“The Revolutionist Handbook” is broken into ten chapters, each one verbose – at least by today’s standards. It can be said of Jack Tanner that he loves to hear himself talk. This was undoubtedly true of the playwright as well – and he certainly enjoys expressing his loquacious thoughts on every page. There’s a lot of material to digest – much of which can be interpreted in different ways. But here’s a “nutshell” version of Shaw’s key points:
“On Good Breeding”
Shaw believes that mankind’s philosophical progression has been minimal at best. In contrast, mankind’s ability to alter agriculture, microscopic organisms, and livestock has proven to be revolutionary. Humans have learned how to generically engineer nature (yes, even during Shaw’s time). In short, man can physically improve upon Mother Nature – why then should he not use his abilities to improve upon Mankind? (This makes me wonder what Shaw would have thought of cloning technology?)
Shaw argues that humanity should gain more control over its own destiny. “Good breeding” could lead to the improvement of the human race. What does he mean by “good breeding”? Basically, he contends that most people get married and have children for the wrong reasons. They should be partnering with a mate that exhibits physical and mental qualities that are likely to produce beneficial traits in the pair’s offspring. (Not very romantic, is it?)
“Property and Marriage”
According to the playwright, the institution of marriage slows down the evolution of the Superman. Shaw perceives marriage as old-fashioned and far too similar to the acquisition of property. He felt that it prevented many people of different classes and creeds from copulating with one another. Keep in mind, he wrote this in the early 1900s when pre-marital sex was scandalous.
Shaw also hoped to remove property ownership from society. Being a member of the Fabian Society (a socialist group who advocated gradual change from within the British government), Shaw believed that landlords and aristocrats had an unfair advantage over the common man. A socialist model would provide an equal playing field, minimizing class prejudice and broadening the variety of potential mates.
Sounds strange? I think so too. But “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” provides an historic example to illustrate his point.
“The Perfectionist Experiment at Oneida Creek”
The third chapter in the handbook focuses on an obscure, experimental settlement established in upstate New York around 1848. Identifying themselves as Christian Perfectionists, John Humphrey Noyes and his followers broke away from their traditional church doctrine and launched a small community based upon morals that differed greatly from the rest of society. For example, the Perfectionists abolished property ownership. No material possessions were coveted. (I wonder if they shared each other’s toothbrush? Blah!)
Also, the institution of traditional marriage was dissolved. Instead they practiced “complex marriage.” Monogamous relationships were frowned upon; every man was supposedly married to every female. The communal life did not last forever. Noyes, before his death, believed that the commune would not function properly without his leadership; therefore, he dismantled the Perfectionist community, and the members eventually integrated back into mainstream society.
Back to the Characters: Jack and Ann
Similarly, Jack Tanner relinquishes his unorthodox ideals and ultimately gives in to Ann’s mainstream desire to be married. And it’s no coincidence that Shaw (several years before writing Man and Superman gave up his life as an eligible bachelor and married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, with whom he spent the next forty five years until her death. So, perhaps revolutionary life is pleasant pursuit in which to dabble – but it is difficult for non-Supermen to resist the pull of traditional values.
So, which character in the play comes closest to the Superman? Well, Jack Tanner is certainly the one who hopes to attain that lofty goal. Yet, it’s Ann Whitefield, the woman who chases after Tanner – she’s the one who gets what she wants and follows her own instinctive moral code to achieve her desires. Maybe she’s the Superwoman.