To the Theatre Royal, Bath, on Friday last, to see Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw.
If you want to know about Shaw’s life, there are lots of biographical summaries to choose from on the net; here’s one which will do. For the moment, however, I intend to write about the play rather than the playwright.
Man and Superman was Shaw’s twelfth play. It was written in 1901 and first performed in 1904. In essence it is a first-class comedy of manners, rather similar (in my view) to The Importance of Being Earnest. The plot is mainly about a very determined young woman -- a powerful feminist, in modern parlance -- who finally gets her man despite equally determined opposition from the young man himself. There are lots of good laughs in it, it is exceptionally well written, and Shaw was so far ahead of his time that it doesn’t feel dated.
So far so good. That would have been quite enough for most people. But Shaw, of course, wanted to make more of it. He saw the play in mythic terms (whatever that means, but that’s what the critics say). Shaw himself declared that he had ‘taken the legend of Don Juan in Mozartian form and made it a dramatic parable.’
Well that’s clear enough, isn’t it? What it meant, in practical terms, was that Shaw introduced a third act which was a long dream sequence. In this ‘dream’, the male and female leads find themselves in hell (which turns out to be preferable to heaven), chatting amicably to the Devil himself. And the problem with this long chat is that it isn’t dramatic at all. It’s overlong, excessively wordy, and barely sustains the audience’s interest.
In the original 1904 production, this third act was left out entirely, and what is now the fourth act was played as the third -- a move which was, in my judgement, a very definite favour to everyone. Played as a three-acter, Man and Superman fills a normal sort of an evening and provides excellent entertainment. Played as Shaw intended it, with four acts and including the dream sequence, it runs to three and a half hours and tests the patience. Oh, and Nietzsche is mentioned quite a lot. So don’t say you weren’t warned.
Why, then, was this tedium inflicted upon the audience of the Theatre Royal, Bath, on Friday last? (Resulting, I may say, in a thinner audience than usual.) Because, my friends, this particular production was part of the Peter Hall Company’s summer season, and Sir Peter is, after all, a man devoted to serious theatre. I suppose he wanted to be true to the playwright’s intentions, which is terribly noble but, for once, quite unnecessary. The first producer got it right when he left out act three.