the artist to his material. You forgive the waste for the sake of the pleasure. Nevertheless, in the rests of good drama it is one's duty to be dissatisfied. We want a play that shall be a vehicle for the Shavian philosophy and the Shavian talent and, at the same time, a perfect play. Shall we ever get it? Probably not, in this imperfect world. We certainly do not get it in Man and Superman.
Were it not for the typographical inconvenience of the arrangement one might draw up a balance-sheet of this play in two parallel columns. The left-hand column would display the action-plot. I use the term action, of course, in its widest sense, so as to cover not merely the external incident but the psychologic and, more particularly, the emotional movement and "counterpoint" of the play. The right-hand column would give the idea-plot that is to say, the more or less logical nexus of concepts in the author's mind which form the stuff, the real raison d'etre of the play.
Only by that method of sharp visual contrast could one hope to bring to light the masked interdependence of the action-plot and idea-plot and the curious way in which the one is warped and maimed in being made to serve as the vehicle for the other. One would have been better able to show by the method of parallel columns that the action-plot is well-nigh meaningless without the key of the idea-plot; that regarded as an independent entity it is often trivial and sometimes null; and that it is because of this parasitic nature of the action-plot, because of its weakness, its haphazardness, its unnaturalness, considered as a "thing in itself," that one finds the play as a play unsatisfying.
The idea-plot I am not called upon to criticise. In the playhouse a dramatist's ideas are postulates not to be called in question. Theories of Schopenhauer about woman and the sex-instinct or of Nietzsche about a revised system of conduct are most assuredly open to discussion, but not by the dramatic critic. His business is, first and foremost, with the action-plot. For that is what we see; it is in fact the play itself, in the sense that it is what is being played under our noses; it is the sum of all the direct appeals to our sensations, before we start the secondary process of inferring and concluding. Now what do we see on the stage of the Court Theatre? What is it that we are asked to accept for an hour or two as part and parcel of our daily human life? We see, first of all, a smug, bald-headed old gentleman who proceeds, a propos de bottes, to spout the respectable middle-class Mill-Spencer-Cobden Liberalism of the mid-Victorian age. Then we see him vivaciously "cheeked" by a youngish, excitable, voluble gentleman, who evidently stands for the latest intellectual "advance."
The younger man tells us, by and by, that he is a product of Eton and Oxford; but those of us who think we know that product will nourish a secret conviction that he is really, like his chauffeur, a product of the Board School and the Polytechnic. He has steeped himself in those fragments of the newest German philosophy which find their way into popular English translations, and he spends his time mark, the whole of his time in spouting these precious theories. He does this, as he admits, because he has no sense of shame; to put it more simply, he is a young person of rather bad manners. We note - for in the theatre the most trivial detail that we see outweighs the most important philosophy - that we deduce that he wears a beard which in a few years' time will resemble Mr. Shaw's; and he has already acquired Mr. Shaw's habit (an apparently deliberate piece of "business," and therefore one stands excused for mentioning it) of combing his beard with his fingers. It is not unfair to assume that there is as much of Mr. Shaw in Jack Tanner as there is of Shakespeare in Hamlet; and that (if Professor Bradley only knew it!) is saying a good deal. Casually, this young man lets fall the remark that he is descended from Don Juan. Why? What is Don Juan doing dans cette galerel? That you soon discover when you are introduced to Miss Ann. For Miss Ann is the new Don Juan, the huntress of men no, of one man (that is to say, no Don Juan at all, but for the moment let that pass), the one man being Jack Tanner. Miss Ann means to marry Jack, though he does not yet know it. What he does know (from the German) is that man is the helpless prey of the "mother woman" through the influence of the "life force." This Tanner expounds, in good set Schopenhauerian terms, to a sentimental young man, half engaged to Ann, alleged to be a "poet."
"Alleged" is the word, because this young man's profession of poet is, for stage purposes, a non-effective force. So far as the play is concerned the "poet" might just as well be a drysalter. And thus it is that, busied as in the theatre we must be with the action-plot, we are perpetually baffled and pulled up wondering why Tanner is descended from Don Juan and why Octavius is alleged to be a poet. Also we wonder why Tanner lectures poor mild milksopish Octavius about the devastating egoism of the "artist man" - how the "artist man" is (apparently) the masculine of the "mother woman," how they are twin creators, she of children, he of mind, and how they live only for that act of creation, so that there is the devil to pay (examples from literary history) when they happen to become man and wife. This, we say to ourselves, may be all very true; but why does Tanner say it all, just at that moment, to the alleged poet but obvious barber's-block Octavius? While we are thus racking our brain we are interrupted by a new diversion. Octavius's sister (whom we have never seen or heard of) is suddenly reported to have "gone wrong." Agony of Octavius; glaring reprobation of the "respectable" types; and coruscation of Nietzschean fireworks from Tanner. Conventional morality, humbug! Is motherhood less holy - I beg pardon, less helpful - because it is motherhood without "marriage lines"? Etc., etc. (I say "etc., etc.," because the worst of Mr. Shaw's cheap German philosophic baggage is that when you see the first article you know all the rest of the set beforehand.) But stop; you may spare all trouble over the argument. For lo! it is a mistake, a false scent. Octavius's sister proves to be really and truly married.
