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Lifestyle

April 4, 2013

To hell and back with George Bernard Shaw

SALEM — Most people who’ve seen George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” first produced in 1903, have not seen the whole play.

The third act is a dream sequence that departs from the rest of the action, so directors often cut it, to shorten what is otherwise a very long performance.

But William Cunningham, a theater professor who is directing a new production of Shaw’s play at Salem State, feels that is a mistake.

“The reason I didn’t want to cut Act 3 is it cuts the meaning of the play,” he said.

Shaw’s drama is a comedy of manners that explores romantic relationships, while criticizing the culture that defines the roles that men and women must play.

The third act draws from Mozart’s operatic version of the classic story of Don Juan, where the licentious lover is condemned to the underworld but engages the devil in moral debate.

“Most of the play is a pretty conventional comedy,” Cunningham said. “What Act 3 does, by dropping us into hell, it becomes this profound opera. We get hit with big ideas that you now have to bring back into the play.”

After Don Juan and the devil debate which is better, heaven or hell, the romantic themes that dominate the surface story seem trivial.

“After Act 3, when the play goes back to the romantic part of it, we see romance as a bit silly,” Cunningham said. “Life isn’t a romance. Shaw was about reality. The only way we see reality is by rejecting falseness, the pretense of life.”

While Cunningham saw the scenes between Don Juan and the devil as crucial, he also knew that performing the whole script as written would take “hours and hours,” well beyond what an audience could endure. So, to save as much of the third act as possible, he edited Shaw’s eloquent dialogue — no easy task.

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