October 16, 2004

Use the Life Force, Tanner


Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

Gallagher- John Tanner, Mrs. Whitefield, Miss Ramsden, Don Juan, Rowdy Social-Democrat
Paige- Ann Whitefield, Violet Robinson, Maid, Doņa Ana, Anarchist
Myself- Roebuck Ramsden, The Statue, Malone Sr., Narrator, Sulky Social-Democrat
Wilson- Octavius Robinson, Mendoza, The Devil, Duval
Barbour- Hector Malone, Henry Straker
Scholl- Narrator, Henry Straker

This play is . . . Well, I suppose that depends on how you read it. Sans Act III, this is a witty, light-hearted comedy with some great twists and turns, on a level with something like The Importance of Being Earnest. With Act III, however, what we have is . . . something altogether different and a good deal more like Faust. So much so that it hardly seems as if it could possibly have been intended for performance on the stage in this form, functioning rather more as a vehicle for Shavian philosophy (Shavian, by the way, is an extremely cool word) than something meant to entertain the shallow, theater-going public.

The extended (as in "comprising roughly a third of the play") dream sequence in Act III is a magnificent tour de force. It consists chiefly of a debate/discussion that takes place in hell between Don Juan (yes, the Don Juan), his former lover Doņa Ana, a statue of her father (visiting from heaven, killed by Don Juan in a duel), and Satan himself. The first half of the dream focuses on the natures of heaven, hell, life, death, the human race, civilization, and other such trivialities. The second half is devoted to Woman.

It is very long, but as the Statue observes: "Instead of merely killing time we have to kill eternity."

The result of all this (Don Juan does most of the talking) is a crystallized brand of cynicism that is as . . . "advanced" as any I have ever seen. Everything is turned completely on its ear (see themes mentioned above for a partial listing of "everything"), with the institution of marriage being scorned and ridiculed above all things. Ultimate cynicism is a black, black pit indeed.

I think, after reading this play, that I have noticed at least that distinct difference between "Christian" and "secular" cynicism. The Christian cynic believes, or at least I believe, that having faith in the existence of pure motives behind any action taken by any human being, and above all in the purity of your own motives, is a mistake.

The secular cynic applies the same principle, not only to his fellow humans, but to their Creator . . . Not that he believes in a Creator, of course. That is precisely the problem. For if there is no Creator, then human beings uphold all of the wrong institutions and social conventions for all of the wrong reasons, constrained by a nonexistent morality which the secular cynic does not even perceive. After all, if there's no reason for it to be there, why should it trouble you? In other words, as Oscar Wilde put it, the undiluted cynic is "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Perhaps a further discussion of the particular -isms which I subscribe to or admire, sometimes with reservations, sometimes without (romanticism, idealism, and aestheticism in addition to cynicism . . . just to name a few) is in order sometime in the future. For now, I sense that I have gotten far off track.

Read the play.

I will leave you with this quote from the end of the last act, which is so devastatingly and inevitably true (although, perhaps, not so tragic as it might at first seem) that it almost seems depressing to attempt denial:

"There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it."

And also with this quote, another piece of Shavian (I love that word!!!) wit. Though it is not from this play, keep it in mind if ever you read it lest you be swept away by an encroaching tide of semi-nihilistic philosophy and mock theology that sounds a good deal more convincing than it has any right to:

"Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman. Believing what he read made him mad."

Posted by Jared at October 16, 2004 03:10 AM | TrackBack