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Not a happy superman

14 May

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I love Bernard Shaw’s plays, mainly for their wordiness and their single-minded focus on ideas. The wordiness in particular means that these days they are not performed very often; but last week I saw the outstanding production of ‘Man and Superman’ at the National Theatre, with Ralph Fiennes playing the part of the anti-hero Jack Tanner.

The desirability of the pursuit of happiness is one of the many themes of the play. Shaw expresses a mistrust of the concept that is similar to Chekhov’s, but with a far more cynical edge to it. When Jack Tanner tells his friend Tavy that he is trying to save him from the clutches of the woman he wants to marry, Tavy says that in that case he’ll be saving him from his highest happiness. ‘Yes, a lifetime of happiness,’ Tanner responds. ‘If it were only the first half hour’s happiness, Tavy, I would buy it for you with my last penny. But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.’

Like Camus and Ionesco, Shaw also questions the value of hope. Tanner dreams that he has gone to Hell in the guise of Don Juan, and there he meets the Statue of the irate father whom he killed during his life on earth. The Statue has grown tired of Heaven, and is on a visit to Hell. ‘Written over the gate here,’ he tells Tanner/Juan, ‘are the words “Leave every hope behind, ye who enter.” Only think what a relief that is! For what is hope? A form of moral responsibility. Here there is no hope, and consequently no duty, no work, nothing to be gained by praying, nothing to be lost by doing what you like. Hell, in short, is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself.’

Camus and Ionesco identify hope with an absurd insistence on meaning and purpose in life. Shaw seems to agree , but for him the quest for meaning is not absurd.  Tanner/Juan chooses the moral responsibility which is abjured by the Statue: when he gets the opportunity, he decides to abandon Hell, where he is free to practise ‘the tedious, vulgar pursuit of happiness’, and to exchange it for an eternity of contemplation in Heaven.

This is the dream. Back in his dramatic real life, conventional romance wins out, and Tanner finally agrees to marry the woman he loves. But he rejects the idea that the object of marriage is  happiness. ‘I solemnly say that I am not a happy man. Ann looks happy; but she is only triumphant, successful, victorious. That is not happiness, but the price for which the strong sell their happiness. What we have both done this afternoon is to renounce tranquillity, above all renounce the romantic possibilities of an unknown future, for the cares of a household and a family.’ The lifetime of happiness Tanner warned Tavy about is not to be his. The visit to Hell has shown him that moral responsibility is far more important. So the convoluted outcome of the play is that Tanner embraces marriage because it will save him from happiness, and position him firmly in the arena of work and commitment.

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