And the curtain of the first act descends upon a group cowering, as Tanner says, before the wedding ring. Now this, the first section of the action-plot, is of course on the face of it a mere pot-pourri, a Caucus race, chaos come again. You have been immensely amused, Cyrenaically enjoying the moment for the moment's sake, but looking before and after (as you cannot help looking in the theatre) you have been disconcerted. What is the key to the mystery? The key is the idea-plot. Glance at that for a moment and you will see why Octavius is alleged to be a poet and why his sister is falsely alleged to be no better than she should be.
(a) Fundamental idea: the irresistible power of woman over man in carrying out the aim of nature (or the "life force") to make her a mother.
(b) Development: partly in Ann's actions, mainly in Tanner's talk. And there, in that disproportion, at once you touch a dramatic weakness of the play. The properly dramatic development would have thrown all the onus upon Ann - we should have seen Ann energising as the "mother woman," and nothing else and would have kept Tanner's mouth shut. But Mr. Shaw cannot exhibit, or can only feebly exhibit, by character and action; his native preference is for exposition by dialectic and ratiocination i.e. by abstract talk; which is one of the reasons why you conclude he is no dramatist.
(c) Corollary of the fundamental idea: if motherhood is nature's aim, then marriage is a detail our morality which brands motherhood minus a wedding ring is false. Hence the "false scent" about Octavius's sister's baby.
(d) Antithetical question suggested by the fundamental idea: is there not a male counterpart to the "mother woman"? Mr. Shaw hunts about. Yes, no, yes - it must be, the "artist man." Hence the alleged poetic vocation of Octavius, in order that Tanner may have a cue for haranguing him about the "artist man" and the "mother woman." Not otherwise do they insert cues in "musical comedies" when the time has come for a song or dance. That is one reason why "musical comedies" are - like Mr. Shaw's comedies - not comedies. If Mr. Shaw's play were a real play there would be no need to explain the action-plot by laborious reference to the idea-plot. The one would be the natural garment of the other; or rather the one would be the flesh of which the other was the bones. Octavius would be a real poet in the dramatic action (as is, for instance, the case with the poet in Candida), there would be no false alarm about Octavius's sister; Ann would exhibit Mr. Shaw's thesis "on her own," instead of by the help of Mr. Jack Tanner's lecture-wand and gift of the gab. In that way we should miss many diverting moments; but only in some such way as that could we get a real play.
There is little or no dramatic development in Acts II. and III. For look again at the idea-plot and you will see that it soon exhausts itself, so that the action-plot, being as I have said a mere parasite of the other, is bound very rapidly to give out. Tanner can only continue to Schopenhauerise, and the moment of his falling into the lady's arms will synchronise with that in which the author is tired of his game and brings down the curtain. The so-called poet peters out; indeed, never existed. His sister is provided with an American husband. Why? Vide, once more, idea-plot.
The super-chivalric American view of woman, being a contrast to the Schopenhauerian, obviously calls for mention. Hence Mr. Hector Malone. Hence also, indirectly, Mr. Malone senior, American millionaire and ex-Irish emigrant (opportunity for short bravura episode about wrongs of Ireland) - a character which - rare mischance with Mr. Shaw! - hovers on the outer edge of the tiresome. All that is left to be done is to emphasise in Ann woman's talent for lying (type example: Raina in Arms and the Man), at the same time getting it neatly hooked on to the Schopenhauerian "mother woman" theory. Two subordinate characters - Ann's mother, middle-aged, querulous, helpless in her daughter's hands, and the cockney chauffeur, the fine fleur of Board School education, Henry Straker. These two small parts, from the point of view of genuine and fresh observation, are among the best things in the play. In them Mr. Shaw has been content to reproduce, instead of deducing. Would that he more often fell a victim to the same weakness!
The acting is quite admirable. Never was playwright more lucky in finding a born interpreter of his talent than Mr. Shaw in the case of Mr. Granville Barker. He is so alert, so exuberant, so "brainy," so engagingly impudent, so voluble in his patter! The Straker of Mr. Edmund Gwenn is a little masterpiece of truthful portraiture. Miss Sarah Brooke, as Octavius's maligned sister, is deliciously cool and trim and "smart." If Miss Lilian McCarthy does not bring home to us the full, irresistible seduction of the "mother woman," it is no fault of hers. Mr. Shaw has conceived Ann not as a character, but as a pure idea, a walking theory; Miss McCarthy turns her almost into a genuine character, and entirely into an agreeable woman. How voluptuous she might have been, how credible a female Don Juan, if Mr. Shaw had only given her the chance! But examination of Mr. Shaw's theatre complet shows us that it is not in him to "do" a voluptuary. His present play, ex hypothesi, was concerned with the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The Devil (a delightfully prominent person in the printed version) has unhappily had to be omitted on the stage. As for the Flesh, it never began to be warm, but is merely an intellectual category. Mr. Shaw is no flesh-painter.
SCENES FROM THE PLAY