Review: Man and Superman
by Michael Meigs

Austin Shakespeare's staging of Shaw's Man and Superman at the Rollins Theatre has the pleasures of a long agreeable evening with toffee and cigars.  No game of whist or bridge, for the contest here is between Man and Woman, or, to wax a bit more Shavian, between Man the Romantic and Intellectual on one hand and Woman the Life Force on the other.


Man doesn't stand a chance, of course.


You may well ponder -- where's the Superman?  Shaw's play took the stage in 1903, less than ten years after the first translation into English of Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra. That book presented the notion of the Übermensch, the human being who transcends conventional morality and the deceptive controls imposed by tradition and society.  Treating the concept in this play, GBS disdained the awkward term "Beyond-Man" used in the first translation and coined the term "Superman."  With his characteristic cheerful, waspish verbosity Shaw thoroughly explored this relatively new notion and used it as a club to wallop the conventions of English bourgeois society.


He was at the same time thoroughly blowing up the model of the "well-made" drama so beloved of Victorian audiences.  The London theatre-going public expected dramas presenting dilemmas of families very like themselves, comfortably well off, in which romantic love, courtship or matrimonial life appeared to be disrupted or blocked by unexpected circumstances. Those plays often featured a secret withheld from most of the characters but perfectly evident to the audience.  Complication followed complication, disguises or coincidences made things ever more untenable, but eventually in the third act all was set right by revelations.


Shaw takes those paper dolls out of the box and animates them. "My procedure is to imagine characters and let them rip," he once commented, and indeed he does.  Ev Lunning Jr. is the brusque good old burgher Roebuck Ramsden, just named co-guardian of pretty, marriagable ingénue Ann Whitfield (Kimberley Adams) and Philip Kreyche is the devoted, hopelessly dreamy Octavius, so in love with Ann that he will even swallow her Kiplingesque diminutive "Ricky-Ticky-Tavy."  Predictably, there's a scoundrel about: Jack Tanner, the wordy, iconoclastic friend of the family who terms himself M.I.R.C  (Member of the Idle Rich Class).  Dearest Ann's father has just died.  We and Ramsden discover that the will directs that Ramsden and Tanner have been appointed co-guardians for the young lady.  (This was 1903, remember; although Janelle Buchanan is very much present as Ann's patient and put-upon mother, as a woman she has nothing to say about these matters.)


Ramsden is incensed, for Tanner has just published a tract so scandalous that Ramsden refuses to read it.  How are the two to come to terms with the shared responsibility?  Shelby Davenport as the bearded and articulate Jack Tanner accurately foretells the outcome: "Ann will do just exactly what she likes.  And what's more, she'll force us to advise her to do it; and she'll put the blame on us if it turns out badly."


Add to that the complication that Octavius' sister Violet has just been discovered consulting a physician, passing herself off as a married woman. She refuses to name the man ("the scoundrel" in Tavy's comment) who is responsible for her condition.


There you go, a complete ménagerie for the Victorian "well-made" play, additionally tricked out with Ramsden's prudish spinster sister (Jenny Gravenstein), a visiting young American (Mark Stewart), his feisty Irish-American industrialist father (Barry Pineo) and the cheerfully confident and comic lower-class chauffeur 'Enry (Michael Damon).  Do you see how a London audience would expect this all to spin along?


The Superman?  You won't hear the word once in the Austin Shakespeare staging but it will become evident that Jack Tanner, the talkative controversial anti-marriage, anti-establishment rich guy is the superman, rather the way GBS himself put himself forward as the know-it-all critic of society.


Shaw gives a theatre company a lot of material to work with.  This piece comes with a 25-page preface expostulating about the Don Juan legend, the disconnect between sex ("conjugation") and marriage, progress, education, and society, plus a 28-page essay constituting Jack Tanner's tract, never explored in the play itself.  Tanner/Shaw's text scoffs at conventional concept of marriage, dismisses egalitarian democracy, and calls for an effort by enlightened individuals to concentrate upon producing the Super-man:  "The only fundamental and possible Socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man: in other words, of human  evolution.  We must eliminate the Yahoo, or his vote will wreck the commonwealth." The final eleven pages of the tract are filled with provocative aphorisms on subjects as diverse as Titles ("Titles distinguish the mediocre, embarrass the superior, and are disgraced by the inferior") and Women In The Home ("Home is the girl's prison and the woman's workhouse").


Add to that the entirety of Act 3, omitted by Austin Shakespeare, in which our traveling company encounters brigands in the Spanish Sierra Nevada and Shaw provides the 45-page dream sequence "Don Juan in Hell."  (The company will do a staged reading of the Don Juan sequence on Sunday evening, February 27 with Babs George and Harvey Guion, among others.)


Shaw happily pulls the rug from beneath that "well-made" play by proving Jack Tanner's opinions right, much to Tanner's chagrin.  Demure as they may be, young ladies Ann and Violet are as efficient as sharks in identifying and securing their prey.  Each demonstrates the practicality of a casino dealer, setting quite aside romantic foolishness in order to secure a comfortable, respectable future.   The resolution features two couples bound irretrievably toward domesticity.  And Shaw enjoys proving the opinionated, prescient Jack Tanner the biggest fool on stage.


Director Ann Ciccolella puts a fine, experienced cast onstage for this outing in comfortable Edwardian society and moves them smartly about the stage.  Costumes by Jennifer Madison are elegantly appropriate, as are the wicker furniture and the elaborately carved sofa.


In his introduction to a Signet edition of Shaw's plays Eric Bentley commented, "In [this] trivial, tawdry, clever. . . world, intellect is futile and ever at the mercy of instinct.  Take away the episode in hell, and Shaw has written an anti-intellectual comedy."


So it is in this production of Man and Superman. Austin Shakespeare gives us the law of the jungle as practised in the drawing rooms of London.  Shaw's side dish of philosophy, heaven, hell and Don Juan will be served up separately.


Review by Elizabeth Cobbe for the Austin Chronicle, February 24

Review by Claire Christine Spera for the Statesman's Austin360 "Seeing Things" blog, February 28

Comment by Stephen Reynolds for the NowPlayingAustin A-Team: "I would have given it six stars if I could", February 28

Review by webmaster, TheatreAustin, Yahoo groups, March 5




Click to go to KVUE video featuring Kimberley Adams, February 24 (2 min., 30 sec.)


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Man and Superman
by George Bernard Shaw

February 17 - March 06, 2011
Rollins Theatre
Long Center
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704