Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"I Want to Be the Irish Nietzsche (Only Ten Times Cleverer)": What the Ubermensch Really Meant to Bernard Shaw

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"I Want to Be the Irish Nietzsche (Only Ten Times Cleverer)": What the Ubermensch Really Meant to Bernard Shaw

Article excerpt

"The difficulty now is to get rid of me," Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to his friend Georg Brandes in the late 1880s. And Shaw would have agreed. In Shavian style, he liked to use Nietzsche's name but to distance himself from the one or two translations of Nietzsche's books he had read.

After he wrote his "comedy and philosophy" Man and Superman early in the 20th century, a number of critics, including his friend William Archer and also G K Chesterton, assumed that Shaw was a disciple of Nietzsche. It is true that in his letters and prefaces he was using Nietzsche's name quite freely. He did so partly because he believed that British culture was becoming too backward and inward-looking. To change this internal focus he championed what was new and foreign in philosophy and the arts. In his art criticism he praised Whistler; in his theatre criticism he blew the trumpet for Ibsen, Chekhov and later Strindberg. And he devoted much of his music criticism to Wagner, with whom Nietzsche had quarrelled.

Shaw enjoyed making lists of American, Scandinavian, German and Russian writers. In the preface to Man and Superman he introduces readers to a series of authors whose thinking could be taken as somewhat similar to his own: "Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, Morris, Tolstoy and Nietzsche". We do not think of Shaw being heavily influenced by Tolstoy, Goethe (who also used the superman for Faust) or Shelley. But Nietzsche's name has stuck to him partly because he used the word "Superman", a translation of Nietzsche's "Ubermensch" from Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was a "good cry", Shaw thought which was to say, a good piece of advertisement, which would contribute nicely to the title of his new "comedy and philosophy" for the stage.

People read Nietzsche for his philosophy; they go to Shaw's plays for their comedy. In the dream sequence of Man and Superman Shaw mentions Nietzsche as having found himself in hell. The Devil, who represents Shaw's hidden pessimism and speaks in Shavian parodies, believes Nietzsche's loss of "wits" in his final years on earth had been inevitable. His career became a cautionary tale. He had been led into pessimism by a lifetime of searching for an optimistic philosophy while ignoring the lessons that human nature and human history could have taught him. But after a period in Shaw's hell, he regains his wits and his confidence, and takes the escalator up to heaven as if he were happily entering a university again. After which we hear no more of him.

This short, somewhat misleading, discussion by the Devil about Nietzsche in the dream scene was cut from the recent production of Man and Superman at the National Theatre, with the result that there is very little to connect Nietzsche with Shaw. It is a hundred years since the play was first produced in its prodigious entirety (at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh-on n June 1915) and cuts were essential--a reading of it all took over five hours.

Nietzsche lived "Beyond Space, Beyond Time", far from Shaw's world. In contemporary political life, Shaw was a committed socialist who, in 1912, gave 1,000 [pounds sterling] (equivalent to 50,000 [pounds sterling] today) to help start the New Statesman and also bought shares, becoming one of its original proprietors and directors. "I won't write," he promised. But he could not help himself and soon became a prolific contributor to the paper--in none of whose articles and reviews is there any mention of Nietzsche.

What did Shaw admire in Nietzsche? In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose. There was Nietzsche's belief in struggle which Shaw acknowledged as necessary for essential improvement; there was also his attack on traditional moral values that acted as a brake on necessary change. He was clever and imaginative and sometimes original. But Shaw was not one of Nietzsche's "brethren" who is urged to see "the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman". …

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