Man and Superman

Interpretation and performances

Don Juan in Hell

The long third act of the play, which shows Don Juan himself having a conversation with several characters in Hell, is often cut. Charles A. Berst observes of Act III:

Paradoxically, the act is both extraneous and central to the drama which surrounds it. It can be dispensed with, and usually is, on grounds that it is just too long to include in an already full-length play. More significantly, it is in some aspects a digression, operates in a different mode from the rest of the material, delays the immediate well-made story line, and much of its subject matter is already implicit in the rest of the play. The play performs well without it.[6]

Don Juan in Hell consists of a philosophical debate between Don Juan (played by the same actor who plays Jack Tanner), and the Devil, with Doña Ana (Ann) and the Statue of Don Gonzalo, Ana's father (Roebuck Ramsden) looking on. This third act is often performed separately as a play in its own right, most famously during the 1950s in a concert version, featuring Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana. This version was also released as a spoken word album on LP, but is yet to appear on CD; however, the complete performance recording is now available at various sites on the internet. In 1974–75, Kurt Kasznar, Myrna Loy, Edward Mulhare and Ricardo Montalban toured nationwide in John Houseman's reprise of the production, playing 158 cities in six months.[7]


Although Man and Superman can be performed as a light comedy of manners, Shaw intended the drama to be something much deeper, as suggested by the title, which comes from Friedrich Nietzsche‍‍ '​‍s philosophical ideas about the "Übermensch".[8] The plot centres on John Tanner, author of "The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion", which is published with the play as a 58-page appendix. Both in the play and in the "Handbook" Shaw takes Nietzsche's theme that mankind is evolving, through natural selection, towards "superman" and develops the argument to suggest that the prime mover in selection is the woman — Tanner is a confirmed bachelor despite the pursuits of Ann Whitefield and her persistent efforts to entice him to marry her.[9] Ann is referred to as "the Life Force" and represents Shaw's view that in every culture, it is the women who force the men to marry them rather than the men who take the initiative.[10] Sally Peters Vogt proposes, "Thematically, the fluid Don Juan myth becomes a favorable milieu for Creative Evolution," and that "the legend...becomes in Man and Superman the vehicle through which Shaw communicates his cosmic philosophy" [11]


In 1977-78 the RSC produced Man and Superman at London's Savoy Theatre [12]

In 1982, a television version with Peter O'Toole in the starring role was first broadcast in the United Kingdom.[13]

In 1996, to celebrate BBC Radio 3's 50th Anniversary, Sir Peter Hall directed an audio production with Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, Judi Dench as Mrs. Whitefield, John Wood as Mendoza, Juliet Stevenson as Ann Whitefield, Nicholas Le Provost as Octavius Robinson and Jack Davenport as Hector Malone.

In 2015 London's National Theatre staged a production, with the "hell" sequence included, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner.[14]

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