The Dramatic Significance of the Hell Scene in Man and Superman
In Man and Superman Shaw was not writing a regular play; he only united up dialogue, discussion, arguments for the purpose of making them appear as plays. Still the incidents of situations in the play do in one way or the other perpetuate the pursuit of man by woman—of Tanner by Ann. The most interesting is the Hell Scene where the traditional Don Giovanni motif is most comically inverted in the spirit of parody to substantiate Shaw’s thesis that it is the woman basically who is boa-constrictor from whom the new Don Juan flies away to save his person.
The Hell Scene has been grafted on the plot from outside and it does not grow from the soil of the story. Its central business is to highlight the central motive of the play—the chase of man by woman as part of the process of Creative Evolution as well as the edification of hell as a most dynamic, therefore desirable condition of existence which ensures happiness of humanity.
The metamorphosis of the characters like Tanner and Ann suiting the atmosphere is amazing; but soon the dramatic interest wanes as the arguments start rattling the pros and cons of the Scene. From the point of view of the force of the arguments the Hell Scene has significance, otherwise it looks just bizarre and from the point of view of the force of the plot extraneous. It cannot be denied that the Hell Scene is a most powerful tour-de-force of Shaw’s imagination. Shaw had added to the play a lengthy Preface, rich in thought and content and at the end we get the Revolutionist’s Hand Book and Pocket Companion. The overriding Shavian pre-occupation with his philosophy gets to be continued in Hell Scene. Whenever Shae has an opportunity, he expresses his views (although comically) on happiness, love, marriage, sex relations, women, art, socialism, democracy, industrialisation, religion, morality, virtue, sin, death, peace, war, slavery and a host of other topics. Shaw has been impartial enough to allow even the Devil to have his say and freely express his point of view. The spur behind all this is the assumption that woman is far from weak and helpless and that sexually woman is Nature’s contrivance for the perpetuation of human race. A more intimidating fact is, sexually man is woman’s contrivance for fulfilling nature’s behest in the best possible way. Possessed by the blind fury of creation, woman searches for a male biologically most desirable and when she finds him, she is most ruthless in her pursuit of him.
The Don Juan in Hell Scene lifts up this basic theme of life-Force and Creative Evolution with Superman and Superwoman into the realm of Shavian-Socratic dialogue. Shaw comically swaps the Superman of Nietzsche (who was a ruthless being and an embodiment of might!) by a new Don Juan; Tanner who sees life as co-operation with woman in its upward struggle. If the evolutionist’s account is accurate, life has developed in the waters of the ocean and the slime of the beaches until it reached the gigantic and long since extinct creatures that peopled the earth in pre-historic times. In his vision Tanner hears Don Juan say this to him. Life is a force which has made innumerable experiments in organising itself. He further tells him that as long as he can conceive something better than himself, he cannot be easy unless he is striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it:
“That is the law of my life. That is the working within me of life’s incessant aspiration to higher organisation, wider, deeper, intense, self-consciousness and clearer self-understanding.”
The Devil in his turn expresses himself eloquently and forcibly about man’s conduct in the world and takes a pessimistic view of him. He holds that human beings are both stupid and evil and on the road to utter destruction. Shaw makes a firm distinction in the process between his two functions as writer: the function of an essayist on the one hand and on the other, that of a playwright. The important difference is that a playwright has to put on the stage a number of characters whose opinions differ and clash for the vital element in drama in conflict. It may be physical conflict, the conflict of emotions, of ideas or even of beliefs. The audience watches and hastens to the conflict; it hears the characters putting forward opposing views; and having heard the arguments the members of the audience use their own thinking powers and reach their own conclusions. Much of what is said by the Devil in Man and Superman is fair statement of the parts of human behaviour is endorsed in other plays by Shaw. What is in doubt is the conclusion the Devil draws from the facts. Can man be saved from his own destructive tendencies? The Devil declares that he cannot. Don Juan believes that he can if he is given the great idea to live for—the great idea, for example, that man can, if he wills, can carry out the divine purpose (read the purpose of Life-Force). The brain will not fail when the will is earnest to Life, the force behind the Man, and intellect is a necessity because without it he blunders into death. Just as Life, after ages of struggle, evolved that wonderful bodily organ, the eye, so that the living organism could see where it was going and what was going and what was coming to help or threaten, and thus avoid a thousand dangers that finally slew it, so it is evolving to date in mind’s that shall see, not the physical world, but the purpose of Life, and thereby enable the individual to work for that purpose instead of thwarting and baffling it by setting up short-sighted personal aims as present:
“I sing not arms and the Hero but the philosophic man; he who seeks in contemplation to discover the inner will of the world, in invention to discover the means of fulfilling that will and in action to do that will.”
The supreme triumph of Shaw’s dramaturgical dialectics is to be found in the renewal of renovation of the 18th century image of Don Juan or rather the Spanish Don Giovanni. It is important because Tanner receives the mantle of the incendiary from this super human image. Of course, the method has been one of conversion of old materials in to 19th century terms, both thematic and technical. He rejects altogether the schism of Byron and Tanner can be the rake or a mindless Philanderer as Byron’s Don Juan has been. Shaw’s claim to be returning to a pristine Don Juan is valid to the extent that the theme had originally been less of psychological than of philosophical or even indeed theological interest. It is true that Don Juan runs away from them only after possessing them. Tanner in Shaw’s play runs away rather to prevent them from possessing them. That old motif has been deliberately turned upside down in a vein of parody, embodying Shaw’s standard new motif. Shaw substituted an utterly Scribean closed structure. The Don Juan episode in Act II is neither a well-made play, nor a portion of a well-made play. It stands out apart as something appropriately more austere and august. As Eric Bentley points out,