George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 44
Dramas of Man's Ascent

WITH MAN AND SUPERMAN,1 Shaw ENTERS UPON A NEW PHASE AS WRITER AND thinker. Up to this time, none of his plays reflects any conscious philosophy. The new play, with the subtitle A Comedy and a Philosophy, dramatizes the view of Creative Evolution reached by Shaw and Bergson after neo-Darwin- ism had been purged out of it by Butler. A brief study of this book shows that the comedy actually comprises only acts one, two and four; and is played as such. Act three, Don Juan in Hell, is a sort of philosophical interlude which is not at all necessary to the full comprehension of the society comedy, although it throws a flood of light upon Shaw's neo-Vitalist diathesis. The essence of his philosophy as embodied in this third act, together with The Revolutionist's Handbook, a collection of aphorisms, is the most profound and impressive of any of his dramatic writings of the same compass. It is literature, philosophy and religion. Indeed, it is the first chapter in that book of modern religion which Shaw elaborated and completed in Back to Methuselah.2

The book is dedicated to his friend and former colleague on The Star, then drama critic of The Times, the classical student and French scholar, Arthur Bingham Walkley. He was quite incapable of understanding Shaw in his higher philosophical flights and was constantly taking him to task, in a vein of witty, amusing banter, for his explanatory habit, his predilection for dialectic, and his disregard of the "rules of the game." Yet he always delighted in Shaw's plays and dealt with them at length, apparently never taking them seriously as drama but always recognizing Shaw as a "man who can give us a refined intellectual pleasure, or a pleasure of moral nature or of social sympathy, or else a pleasure which arises from being given an unexpected or wider outlook upon life."3Walkley's feuilletons, for such many of his reviews of produced

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1
Shaw is the author of the translation "Superman" for "Uebermensch."
2
In the foreword to the popular edition of Man and Superman ( London, March 22, 1911), issued in the Constable Sixpenny Series, Shaw says: "I think it well to affirm that the third act, however fantastic its legendary framework may be, is a careful attempt to write a new Book of Genesis for the Bible of the Evolutionists. . . ."
3
A. B. Walkley, a review of the dramatic season of 1904-5, Le Temps, August 28, 1905.

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