Shaw Articulates His Philosophy in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

George Bernard Shaw regarded the writing of plays as a means to communicate serious ideas as well as to entertain, and in Man and Superman he presented to his audiences notions of human behavior based in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Summary of Event

When George Bernard Shaw wrote Man and Superman (pb. 1903), he found little interest among producers in London. The play was long and somewhat short on action. An actor once complained that Shaw’s plays lacked entrances and exits—that is, occasions for actors to storm on and off stage in tempests punctuated by soliloquies. In 1905, however, an American actor, Robert Loraine, successfully promoted a production of Man and Superman in New York, and in 1907 it had another successful run at Harley Granville-Barker’s Court Theatre in London. Man and Superman (Shaw, G. B.) [kw]Shaw Articulates His Philosophy in Man and Superman (1903) [kw]Philosophy in Man and Superman, Shaw Articulates His (1903) [kw]Man and Superman, Shaw Articulates His Philosophy in (1903) Man and Superman (Shaw, G. B.) [g]England;1903: Shaw Articulates His Philosophy in Man and Superman[00620] [c]Theater;1903: Shaw Articulates His Philosophy in Man and Superman[00620] [c]Philosophy;1903: Shaw Articulates His Philosophy in Man and Superman[00620] Shaw, George Bernard Nietzsche, Friedrich Granville-Barker, Harley

With the success of Man and Superman, Shaw was clearly established as a playwright of some note. The play has been called one of the best comedies of the first half of the twentieth century; it was certainly the first play in which Shaw began to espouse a Nietzschean philosophy built around the ideas of creative evolution Creative evolution and the life force Life force in Nietzschean philosophy (the élan vital of Henri Bergson). According to this philosophy, the life force (Shaw’s conception of God) permeates the universe and provides the impetus for creative development, or evolution. Shaw was also interested in biological evolution, to the point of advocating voluntary efforts at eugenics.

These ideas are also clearly related to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche concerning the Übermensch, Übermensch or Superman. Nietzsche was convinced that modern culture was decadent and that the human race was losing its genius to the mediocrity of mass production and popular culture, and he presented these ideas in works such as Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft (1886; Beyond Good and Evil, 1907) Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche) and Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896). Thus Spake Zarathustra (Nietzsche) Driven by the life force, the Superman would cast aside the restraints of decadent morality and custom and allow his instinctive urges to guide him to new heights of creativity. Such a person must reject all altruistic ethics, such as Christianity’s “turning the other cheek,” which Nietzsche regarded as weak and feminine. Ultimately, the Superman must regard his goal as too important to be compromised by concern about the means of achieving it. (Nietzsche was too sophisticated to allow this to become merely a matter of expediency, but his disciples have not always been capable of such distinctions.)

Shaw once denied ever having read Nietzsche, but he published a positive review of an English edition of the philosopher’s works in 1896. Nietzsche’s epigrams were, Shaw said, “written with phosphorus on brimstone.” In his usual deprecatory way, he added, “The only excuse for reading them is that before long you must be prepared either to talk about Nietzsche or else retire from society.” Nietzschean ideas are scattered throughout Man and Superman, but those ideas are also parodied in the play; Shaw was unlikely to adopt anyone’s ideas slavishly.

Man and Superman is a play in four acts. Acts 1, 2, and 4 chronicle the rather comical courtship and adventures of John Tanner and Ann Whitefield. Act 3, the most famous, is a dream of Hell, with Tanner and Don Juan and the other major characters as themselves or in recognizable form. It is in this act that Shaw provides a direct discussion of Nietzschean ideas, largely in dialogues between Don Juan and the Devil. Don Juan sees human progress coming from the evolution of the artist and man of action into a Superman, but the Devil argues that escape from the dreary world comes only in diversion. Both agree that the morality and convention of society are stultifying and must be ignored by those who expect to grow.

