Man and Superman
At Wellesley's Theatre on the Green
Bernard Shaw's "three-ring circus," as H. L. Mencken called Man and Superman, "with Ibsen doing running high jumps; Schopenhauer playing the Calliope and Nietzsche selling peanuts in the reserved seats," runs a paltry three hours and fifteen minutes in its deft and buoyant revival by the Group 20 Players. In order to make this enormous masterwork fit such a brief compass, the usual expedient is to cut the dream scene in hell, a glorious ideological quartet for voices, specifically designed by the author as a detachable interlude. The reigning powers at Group 20 have decided to leave in the hell scene, and to take in compensation frequent cuts and tucks and darts and snatches throughout the play, which necessarily means eliminating some of the best stuff in it.
The wisdom of both these alternatives is dubious, but no more so, perhaps, than that of exposing the theatre-going population of the Boston area to the night air past its bedtime. When we succeed in breeding our descendants into supermen, a super-theatre may come into being to present Man and Superman entire. In the meantime, prematurely-born members of the super-audience will have, regrettably, to content themselves with the truncated splendors of such productions as this fine one at Wellesley.
Man and Superman had its inception, says its author with a perfectly straight face, in a suggestion by the critic A. B. Walkley that Shaw write a play about Don Juan. The old story of the Spanish libertine and defier of God had for Shaw two aspects, the sexual and the philosophical. These produced, or at least informed, respectively, the play and the dream-scene within it, which together justify the subtitle of Man and Superman, "a Comedy and a Philosophy." (This is not to say, of course, that the main play lacks philosophy or the interlude lacks comedy. Shaw's peculiar gift is his ability to fuse the two.)
"You propound," says Shaw to Walkley, "a certain social substance, sexual attraction to wit, for dramatic distillation; and I distill it for you." Thus the main plot of Man and Superman, a sort of Love's Labour's Won with woman as the laborer and man as the winnings; a "serio-comic love chase"; a nimble game in dead earnest of Higher Hide-and-Seek.
Shaw insisted on regarding this patently special case of his own contriving as the type for sexual relationships in the real world; on maintaining as the order of existence that women initiate such relationships and men are "the pursued, the marked down quarry, the destined prey"; on reiterating that what we are accustomed to think of as love, or infatuation, or lust, according to the circumstances or our temperament, is really God or Nature or the Life Force making purposeful experiments in eugenics. But this can be dismissed as another example of Shaw's tendency to exaggerate, to generalize, and to dogmatize about matters concerning which he knew nothing, and as another proof that the canny old master was not least brilliant when he was most wrong.
(Shaw's own sexual history was an odd one. He lost his chaste treasure on his 29th birthday, to the importunities of a widow lady named Jenny Patterson, who won by her persistence an immortality in such parentheses as this. After this momentous event Shaw slept around casually and childlessly for several years, until in his middle forties he married a "green-eyed Irish millionairess" after she had nursed him through a serious illness. After the wedding, in accordance with certain prejudices of his wife's, he gave up sex forever, and the two of them dwelt together, chaste and childless, for the rest of their days--in spite, presumably, of the demands of the Life Force that they do their bit towards breeding the race. As the Devil in the dream scene of Man and Superman says about the Life Force, "it is the most resistible thing in the world for a person of any character.")
All this, of course, takes us far from the lecherous nobleman of Mozart and da Ponte, with his thousand and three mistresses. (One suspects that the Don Juan story figures in the play less as its actual inspiration than as a unifying device, a splendid resource for theatrical and intellectual trickery, and a handy handle to pick the whole thing up by.) It was not the sexual aspect of Don Juan that interested Shaw primarily. (Indeed, it was not the sexual aspect of anything, even of sex, that interested Shaw primarily, in spite of occasional protestations to the contrary.) "Philosophically," says Shaw,
Don Juan is a man who, though gifted enough to be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil, follows his own instincts without regard to the common, statute, or canon law; and therefore, whilst gaining the ardent sympathy of our rebellious instincts (which are flattered by the brilliancies with which Don Juan associates them) finds himself in mortal conflict with existing institutions....
