Out & About

National Theatre’s “Man and Superman” soars to artistic heights

The National Theatre’s “Man and Superman” telecast coming to the Douglass Theater this weekend has nothing to do with Clark Kent but everything to do with the renowned Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw. The philosophical drama draws its title from Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about an “Ubermensch” or “superman.”

Shaw, regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language, produced more than 60 plays -- plus novels and short stories -- in his amazing life. The word “Shavian” was coined to refer to ideas flowing from his pen. A vegetarian and an early advocate of equality of the sexes, Shaw was also co-founder of the London School of Economics.

“Man and Superman,” a four-act play written in 1903, is based loosely on the Don Juan story.

The plot of this popular comedy hinges on a fascinating idea of Shaw’s own, the concept of a “life force,” something akin to the sexual impulse. Yes, it was around back then, too. The National Theatre’s website calls the production a “Romantic comedy, an epic fairytale, a fiery philosophical debate.”

The “life force” emanates from Ann Whitefield, a attractive young heiress who has been left in the care of two men, one of whom is old and venerable, while the other is handsome young radical John (or “Jack”) Tanner, whose name is the Anglicization of the Spanish Juan Tenorio, said to be the full name for Don Juan.

Jack resists mightily, but ultimately, Ann and her “life force” will prevail, and Jack and she will marry -- but first comes the play’s third act, “Don Juan in Hell.” Director Simon Godwin treats this often-omitted act as a philosophical dream sequence. Jack has fled to Spain to avoid Ann, but is captured by bandits and meets the Devil. When Jack awakes, Ann is there, resolute.

The celebrated Ralph Fiennes (“Schindler’s List,” “The English Patient”) plays Jack in this modernized production that has earned enthusiastic reviews. “Man and Superman” is also an excellent introduction to some of Shaw’s social ideas.

When: 3 p.m., May 24

Where: Douglass Theatre

Cost: $20