Man and Superman

Man and Superman

Harley Granville Barker as John Tanner and Lillah McCarthy as Anne Whitefield in first production, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1905
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered 23 May 1905
Place premiered London, Stage Society, Royal Court Theatre
Original language English
Genre Satirical comedy

Man and Superman is a four-act drama written by George Bernard Shaw in 1903. The series was written in response to calls for Shaw to write a play based on the Don Juan theme.[1] Man and Superman opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 May 1905, but it omitted the third act.[2] A part of the act, Don Juan in Hell (Act 3, Scene 2), was performed when the drama was staged on 4 June 1907 at the Royal Court. The play was not performed in its entirety until 1915, when the Travelling Repertory Company played it at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.


Mr. Whitefield has recently died, and his will indicates that his daughter Ann should be left in the care of two men, Roebuck Ramsden and Jack Tanner. Ramsden, a venerable old man, distrusts Jack Tanner, an eloquent youth with revolutionary ideas, saying "He is prodigiously fluent of speech, restless, excitable (mark the snorting nostril and the restless blue eye, just the thirty-secondth of an inch too wide open), possibly a little mad".[3] In spite of what Ramsden says, Ann accepts Tanner as her guardian, though Tanner doesn't want the position at all. She also challenges Tanner's revolutionary beliefs with her own ideas. Despite Tanner's professed dedication to anarchy, he is unable to disarm Ann's charm, and she ultimately persuades him to marry her,[4] choosing him over her more persistent suitor, a young man named Octavius Robinson.

List of characters

Interpretation and performances

Don Juan in Hell

The long third act of the play, which shows Don Juan himself having a conversation with several characters in Hell, is often cut. Charles A. Berst observes of Act III:

Paradoxically, the act is both extraneous and central to the drama which surrounds it. It can be dispensed with, and usually is, on grounds that it is just too long to include in an already full-length play. More significantly, it is in some aspects a digression, operates in a different mode from the rest of the material, delays the immediate well-made story line, and much of its subject matter is already implicit in the rest of the play. The play performs well without it.[6]

Don Juan in Hell consists of a philosophical debate between Don Juan (played by the same actor who plays Jack Tanner), and the Devil, with Doña Ana (Ann) and the Statue of Don Gonzalo, Ana's father (Roebuck Ramsden) looking on. This third act is often performed separately as a play in its own right, most famously during the 1950s in a concert version, featuring Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana. This version was also released as a spoken word album on LP, but is yet to appear on CD. In 1974–75, Kurt Kasznar, Myrna Loy, Edward Mulhare and Ricardo Montalban toured nationwide in John Houseman's reprise of the production, playing 158 cities in six months.[7]


Although Man and Superman can be performed as a light comedy of manners, Shaw intended the drama to be something much deeper, as suggested by the title, which comes from Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical ideas about the "Übermensch".[8] The plot centres on John Tanner, author of "The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion", which is published with the play as a 58-page appendix. Both in the play and in the "Handbook" Shaw takes Nietzsche's theme that mankind is evolving, through natural selection, towards "superman" and develops the argument to suggest that the prime mover in selection is the woman: Ann Whitefield makes persistent efforts to entice Tanner to marry her yet he remains a bachelor.[9] Ann is referred to as "the Life Force" and represents Shaw's view that in every culture, it is the women who force the men to marry them rather than the men who take the initiative.[10] Sally Peters Vogt proposes, "Thematically, the fluid Don Juan myth becomes a favorable milieu for Creative Evolution," and that "the legend...becomes in Man and Superman the vehicle through which Shaw communicates his cosmic philosophy" [11]


In 1977-78 the RSC produced Man and Superman at London's Savoy Theatre.[12]

In 1982, a television version with Peter O'Toole in the starring role was first broadcast in the United Kingdom.[13]

In 1996, to celebrate BBC Radio 3's 50th Anniversary, Sir Peter Hall directed an audio production with Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, Judi Dench as Mrs. Whitefield, John Wood as Mendoza, Juliet Stevenson as Ann Whitefield, Nicholas Le Provost as Octavius Robinson and Jack Davenport as Hector Malone.

In 2015, London's National Theatre staged a production, with the "hell" sequence included, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner.[14]


  2. Evans, T.F. (1999). Modern Dramatists: George Bernard Shaw (Critical Heritage). New York: Routledge. p. 98. ISBN 0415159539.
  3. Shaw, Bernard. "Man and Superman: Act I."
  4. "Character of Ann Whitefield in Shaw’s Man and Superman." Studying English Literature. 4 July 2008.
  5. "Blackbird Theater: Man and Superman." Lipscomb University.
  6. Berst, Charles A. (1973). Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. p. 126. ISBN 025200258X.
  7. Loy, Myrna, and James Kotsilibas-Davis, Being and Becoming. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987; ISBN 0-394-55593-7 pp. 339–340
  8. Pasley, Malcolm, ed. (1978). Nietzsche: Imagery and Thought : a Collection of Essays. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. p. 246. ISBN 9780520035775.
  9. Singh, Devendra Kumar (1994). The idea of the superman in the plays of G. B. Shaw. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. pp. 18–21. ISBN 8171563902.
  11. Vogt, Sally Peters. "Ann and Superman: Type and Archetype." From Modern Critical Views: George Bernard Shaw. Ed. with an introduction by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. p. 221.
  14. Clapp, Susannah (1 March 2015). "Man and Superman review – Ralph Fiennes towers as Shaw's Don Juan". The Observer. Retrieved 7 May 2015.

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