Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell: an episode from “Man and Superman”

Years back, when we had only two television channels broadcasting in Britain (BBC and ITV), and both of them thought of television as having the potential of being a true National Theatre of the People – a national theatre to which the whole nation had access – BBC used to broadcast every month a classic play at peak viewing hour on Sunday evenings. The slot was called, appropriately enough, Play of the Month. (They had a slot for contemporary drama as well – Play For Today, which broadcast new, specially commissioned plays for television.) It was thanks to this Play of the Month slot that I became familiar at a very early age with such names as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, and so on. But Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell proved a few steps too far. I know for a fact that this was indeed broadcast at 8.20pm on a Sunday evening, because it is confirmed by online archive of past BBC programmes: but the very idea of putting out something such as this at peak viewing hours seems nowadays so bizarre, that, were it not for this confirmation, I would have been tempted to have put it all down as a figment of my imagination.

I think I sat through a full half hour or so before deciding to switch over, as I had not the first idea what they were on about. I am fairly sure, looking back, that most of those foolhardy enough to have started watching this play would have switched over to ITV well before the half hour mark. For the “play” consists of four people – three of them characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the fourth the Devil himself – sitting around in Hell discussing philosophy. In short, peak-time viewing material this ain’t. Not even with the presence of Michael Redgrave, and of Christopher Plummer, a mere six years after The Sound of Music.

Don Juan in Hell, despite taking up almost two hours of the BBC schedule that night, is not the full play. It is a dream episode interpolated into a longer play, Man and Superman. In this episode, we have three characters from Don Giovanni, and the Devil, all of whom are transformed versions of four characters who appear in the longer play. I don’t know if Man and Superman has ever been played complete with this dream episode: that would be, I’d imagine, far too long to be accommodated in a single evening’s performance, and a practical man of the theatre such as Shaw must surely have known that. Certainly, when I saw Man and Superman on stage back in the early 80s (with Peter O’Toole in the principal role of Jack Tanner), the Don Juan in Hell episode was cut entirely. I’d guess Shaw had intended this long episode as a bonus for the reader – a not-so-miniature closet drama embedded in a larger play for the stage – rather than something he expected to be performed. But who knows? Maybe Shaw did expect his audience to be seated in the theatre for five hours, fascinated by his new, modern variation of the Don Juan myth: I wouldn’t put such megalomania past him.

I don’t actually mean to be rude about Shaw, although, sometimes, it is hard to resist the temptation. Several of his plays still stand up pretty well, I think – Heartbreak House, say, or Saint Joan. And Pygmalion ranks with the plays of Sheridan or with The Importance of Being Earnest as among the very finest of stage comedies in the English language. But there were other times when – to crudely anticipate what should really be the conclusion of this essay – he could be a pompous windbag. I have been fascinated by all three of the Don Juan plays I read recently (see here, here, and here): this one, I must confess, I found a trial.

It is, in outline, a light comedy. After the death of her father, the young lady Ann Whitefield, by the terms of her late father’s will, finds herself placed in the guardianship of the ageing, respectable Roebuck Ramsden, and of a much younger man, Jack Tanner, who, we are informed, holds unconventional views on all sorts of things. Ramsden, who used to be a liberal in his youth, still considers himself a man of progressive views,  not realising how very outdated his outlook now is; but he disapproves of Jack Tanner, whose radicalism is, apparently, beyond the pale. Although this play was written in 1903, when social conventions were far more strait-laced than our own, it is quite hard to see exactly why Tanner’s views are regarded as so objectionable. After all, Shaw seems to go out of his way to assure us that he is, indeed, morally irreproachable:

Ramsden: I am glad you think so well of yourself.

Tanner: All you mean by that is that you think I should be ashamed of talking about my virtues. You don’t mean that I haven’t got them: you know perfectly well that I am as sober and honest a citizen as yourself, as truthful personally, and much more truthful politically and morally.

And, a few lines later:

Tanner: … you ask yourself, as a just and upright man, what is the worst you can fairly say of me. Thief, liar, forger, adulterer, perjurer, glutton, drunkard? Not one of these names fit me.