Nietzschean/Shavian misogyny appears in the assertion that women are dominated by the reproductive instinct. There is no thought of women fleeing motherhood or combining it with other creativity, although in Tanner’s “Revolutionist’s Handbook” (which is appended to the play), it is suggested that marriage and childbearing should be separated. Instincts about mating should not be blocked by convention and morality. It might be noted that Shaw’s marriage was, at the insistence of his wife, Charlotte, celibate. Moreover, not only did Nietzsche regard the altruistic aspect of human nature as feminine, but he was also suffering from syphilis, a fate he seems to have blamed on the woman from whom he caught the disease and, by extension, womankind.

Ultimately, the word battle is won by Tanner, who establishes that progress depends on biological evolution. Only when that occurs can intellectual creativity move to a new paradigm. Unfortunately for him, the other characters, intent on mouthing their own views, fail to notice. This is, perhaps, Shaw’s way of saying that those who saw reality at the beginning of the twentieth century were the Cassandras of the day.

Although the “Don Juan in Hell” episode is usually the part of the play that is cited as Nietzschean, Shaw uses, and in a sense sends up, the philosopher’s ideas in the rest of the play as well. Superficially, acts 1, 2, and 4 are a romantic comedy. Ann rejects the idealistic Octavius Robinson, who is deeply smitten by her charms, and pursues Tanner. For most of the play, the only one who perceives Ann’s intentions is Henry Straker, Tanner’s chauffeur. Straker clearly shares the role of Shavian hero, for he sarcastically exposes the truth and is amused by the fact that no one heeds him when he does.

Ann, however, is the true Übermensch of the play. She does not hesitate to scheme and lie to further her plans. She allows, even encourages, poor “Tavy” (Robinson) to think he is her choice because she wishes to camouflage her real intentions. If the Superman casts aside convention and allows instinct, the most direct contact people have with the life force, to guide conduct, then in Man and Superman, Ann is the Superman. Male patronization comes through in the fact that Ann’s instinct is to use any means necessary to establish a sexual relationship with the man who appears most likely to give her superior children, and her energies are not turned to any other sort of creativity. Tanner, who is often seen as the Nietzschean figure in the play, denounces convention and insists that he intends to remain free of family and sexual obligations so that he can pursue his work of revolution. When the chips are down, however, he docilely accepts not only Ann but also marriage, ignoring his own handbook, in which he rejects the connection between mating and marriage. Perhaps his surrender is really to his own instincts concerning reproduction, but if so, the fact is ignored in the play. At the end of act 4, Tanner seems to be resigned to his fate and agrees to the conventional relationship that Ann expects—as, apparently, so does he.


George Bernard Shaw.

(Library of Congress)

The success of Man and Superman was part of a series of critical and economic successes for Shaw in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His plays of the period included Mrs. Warren’s Profession (pb. 1898), Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (pr. 1900), Candida: A Mystery (pr. 1897), John Bull’s Other Island (pr. 1904), and Major Barbara (pr. 1905). This burst of success resulted in Shaw’s never again having to worry about his place in the literary world or about his financial security. Shaw’s marriage in 1898, which provided him with personal and economic stability, seems to have been another factor in his productivity.

Plays were becoming a means of political expression for Shaw. In 1884, he had joined the Fabian Society, Fabian Socialists (Great Britain) a group of largely middle-class socialists who were inclined to think that the way to a socialist economy was mostly education; ultimately, the Fabian Society would be one of the major elements in the organization of the Labour Party. The elitism of Man and Superman, however, points up the idiosyncratic nature of Shaw’s socialism. Despite the working-class character of Straker, little of the play suggests that the author had much faith in the virtues of the proletariat. Nevertheless, Shaw was an effective publicist for and supporter of the Fabians for many years.

