Peer review: Shaw “crowded his pages with writers’ names to show he was no solitary eccentric, but part of an international zeitgeist”. Photo: AKG-Images
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“I want to be the Irish Nietzsche”: what the Übermensch meant to Bernard Shaw

What did Shaw admire in Nietzsche? In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose.

“The difficulty now is to get rid of me,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to his friend Georg Brandes in the late 1880s. And Shaw would have agreed. In Shavian style, he liked to use Nietzsche’s name but to distance himself from the one or two translations of Nietzsche’s books he had read.

After he wrote his “comedy and philosophy” Man and Superman early in the 20th century, a number of critics, including his friend William Archer and also G K Chesterton, assumed that Shaw was a disciple of Nietzsche. It is true that in his letters and prefaces he was using Nietzsche’s name quite freely. He did so partly because he believed that British culture was becoming too backward and inward-looking. To change this internal focus he championed what was new and foreign in philosophy and the arts. In his art criticism he praised Whistler; in his theatre criticism he blew the trumpet for Ibsen, Chekhov and later Strindberg. And he devoted much of his music criticism to Wagner, with whom Nietzsche had quarrelled.

Shaw enjoyed making lists of American, Scandinavian, German and Russian writers. In the preface to Man and Superman he introduces readers to a series of authors whose thinking could be taken as somewhat similar to his own: “Goethe, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, Morris, Tolstoy and Nietzsche”. We do not think of Shaw being heavily influenced by Tolstoy, Goethe (who also used the superman for Faust) or Shelley. But Nietzsche’s name has stuck to him partly because he used the word “Superman”, a translation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” from Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was a “good cry”, Shaw thought – which was to say, a good piece of advertisement, which would contribute nicely to the title of his new “comedy and philosophy” for the stage.

People read Nietzsche for his philosophy; they go to Shaw’s plays for their comedy. In the dream sequence of Man and Superman Shaw mentions Nietzsche as having found himself in hell. The Devil, who represents Shaw’s hidden pessimism and speaks in Shavian parodies, believes Nietzsche’s loss of “wits” in his final years on earth had been inevitable. His career became a cautionary tale. He had been led into pessimism by a lifetime of searching for an optimistic philosophy while ignoring the lessons that human nature and human history could have taught him. But after a period in Shaw’s hell, he regains his wits and his confidence, and takes the escalator up to heaven as if he were happily entering a university again. After which we hear no more of him.

This short, somewhat misleading, discussion by the Devil about Nietzsche in the dream scene was cut from the recent production of Man and Superman at the National Theatre, with the result that there is very little to connect Nietzsche with Shaw. It is a hundred years since the play was first produced in its prodigious entirety (at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh on 11 June 1915) and cuts were essential – a reading of it all took over five hours.

Nietzsche lived “Beyond Space, Beyond Time”, far from Shaw’s world. In contemporary political life, Shaw was a committed socialist who, in 1912, gave £1,000 (equivalent to £50,000 today) to help start the New Statesman and also bought shares, becoming one of its original proprietors and directors. “I won’t write,” he promised. But he could not help himself and soon became a prolific contributor to the paper – in none of whose articles and reviews is there any mention of Nietzsche.

What did Shaw admire in Nietzsche? In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose. There was Nietzsche’s belief in struggle which Shaw acknowledged as necessary for essential improvement; there was also his attack on traditional moral values that acted as a brake on necessary change. He was clever and imaginative and sometimes original. But Shaw was not one of Nietzsche’s “brethren” who is urged to see “the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman”.

The first of Shaw’s writings said to have been influenced by Nietzsche was his essay “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”. But this was written at the beginning of the 1890s, before he had read any Nietzsche. In 1896 he read “Nietzsche contra Wagner”, translated by Thomas Common, and reviewed it in the Saturday Review. His review paints an unattractive pen portrait of Nietzsche, certainly not of someone who would become a great influence on his thinking. “Such a philosopher is as dull and dry as you please: it is he who brings his profession into disrepute,” he wrote. “Nietzsche is the champion of privilege, of power and of inequality.” He described the philosophy as a “fictitious hypothesis”, by which he meant that nothing came to Nietzsche as the result of actual experience. It was all put together by “a mere dead piece of brain machinery . . . Never was there a deafer, blinder, socially and politically inepter academician.”

There were obvious differences between the two writers. Nietzsche was an academic; Shaw never went to a university. Nietz­sche it seems came to believe in the usefulness of war, while Shaw was continually trying to take power away from men with guns and hand it to men and women of imagination and intellect. Nietzsche believed that “convictions are prisons” while Shaw gloried in his convictions – one of them being his belief in the equality of income. He pointed to “suggestive combinations of ideas” that were “pregnant with vitality” in Nietzsche’s writings. But many of these sallies seemed “petulant and impossible” and his epigrams appeared to have been “written with phosphorus on brimstone”. Some critics may see the well-known epigram in Human, All Too Human – “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling” – as tailor-made for GBS, with his many jokes and his apparent poverty of emotion. But Shaw himself maintained that an essential ingredient of truth was humour.

