List Of Contents | Contents of Man and Superman, by Bernard Shaw
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By Bernard Shaw


My dear Walkley:

You once asked me why I did not write a Don Juan play. The levity
with which you assumed this frightful responsibility has probably
by this time enabled you to forget it; but the day of reckoning
has arrived: here is your play! I say your play, because qui
facit per alium facit per se. Its profits, like its labor, belong
to me: its morals, its manners, its philosophy, its influence on
the young, are for you to justify. You were of mature age when
you made the suggestion; and you knew your man. It is hardly
fifteen years since, as twin pioneers of the New Journalism of
that time, we two, cradled in the same new sheets, made an epoch
in the criticism of the theatre and the opera house by making it
a pretext for a propaganda of our own views of life. So you
cannot plead ignorance of the character of the force you set in
motion. Yon meant me to epater le bourgeois; and if he protests,
I hereby refer him to you as the accountable party.

I warn you that if you attempt to repudiate your responsibility,
I shall suspect you of finding the play too decorous for your
taste. The fifteen years have made me older and graver. In you I
can detect no such becoming change. Your levities and audacities
are like the loves and comforts prayed for by Desdemona: they
increase, even as your days do grow. No mere pioneering journal
dares meddle with them now: the stately Times itself is alone
sufficiently above suspicion to act as your chaperone; and even
the Times must sometimes thank its stars that new plays are not
produced every day, since after each such event its gravity is
compromised, its platitude turned to epigram, its portentousness
to wit, its propriety to elegance, and even its decorum into
naughtiness by criticisms which the traditions of the paper do
not allow you to sign at the end, but which you take care to sign
with the most extravagant flourishes between the lines. I am not
sure that this is not a portent of Revolution. In eighteenth
century France the end was at hand when men bought the
Encyclopedia and found Diderot there. When I buy the Times and
find you there, my prophetic ear catches a rattle of twentieth
century tumbrils.

However, that is not my present anxiety. The question is, will
you not be disappointed with a Don Juan play in which not one of
that hero's mille e tre adventures is brought upon the stage? To
propitiate you, let me explain myself. You will retort that I
never do anything else: it is your favorite jibe at me that what
I call drama is nothing but explanation. But you must not expect
me to adopt your inexplicable, fantastic, petulant, fastidious
ways: you must take me as I am, a reasonable, patient,
consistent, apologetic, laborious person, with the temperament of
a schoolmaster and the pursuits of a vestryman. No doubt that
literary knack of mine which happens to amuse the British public
distracts attention from my character; but the character is there
none the less, solid as bricks. I have a conscience; and
conscience is always anxiously explanatory. You, on the contrary,
feel that a man who discusses his conscience is much like a woman
who discusses her modesty. The only moral force you condescend to
parade is the force of your wit: the only demand you make in
public is the demand of your artistic temperament for symmetry,
elegance, style, grace, refinement, and the cleanliness which
comes next to godliness if not before it. But my conscience is
the genuine pulpit article: it annoys me to see people
comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable; and I insist on
making them think in order to bring them to conviction of sin. If
you don't like my preaching you must lump it. I really cannot
help it.

In the preface to my Plays for Puritans I explained the
predicament of our contemporary English drama, forced to deal
almost exclusively with cases of sexual attraction, and yet
forbidden to exhibit the incidents of that attraction or even to
discuss its nature. Your suggestion that I should write a Don
Juan play was virtually a challenge to me to treat this subject
myself dramatically. The challenge was difficult enough to be
worth accepting, because, when you come to think of it, though we
have plenty of dramas with heroes and heroines who are in love
and must accordingly marry or perish at the end of the play, or
about people whose relations with one another have been
complicated by the marriage laws, not to mention the looser sort
of plays which trade on the tradition that illicit love affairs
are at once vicious and delightful, we have no modern English
plays in which the natural attraction of the sexes for one
another is made the mainspring of the action. That is why we
insist on beauty in our performers, differing herein from the
countries our friend William Archer holds up as examples of
seriousness to our childish theatres. There the Juliets and
Isoldes, the Romeos and Tristans, might be our mothers and
fathers. Not so the English actress. The heroine she impersonates
is not allowed to discuss the elemental relations of men and
women: all her romantic twaddle about novelet-made love, all her
purely legal dilemmas as to whether she was married or
"betrayed," quite miss our hearts and worry our minds. To console
ourselves we must just look at her. We do so; and her beauty
feeds our starving emotions. Sometimes we grumble ungallantly at
the lady because she does not act as well as she looks. But in a
drama which, with all its preoccupation with sex, is really void
of sexual interest, good looks are more desired than histrionic

Let me press this point on you, since you are too clever to raise
the fool's cry of paradox whenever I take hold of a stick by the
right instead of the wrong end. Why are our occasional attempts
to deal with the sex problem on the stage so repulsive and dreary
that even those who are most determined that sex questions shall
be held open and their discussion kept free, cannot pretend to
relish these joyless attempts at social sanitation? Is it not
because at bottom they are utterly sexless? What is the usual
formula for such plays? A woman has, on some past occasion, been
brought into conflict with the law which regulates the relations
of the sexes. A man, by falling in love with her, or marrying
her, is brought into conflict with the social convention which
discountenances the woman. Now the conflicts of individuals with
law and convention can be dramatized like all other human
conflicts; but they are purely judicial; and the fact that we are
much more curious about the suppressed relations between the man
and the woman than about the relations between both and our
courts of law and private juries of matrons, produces that
sensation of evasion, of dissatisfaction, of fundamental
irrelevance, of shallowness, of useless disagreeableness, of
total failure to edify and partial failure to interest, which is
as familiar to you in the theatres as it was to me when I, too,
frequented those uncomfortable buildings, and found our popular
playwrights in the mind to (as they thought) emulate Ibsen.

I take it that when you asked me for a Don Juan play you did not
want that sort of thing. Nobody does: the successes such plays
sometimes obtain are due to the incidental conventional melodrama
with which the experienced popular author instinctively saves
himself from failure. But what did you want? Owing to your
unfortunate habit--you now, I hope, feel its inconvenience--of
not explaining yourself, I have had to discover this for myself.
First, then, I have had to ask myself, what is a Don Juan?
Vulgarly, a libertine. But your dislike of vulgarity is pushed to
the length of a defect (universality of character is impossible
without a share of vulgarity); and even if you could acquire the
taste, you would find yourself overfed from ordinary sources
without troubling me. So I took it that you demanded a Don Juan
in the philosophic sense.

Philosophically, Don Juan is a man who, though gifted enough to
be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil,
follows his own instincts without regard to the common statute,
or canon law; and therefore, whilst gaining the ardent sympathy
of our rebellious instincts (which are flattered by the
brilliancies with which Don Juan associates them) finds himself
in mortal conflict with existing institutions, and defends
himself by fraud and farce as unscrupulously as a farmer defends
his crops by the same means against vermin. The prototypic Don
Juan, invented early in the XVI century by a Spanish monk, was
presented, according to the ideas of that time, as the enemy of
God, the approach of whose vengeance is felt throughout the
drama, growing in menace from minute to minute. No anxiety is
caused on Don Juan's account by any minor antagonist: he easily
eludes the police, temporal and spiritual; and when an indignant
father seeks private redress with the sword, Don Juan kills him
without an effort. Not until the slain father returns from heaven
as the agent of God, in the form of his own statue, does he
prevail against his slayer and cast him into hell. The moral is a
monkish one: repent and reform now; for to-morrow it may be too
late. This is really the only point on which Don Juan is
sceptical; for he is a devout believer in an ultimate hell, and
risks damnation only because, as he is young, it seems so far off
that repentance can be postponed until he has amused himself to
his heart's content.

But the lesson intended by an author is hardly ever the lesson
the world chooses to learn from his book. What attracts and
impresses us in El Burlador de Sevilla is not the immediate
urgency of repentance, but the heroism of daring to be the enemy
of God. From Prometheus to my own Devil's Disciple, such enemies
have always been popular. Don Juan became such a pet that the
world could not bear his damnation. It reconciled him
sentimentally to God in a second version, and clamored for his
canonization for a whole century, thus treating him as English
journalism has treated that comic foe of the gods, Punch.
Moliere's Don Juan casts back to the original in point of
impenitence; but in piety he falls off greatly. True, he also
proposes to repent; but in what terms? "Oui, ma foi! il faut
s'amender. Encore vingt ou trente ans de cette vie-ci, et puis
nous songerons a nous." After Moliere comes the artist-enchanter,
the master of masters, Mozart, who reveals the hero's spirit in
magical harmonies, elfin tones, and elate darting rhythms as of
summer lightning made audible. Here you have freedom in love and
in morality mocking exquisitely at slavery to them, and
interesting you, attracting you, tempting you, inexplicably
forcing you to range the hero with his enemy the statue on a
transcendant plane, leaving the prudish daughter and her priggish
lover on a crockery shelf below to live piously ever after.