Since Jack Tanner is – as is made explicit in the Don Juan in Hell episode – the equivalent of Don Juan Tenorio, this does seem an odd piece of characterisation. For the most salient aspect of Don Juan, in all the previous versions I have read, is that he accepts no moral bounds on himself. I am not sure whether this taming of Don Juan is to ensure that the audience would not take sides against Jack Tanner; or whether, as I suspect, Shaw himself, for all his show of disdain for conventional morality, was himself too much attached to this same morality to allow his protagonist, whom he obviously intended to be sympathetic, to flout it. Either way, presenting this modern Don Juan as such a paragon of virtue makes it difficult for us to take him seriously as a rebel against society’s morals.

The comedy comes mainly from the pompous Ramsden becoming flustered by the irreverence of the young “rebel” Tanner; or from Octavius, who is in love with Anna, being such a timid and helpless ninny. (Octavius is clearly the equivalent of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s opera.) It is occasionally mildly amusing, but is far too obvious and formulaic to be anything much more than that. As for Tanner himself, virtuous though he may be in all respects, he has one vice that I, for one, found insufferable: he just can’t stop talking. He is like one of those tiresome people one sometimes encounters who has heard it said of himself that he is something of a character, and spends all his energies trying to live up to that reputation. Only in a conventional stage drama could someone like him be allowed to go on talking interminably without being told to shut up, for Heavens’ sake.

It wouldn’t have mattered so much if what he had to say was witty, or intelligent: but it isn’t. He has an idea, which he states explicitly – and repeatedly – that women are driven by a biological imperative to perpetuate the human race, and, to that end, their chief aim is to capture a mate; while men, on the other hand, try their best to escape their clutches. Complete unmitigated gibberish, if you ask me, but Tanner takes this seriously enough, and so, apparently, does Shaw, as this nonsense seems to be the central theme of the play. Now, one may point to works that are notable despite the bad ideas they attempt to propagate, but I don’t think even the greatest of dramatists could contrive a play that survives this level of balderdash.

However, this rather strange idea does drive the play. Where, in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni had chased after an unwilling Donna Anna, here, Ann Whitefield chases after an unwilling Jack Tanner. And by the end, she captures him. That, in essence, is the play. And in the midst of all this, we have a dramatic interlude – Don Juan in Hell.

Here, we have three of the characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – Don Juan (Don Giovanni) himself; the statue of the Commendatore who had dragged him down to Hell; and Donna Anna (who is now in Hell herself, having lived a long life); these three are joined by the Devil, who turns out to be rather a charming man, and not at all diabolic or demonic. Hell is not here a place of fire and brimstone and Dante-esque tortures: that, we are told, is all propaganda. Hell here is a place where people enjoy themselves for all eternity, and Don Juan, against expectations, is bored with all this. So bored, indeed, that he decides by the end to opt for the contemplative life offered by Heaven. But before he does so, we are treated to a long – very long – Shavian dialogue about the purpose of our human lives. We wade through a great number of Shavian jokes (none of which I found more than mildly risible) to get to the point, viz., that the biological imperative, that had been mentioned earlier, to further the human race, and of which women are the principal agents, has the aim eventually of creating the “Superman” – not the DC Comics character, sadly, but the Nietzschian Übermensch. Shaw doesn’t address the issue of how mere perpetuation of the species in itself can lead to such an end, but, given his well-known enthusiasm for eugenics, I was reluctant to enquire further.

After this scene in Hell, we return to the mode of social comedy, where the modern Donna Anna chases down and finally captures the modern Don Juan. Most lame and impotent conclusion, as Desdemona said in a somewhat different context, but no more lame or impotent than the rest of the drama, to be honest.

When I saw that BBC broadcast of Don Juan in Hell all those years ago, I did not like it because I didn’t understand it. This time, I did not like it because I did understand it, and found it too absurd to take at all seriously. Incredible how much things change in a mere forty-five years.

As for Shaw, he did write a handful of plays that are genuinely witty and sparkling and, yes, intelligent. I am afraid I could see no evidence of any of these qualities in this one.

[Edit: 3rd April 2007 – A friend has pointed out to me that Superman is a DC Comics character, and not a Marvel Comics character. I have now corrected the error.]