“I must really read some of his stuff,” Shaw teased William Archer soon after the publication of Man and Superman. But the more he learned about Nietzsche, the more disapproval he felt for what would be his growing authority on modern literary criticism. “Not for a moment will I suffer anyone to compare me to him as a critic,” he concluded. In a letter to his American biographer Archibald Henderson some four months after Man and Superman had opened at the Court Theatre in London, he wrote that “Nietzsche’s notions of art, his admiration of the Romans &c, are very unlike any view of mine . . . and his erudition I believe to be all nonsense: I think he was an academic in the sense of having a great deal of secondhand booklearning about him . . .”

Whereas Shaw travelled widely and was a public and political figure, Nietzsche nursed his genius in a hothouse, creating powerful ideas that were remote from life outside. Brought up in a clerical background, he had no belief in Christianity, which he considered a trick that disarmed people of the courage they needed to deal with the suffering in life. But with God dead what was the purpose of human beings? Were they part of an unknown experiment or was everything meaningless? He saw the possibility of men and women retreating into animals. Or might they progress in positive ways that he could inspire, transforming them into superhumans to take the place of gods? Nietzschean philosophers have made ingenious attempts to reassemble his queries and contradictions into an equation pointing to a solution that removes meaning from intention and changes even nihilism into a positive doctrine.

Shaw’s hope lay in the children of mixed marriages and, in Back to Methuselah, an ever longer span of life changing our focus on what is necessary and desirable. He believed in the life everlasting – but not necessarily for the individual. When he looked back on our history he was overtaken by a dark pessimism that animated the speeches of the Devil in Man and Superman. But when Nietzsche looked back, he saw some hope in the Roman empire, suggesting that slavery was a necessity for a mentally aristocratic life. “Men shall be trained for war,” he wrote, “and woman for the recreation of the warrior . . .” Shaw believed that women should have as many children as they wanted – but each one preferably by a different man so we could break through our social and tribal barriers. When Nietzsche looked into the future and beyond the sinking sun he imagined a paradise full of light and logic, a distant utopia of which he was the prophet. Within universities, Nietzsche’s language is peculiarly stimulating, the word “warfare” meaning little more than a tense intellectual debate. But carry that language into the streets and it becomes dangerously aggressive. Early in 1889, shortly before the birth of Hitler, Nietzsche went mad.

What Shaw may have envied was Nietz­sche’s posthumous fame and authority. Occasionally he would call himself a Nietz­schean but this should not be taken too literally. For example, he wrote to his German translator while at work on Man and Superman: “I want the Germans to know me as a philosopher; as an English (or Irish) Nietz­sche (only ten times cleverer) . . .”

In his essays Shaw crowded his pages with writers’ names to show he was no solitary eccentric, but part of an international zeitgeist. The poets, playwrights and philosophers he refers to are mostlyattempting to solve a similar problem of how to advance human beings to the next stage of evolution. None of them necessarily influenced the other, but all were working along roughly parallel lines to discover an individual answer to a general question – as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had done.

The latest edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature assembles diverse literary figures, including Shaw, who “felt the impact of Nietzsche’s thought”. In a similar vein the Nietzsche scholar Keith Ansell-Pearson has suggested that Shaw was one of the writers who were “avid readers of Nietzsche” and “inspired by his ideas”. Yet, after seeing Act III of Man and Superman at the National Theatre this year, he concluded that this was not a version of Nietzsche but much closer to the Creative Evolution of Henri Bergson. Shaw would have endorsed this. For though insisting that Bergson’s and his writings were “totally independent of one another”, he added that his scene in hell turned out to be “a dramatisation” of Bergson’s philosophy.

There are no characters in Shaw’s plays that have their origins in Nietzsche’s “self-effacing self-advancement”. But something of his spirit and influence can perhaps be detected in Geneva, Shaw’s political extravaganza written in the late 1930s. Here the European dictators – Bardo Bombardone of Italy, Ernest Battler of Germany and General Flanco de Fortinbras of Spain – are summoned to the Court of International Justice at The Hague. It is Bombardone the bumptious actor-politician who delivers a flight of words in praise of willpower and war. This is a doctrine that, forty years after his death, might have been familiar to Nietzsche – if only as a parody. “My time has not yet come . . .” he had written in Ecce Homo, “some are born posthumously.” But a pantomime version of Mussolini in Shaw’s theatrical extravaganza was far from the posthumous destination of Nietzsche’s dreams.

Shaw himself was to choose a very different modern Superman, a far-seeing realist who changed our understanding of the world, giving us a new focus on time and the future: Einstein. “I rejoice at the new universe to which he has introduced us,” Shaw declared. “I rejoice in the fact that he has destroyed all our old sermons, all the old absolutes, all the old cut and dried conceptions, even of time and space, which were so discouraging . . .” But neither Shaw nor Nietzsche could have foreseen the reinvention today of so many gods, all armed with their warring sermons and absolutes.

Michael Holroyd’s biography of Bernard Shaw is published by Pimlico, and as an ebook by Head of Zeus

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear