Saturday, February 5, 2022

Don Juan Versus the Devil: In Shaw’s Man and Superman

Don Juan’s response to the Devil in the third act of George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman

“Pooh! Why should I be civil to them or to you? In this Palace of Lies a truth or two will not hurt you. Your friends are all the dullest dogs I know. They are not beautiful: they are only decorated. They are not clean: they are only shaved and starched. They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated: they are only college passmen. They are not religious: they are only pewrenters. They are not moral: they are only conventional. They are not virtuous: they are only cowardly. They are not even vicious: they are only "frail." They are not artistic: they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal, they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not public spirited, only patriotic; not courageous, only quarrelsome; not determined, only obstinate; not masterful, only domineering; not self-controlled, only obtuse; not self-respecting, only vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated; not progressive, only factious; not imaginative, only superstitious; not just, only vindictive; not generous, only propitiatory; not disciplined, only cowed; and not truthful at all—liars every one of them, to the very backbone of their souls.”

Hell is not a bad place. It is the place of philosophy and pleasure, of love and emotions, of music and whiskey. The best intellectuals and artists are in hell—including Nietzsche, Wagner, and Mozart. The Devil looks like a brigand but he is a philosopher who allows hell’s residents the freedom to pursue happiness in their own way. He holds an unflattering view of manmade civilization and God-made heaven. Before arriving in hell, he was in heaven, where he got bored. In the play, he explains the gulf between heaven and hell—heaven is coldly intellectual whereas hell is devoted to the pursuit of happiness and the cultivation of tender emotions. 

I am talking about the third and the fourth acts in Shaw’s play. These two acts are a debate between Don Juan, who represents the best of humanity; Dona Ana, who represents the Wagnerian life-force that would give birth to the race of supermen; the Commander, a living statue who stands for earthly pleasures and outmoded honor and has come to hell because he found heaven boring; and the Devil. There are a number of memorable lines in the third and the fourth acts. Don Juan says, “music is the brandy of the damned.” The Commander says: “cowardice… [is] as universal as sea sickness, and matters just as little.” Dona Ana reacts to Don Juan’s irreverence toward religion with the admonition: “Aristophanes was a heathen; and you, Juan… are very little better.”

Don Juan is disgusted by the Devil’s religion of love, beauty, and happiness. He says that hell is the place of romantic illusions, while earth is the place of reality. He believes that the earth can become a better place if a race of supermen is born. The Devil argues that man is a destructive creature who will never become better. Dona Ana is convinced by Don Juan’s arguments. When the new day dawns, Dona Ana discovers that she is Ann Whitefield, and she persuades Don Juan, who is John Tanner, the firebrand anarchist and socialist, to marry her. 

Shaw was a fabian socialist, but there was nothing fabian about the admiration that he would develop, after 1930, for Stalin’s Soviet Union, and there was nothing socialist about his elitist ideas of evolution, eugenics, and superman, the ideas which were understood by Hitler and his Nazis in a different way and lead to unfortunate consequences for Europe’s minorities. I don’t like Shaw’s plays—the first two acts of Man and Superman are tedious—though I like some of the lines that Shaw has put into the mouth of Don Juan and the Devil in the third and fourth acts. Don Juan’s response to the Devil (in the passage that I have quoted in the beginning of this article) can be taken as a critique of bourgeois consumerist society.

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