11 responses to this post.

  1. Is Jack Tanner really Shaw himself? Both seem to have very high (and unjustified) opinions of themselves. I have read several of GBS’s plays and were never that impressed by them.

    Whenever I hear his name, I can’t help but think of his “witty” exchange with Winston Churchill, whom I do admire considerably.

    GBS once sent a telegram to Churchill informing him that his play had opened and that he would leave two tickets at the box office–one for Churchill and one for a friend, if he had a friend.

    Churchill wired back that he couldn’t make opening night, but he could come the second night, if there was a second night.


    • Hello Fred, I do actually find Shaw rather difficult to appraise. I was a bit rude about him in my post above, but a number of his plays (though by no means all) still do stand up rather well, I think. Pygmalion is certainly a masterpiece, as is, I think Heartbreak House, and maybe one or two others. But Man and Superman really has dated rather badly, I think, and his polemics struck me as frankly absurd.

      He was also a very fine critic. His music criticism is, for the most part, first class, and, while I cannot take The Quintessence of Ibsenism very seriously (he tried to present Ibsen as a forerunner of himself) his comments on Ibsen in his earlier theatre reviews are very astute. (And this in the days when most other British critics didn’t seem to get Ibsen at all.)

      So I don’t know … I don’t want to dismiss the man. But I certainly don’t want to plough through something as tedious as Man and Superman again.


      • I read one of his polemics on Shakespeare and rather than astuteness, I found considerable jealousy on his part.

      • I’m not entirely sure how seriously we should take Shaw when he starts ranting about Shakespeare. It’s pretty embarrassing stuff, I agree. But I’d guess – at least, I’d hope – that his tongue was at least partly in his cheek.

  2. Posted by Rachel on April 3, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    Maybe you turned over to BBC2, which I see was showing “So you think it all started with Bach” in Music on 2, with David Munrow and the Early Music Consort.

    I was, perhaps fortunately, too young to be exposed to this particular GBS, and I have never really got on with him, considering him to be too busy showing off to write “proper” plays (which perhaps related to is what you have said much more elegantly above). And in fact I don’t remember seeing many of the “Plays of the Month”, although several “Plays for Today” have stuck in my mind.


    • Hello Rachel, I am afraid classical music was very much a closed book for me back then – although, looking back at the BBC archives, it is quite extraordinary how frequently classical music was broadcast on mainstream channels. Those were the days when broadcasters still took seriously the Reithian ethos of bringing the best to the public, but not only has that ethos now eroded away, we, as a society, no longer have confidence that high culture (if I may call it such) does represent the “best”. In addition, the public didn’t take to it. When such programmes effectively disappeared from our television screens, only a few oddballs such as myself felt it to be a loss. I suspect that rather than switching over to David Munrow playing Bach, virtually everyone switched over to ITV.

      (As I remember, ITV, though more popular in its output than was the BBC, did not neglect culture either. They broadcast a number of operas from Glyndebourne – the Mozart operas, Fidelio, Falstaff, etc. – and I remember also broadcasts of RSC productions of Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, Othello, and Chekhovs Three Sisters. I also remember, one Bank Holiday Monday, ITV’s special holiday treat was a broadcast of the national theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Laurence Olivier. And I am quite sure also that it was ITV that broadcast Gielgud and Richardson in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. All this is quite unthinkable now even for the BBC! That it was ITV that broadcast such things seems faintly unreal these days.)

      I have fond memories of both Play for Today and Play of the Month. The first Shakespeare I ever saw was a Play of the Month production of Julius Caesar with Robert Stephens, Frank Finlay, and Edward Woodward (this is available on YouTube). I remember also a Macbeth with Eric Porter and Janet Suzman, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream with Ronnie Barker as Bottom. As for Shaw, I remember a Pygmalion they did with Lynn Redgrave and James Villiers that was very fine. There was a very fine Three Sisters with Janet Suzman, Eileen Atkins, and a young Antony Hopkins (this is also on YouTube), while Antony Hopkins, even after achieving Hollywood fame, returned to feature with Diana Rigg is a quite searing producton of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (I have this on DVD). Even after the series ended, the BBC continued broadcasting classic drama: as late as 1988, they broadcast a terrific production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder with Leo McKern and Miranda Richardson. They followed this up, I remember, with Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.