In a word, according to Shaw, Don Juan is a proto-revolutionary, and so his Shavian descendant John Tanner is portrayed as a social agitator and the author of The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, which Shaw thoughtfully appends to the published edition of the play. In his own person, Tanner enunciates Shavian doctrine on such sublunary matters as sex, social convention, and moral passion. As Don Juan in the hell scene he discourses with equal brilliance on the Life Force, the nature of Nature, and the whole duty of man, arguing against the Devil's hedonistic creed of "love and beauty" in favor of an eterntiy of energetic striving to serve, in contemplation and action, "the inner will of the world."
Awake and dreaming, Tanner-Don Juan is one of the greatest comic roles in the modern theatre. Its difficulty is compounded by the fact that though Tanner is the hero of the play and Don Juan its most eloquent spokesman, both of them, Tanner especially, serve also as satiric butts. Tanner may preach the Life Force, but the pursuing woman embodies the Life Force, which sweeps the protesting Tanner into her arms "as a sailor throws a scrap of fish into the mouth of a seabird."
Barry Morse plays Tanner at Wellesley with all the elegant arts of a skilled high-comic actor. It is a brilliant, slick performance, full of gaiety and verve and a fast-talking grace reminiscent of Noel Coward. Mr. Morse is admirable as the quarry of the love-chase, the baffled and laughed-at talker, but there is more to the character than the excitable little man he gives us. The "Olympian majesty" specified by Shaw is missing; Tanner's magnificent brashness becomes mere cheek. Mr. Morse can lay down doctrine with considerable brio, but his John Tanner never seems committed to his ideas with any great intensity of the "moral passion" he talks about. It becomes a matter of little significance that the revolutionary activities of this Tanner should be circumscribed by marriage. (His air of frivolity vanishes during the hell scene, but here his attempt at the aristocratic chill becoming to Don Juan degenerates sometimes into mere posturing.)
As the determined Ann Whitefield, who forces Jack Tanner to his knees and her arms, Rosemary Harris makes a delicious seductress, ensnaring her prey with a wonderfully cool, crafty grace. In his stage directions Shaw calls Ann "one of the vital geniuses," and Tanner says, referring to her, "Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation." Miss Harris' Ann completely fails to live up to these prescriptions, even during the hell scene when her tempting activities are temporarily in abeyance; but perhaps there is nothing in the lines given her that can be so acted. At any rate, she makes it completely credible that, though Tanner regards marriage as "apostasy, profanation of the sanctuary of my soul, violation of my manhood, sale of my birthright, shameful surrender, ignominious capitulation, acceptance of defeat," he should finally agree to transgress his deepest instincts in order to marry her.
The supporting cast is of varying quality, but no one in it is less than adequate. Jerome Kilty gives a good greasy performance in the double role of the pseudo-romantic brigand Mendoza and "that strange monster called a devil." If Mr. Kilty's Devil is put in the shade by the definitive performance of Charles Laughton, it still has excellences of its own.
The fourth participant in the hell scene, an apostate from heaven who has left the "icy mansions of the sky" to embrace hellish hedonism, is Don Juan's Mozartean enemy the Statue, here transformed into a good-natured, brainless chap who "always did what it was customary for a gentleman to do." He and his modern avatar are played for less than they are worth by William Swetland, who employs the gimmicks actors use for self-important middle age with competence but no distinction.
Shaw's image of the romantic man, a soft and chivalrous idealizer of woman, is not a completely successful character; as usual when Shaw attempts this type, the result here is a second-rate Shelly. Ellis Rabb makes the part into a delicate caricature of delicacy, amusingly undermining any possibility of our trying to take poor Octavius seriously--which may be just as well. Tom Martin is good as the new Leporello; Cavada Humphrey and Robert Rees Evans are adequate but labored as the heroine and hero of a romantic subplot.
These worthies are under the direction of Mr. Kilty, who has deployed them with considerable skill on a graceless set by William D. Roberts. The hell scene in the Kilty production drags a bit, as it never does in the considerably-longer recorded version; probably it simply needs greater virtuosity than this cast could bring to it. Mr. Kilty does not take the play as seriously as he might, and the result is a rather superficial performance. But it is done with flamboyance and zest, and if the result is far from definitive, it is still delightful.