The comedy Man and Superman depicts a microcosm of English convention in the early 20th century. It is an adaptation of the Don Juan epic touching on the philosophy of Nietzsche’s ubermensch. The play’s social commentary is strongly influenced by these topics, but it contains undertones that speak to a more specific topic on the implementation of social revolution. Framed in this way, the play is a platform for concepts embodied in the socialist rhetoric of the Fabian Society. During the late 19th Century and Early 20th century, George Bernard Shaw was an active member often using his dramatic works as a vessel by which he could communicate his political views. In the setting of Man and Superman, Shaw uses the metamorphosis of the protagonist as a metaphor for the type of social revolution sought by the Fabian Society.
Jack Tanner is an unconventional character in a time when convention dictated action. He is wealthy, middle-aged, and unattached. As a confirmed bachelor he preaches free love and constantly decries the institution of marriage. Most notably he is the author of The Revolutionist’s Handbook. This book details opinions on many controversial topics from the overthrowing of governments to the role of women in the daily life. The type of person that he represents is not readily accepted among his peers.
In the eyes of Roebuck Ramsden, Jack Tanner is initially viewed in a negative light. Ramsden describes Tanner’s book as “the most infamous, the most scandalous, the most mischievous, the most black guardly book that ever escaped burning at the hands of the common hangman” (337). Ramdsen’s views are significant. He is an older gentleman that holds an important position in society. He is introduced as, “more than a highly respectable man: he is marked out as a president of highly respectable men” (333). It is therefore not unreasonable to think that the views of Ramsden might also be the views held by other important gentlemen in society.
Ramsden’s views are shared by like-minded characters in the play. After defending Violet for the circumstances in which she is having a child, Tanner finds himself apologizing to her. Violet says, “I hope you will be more careful in the future about the things you say. Of course one does not take them seriously; but they are very disagreeable, and rather in bad taste” (376). Regardless of her own motivations at that time, she wanted nothing to do with Tanner’s support. This is in stark contrast to the reception one typically gets as a lone defender.
These reactions to Tanner are generated from the way in which Tanner views himself. He says to Ann, “I have become a reformer, and like all reformers, an iconoclast. I no longer break cucumber frames and burn gorse bushes: I shatter creeds and demolish idols” (367). This is a extreme stance from which to approach life. It is understandable then that people might by offended, or even threatened, by what he represents. Tanner is unrealistic in his ideas on how to change society. In order to affect these changes in a direct manner, one would truly have to be a superman.
Were Tanner to be an ubermensch by the definition of Nietzsche, it is conceivable that he might have been able to pull off a social revolution without subtlety. The main characteristic of the ubermensch is that he/she acts in accordance with his or her desires. However, he repeatedly demonstrates that this is not the case. He is conflicted over his feelings for Ann. Even though he claims that he disliked her, he somehow always attends to her. He claims to be an intellectual but is corrected by his chauffer when quoting Beaumarchais. He freely admits he is a slave to the car and his chauffer by extension. He admits that he is intimidated by women and needs protection from at least one, namely Ann. Thought he gives a long winded diatribe to Ramsdem that claims is almost without shame and almost never regrets his actions, he clearly contradicts himself.
In the third act, Tanner dreams he is Don Juan, choosing whether he belongs in heaven or hell. Of course, this is the Shaw version of Heaven and hell rather than the traditional version in which the Devil punishes the wicked. Don Juan describes Heaven as a place in which “you live and work instead of playing and pretending. You face things as they are; you escape nothing but glamour; and your steadfastness and your peril are your glory” (436). If hell is a place in which you don’t face reality, then that has a clear connection to the state Jack Tanner finds himself in at the beginning of the third act. He is shirking responsibility in his personal life as well as avoiding the feelings he has for Ann.
In choosing to go to heaven at the end of the third act, Jack Tanner subconsciously chooses the life he has been avoiding. This is the life that accepts Ann. This is also the life that does not avoid convention, but embraces it. Heaven is a place where one contemplates the true nature of the universe. In this case, Jack chooses to contemplate the true nature of his world rather than live an existence only concerned with self-gratification.