      It was from Play of the Month that the BBC Shakespeare series emerged. This series is much maligned, and, it must be admitted, at its worst, it’s pretty unwatchable. But at its best, it was of an extremely high standard, and certainly far superior to the much lauded Hollow Crown.

      But I have had a few good rants about all this before, so let’s not get started on that. The long and the short is, I think, that the days when television used regularly to show classic drama belong very much to the past, and they won’t be coming back again. Let’s enjoy the drama on Radio 3 while we still have that!


  3. Posted by obooki on April 3, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    I happened to read Shaw’s Candida over the weekend, and came away with a similar impression . Shaw claims in his introduction that he didn’t really write it for performance, but perhaps this was just because nobody took up the option for a long time. It’s just a dialogue of two opposing views represented by reasonably unrealistic characters (esp the young idealist) whose purpose I didn’t really understand.

    I’ve also been reading Torrent Ballester’s Don Juan recently (which I imagine you’ll not get round to), and this seems to have the same essential problem with Don Juan as here: I.e. that he tries to portray him as in some way moral, though I daresay TB’s DJ is a good deal more nuanced.

    I’ve found myself with all this contemplating Don Juans I have known, and they do seem to share two essences: one, they are incredibly vain, and two, they don’t seem to have the least compunction for the way they act.


    • I actually saw Candida on stage way back in the late 70s in Glasgow King’s Theatre. I remember nothing about it except that Bill Simpson (who played DrFinlay in Dr Finlay’s Casebook) was in it. I can’t really imagine it being revived.

      I don’t know about Torrent Ballester’s DonJuan at all, although it doesn’t surprise me to know that you do! I don’t promise to read it, but I’ll at least try to find out a it more about it.

      I have never really liked any of the Don Juans I have known, but I have generally kept thi dislike to myself for fear this dislike will be seen merely to be envy. Pleasure is fine, but an eternity of pleasure and only pleasure really would be Hell. Maybe GBS was onto something after all!


  4. The recent-ish National Theatre production starring Ralph Fiennes did include the ‘Don Juan in Hell’ sequence. I think they must have cut something else, though, because the whole play was “only” three and a half hours instead of five.

    Have you read/will you be seeing the Patrick Marber ‘Don Juan in Soho’ in London at the moment? I wouldn’t bother actually, I thought it was rubbish!


    • It didn’t actually register with me that the National theatre had produced Man and Superman lately. I suppose you need a charismatic actor to play Jack Tanner. Peter O’Toole was fine in the role, and Ralph Fiennes (whom I have seen on stage playing Ibsen’s Brand) would be just right for teh role also. And the play can certainly tae a lot of cutting: the text I read was very repetitive. But I do wonder whatteh point is of reviving this play, when there are so many other finer works – even amongst Shaw’s other works – that are barely known.

      I was actually planning to read Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho some time – but it isn’t really near the top of my list of priorities. I was never teh fastest reader, and, since my recent illness, I have slowed down considerably. But I’ll give it a go – and see if I agree with you!

      All the best, Himadri


  5. We will have to disagree on Shaw. I did see the National Theatre Man and Superman, and was not persuaded by Ralph Fiennes, but I still appreciate the play, including the Don Juan in Hell scene.

    On comedies, I am surprised you have not included “Arms and the Man”, of which Orwell said it was written when Shaw was at the height of his powers as a dramatist. “It is probably the wittiest play he ever wrote, the most flawless technically, and in spite of being a very light comedy, the most telling.” Orwell says that Arms and the Man wears well—he was writing 50 years later—because its moral—that war is not a wonderful, romantic adventure—still needs to be told.

    Adding to that, as well as being a light comedy, I believe it is a deeply serious play: like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, I think it is an ensemble piece akin to chamber music, and, as in “A Doll’s House”, the characters are not quite what they seem, and in the course of the play change and are changed.

    And the “minor” character Catherine Petkoff has something of Lady Bracknell about her: for me the defining characteristic of Lady B is that whilst she is, on the face of it, a snob about class, when it comes right down to it what she is really a snob about is lots of money.


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