After these completed works Byron's fragment does not count for
much philosophically. Our vagabond libertines are no more
interesting from that point of view than the sailor who has a
wife in every port, and Byron's hero is, after all, only a
vagabond libertine. And he is dumb: he does not discuss himself
with a Sganarelle-Leporello or with the fathers or brothers of
his mistresses: he does not even, like Casanova, tell his own
story. In fact he is not a true Don Juan at all; for he is no
more an enemy of God than any romantic and adventurous young
sower of wild oats. Had you and I been in his place at his age,
who knows whether we might not have done as he did, unless
indeed your fastidiousness had saved you from the empress
Catherine. Byron was as little of a philosopher as Peter the
Great: both were instances of that rare and useful, but
unedifying variation, an energetic genius born without the
prejudices or superstitions of his contemporaries. The resultant
unscrupulous freedom of thought made Byron a greater poet than
Wordsworth just as it made Peter a greater king than George III;
but as it was, after all, only a negative qualification, it did
not prevent Peter from being an appalling blackguard and an
arrant poltroon, nor did it enable Byron to become a religious
force like Shelley. Let us, then, leave Byron's Don Juan out of
account. Mozart's is the last of the true Don Juans; for by the
time he was of age, his cousin Faust had, in the hands of Goethe,
taken his place and carried both his warfare and his
reconciliation with the gods far beyond mere lovemaking into
politics, high art, schemes for reclaiming new continents from
the ocean, and recognition of an eternal womanly principle in the
universe. Goethe's Faust and Mozart's Don Juan were the last
words of the XVIII century on the subject; and by the time the
polite critics of the XIX century, ignoring William Blake as
superficially as the XVIII had ignored Hogarth or the XVII
Bunyan, had got past the Dickens-Macaulay Dumas-Guizot stage and
the Stendhal-Meredith-Turgenieff stage, and were confronted with
philosophic fiction by such pens as Ibsen's and Tolstoy's, Don
Juan had changed his sex and become Dona Juana, breaking out of
the Doll's House and asserting herself as an individual instead
of a mere item in a moral pageant.

Now it is all very well for you at the beginning of the XX
century to ask me for a Don Juan play; but you will see from the
foregoing survey that Don Juan is a full century out of date for
you and for me; and if there are millions of less literate people
who are still in the eighteenth century, have they not Moliere
and Mozart, upon whose art no human hand can improve? You would
laugh at me if at this time of day I dealt in duels and ghosts
and "womanly" women. As to mere libertinism, you would be the
first to remind me that the Festin de Pierre of Moliere is not a
play for amorists, and that one bar of the voluptuous
sentimentality of Gounod or Bizet would appear as a licentious
stain on the score of Don Giovanni. Even the more abstract parts
of the Don Juan play are dilapidated past use: for instance, Don
Juan's supernatural antagonist hurled those who refuse to repent
into lakes of burning brimstone, there to be tormented by devils
with horns and tails. Of that antagonist, and of that conception
of repentance, how much is left that could be used in a play by
me dedicated to you? On the other hand, those forces of middle
class public opinion which hardly existed for a Spanish nobleman
in the days of the first Don Juan, are now triumphant everywhere.
Civilized society is one huge bourgeoisie: no nobleman dares now
shock his greengrocer. The women, "marchesane, principesse,
cameriere, cittadine" and all, are become equally dangerous: the
sex is aggressive, powerful: when women are wronged they do not
group themselves pathetically to sing "Protegga il giusto
cielo": they grasp formidable legal and social weapons, and
retaliate. Political parties are wrecked and public careers
undone by a single indiscretion. A man had better have all the

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