Although the philosophy of Man and Superman may not have fit Shaw’s socialist principles perfectly, the play did have a part in introducing Nietzsche in England and the United States. Shaw introduced the word “Superman” into English. (He first tried “Overman,” which actually gives a better sense of the meaning of the Nietzschean term.) Shaw was particularly attracted to the ideas of the life force and hero in Nietzsche’s work, and Tanner’s “Revolutionist’s Handbook” is clearly modeled on parts of Beyond Good and Evil. The Shavian hero is often more practical than the sort of Superman Nietzsche seems to be describing, but he is the type who drives toward his goals with little concern for the mores and folkways of his own culture. Clearly, Nietzsche would approve.

Shaw gave the Nietzschean life force something of an English twist. In Shaw’s plays, the life force is a matter of practical courage that might be founded on foolhardiness or preoccupation. Either might lead a hero to ignore danger. In neither Man and Superman nor his other Nietzschean play, Back to Methuselah (pb. 1921), does he drift into the contemplation of the eternal in the fashion of Nietzsche. Shaw’s Superman is practical and draws his ideas from common sense. He may, in good British fashion, muddle through.

Man and Superman was an important work. St. John Erving suggests that it may be one of the three best comedies of the first half of the twentieth century. It helped to popularize Nietzschean philosophy in the English-speaking world and was part of the beginning of a movement to translate serious philosophical ideas into dramatic form. Finally, it was part of the burst of creative activity that established George Bernard Shaw as a major playwright and social commentator; previously, he had been generally regarded as clever but superficial. The published play was his first book success, with five printings in two years. Shaw would remain a respected writer, philosopher, and critic, and by the time of his death in 1950, he had become one of the world’s best-known writers. Revivals of his plays are common, and much of his work remains widely read. Man and Superman (Shaw, G. B.)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bentley, Eric Russell. A Century of Hero Worship. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1944. This description of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ cult of admiration of great men devotes only a chapter particularly to Shaw. Bentley’s comments about other English thinkers, such as Thomas Carlyle, are valuable for the insights and background they provide to the ideas of Shaw.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durant, Will. “Friedrich Nietzsche.” In The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers. 2d ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953. Although his work is perhaps marred by occasional oversimplification, Durant is greatly skilled at presenting the ideas of his subject in a readable form. Nietzsche’s thought is, to say the least, arcane, and an introduction such as Durant’s chapter is welcome.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erving, St. John. Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work, and Friends. New York: William Morrow, 1956. Erving was personally acquainted with Shaw and a successful critic himself. He admires his subject but is willing to be critical. He includes significant amounts of literary criticism about Shaw’s work, and his lengthy digressions into the lives of Shaw’s friends are both interesting and useful background. A readable and informative biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbs, A. M. A Bernard Shaw Chronology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. A comprehensive account of Shaw’s life, career, and associations. Draws on a wide range of published and unpublished material to describe Shaw’s extraordinary career as playwright, novelist, orator, political activist, social commentator, and avant-garde thinker. Includes brief sketches of more than two hundred of Shaw’s contemporaries with whom he had significant associations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw: The Pursuit of Power. New York: Random House, 1989. This is the second volume of an excellent three-volume scholarly biography. Thoroughly researched, very detailed, and quite insightful. Covers the years 1898-1918, and so is of particular importance to those interested in Man and Superman.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Translated with commentary by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1966. The most accessible of Nietzsche’s major works and the model for John Tanner’s “Revolutionist’s Handbook.” Excellent introduction to Nietzsche’s thought; provides a foundation for further study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, George Bernard. Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy. 1903. Reprint. Introduction by Stanley Weintraub. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. Complete edition of the play, including all four acts, the “Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkley,” which stands as a preface, and “The Revolutionist’s Handbook.” The introduction in this edition is provided by a prominent scholar of Shaw’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, Robert C., ed. Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. A compilation of comments about Nietzsche by noted thinkers. Includes Shaw’s review titled “Nietzsche in English,” which was published in Saturday Review in 1896. Anyone interested in Nietzsche will find useful pieces in this volume.

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