, Salem, MA

April 4, 2013

To hell and back with George Bernard Shaw

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — 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.

“It took months,” he said. “He has innate rhythms, profound and elegant ideas. But I knew, in order for the audience to understand all of his ideas and get his eloquence, I can’t overwhelm them. So I had to make some edits.”

Keeping the third act also kept the play in line with the theme of reflection, which the Salem theater department has addressed in each of this season’s plays.

“We’re trying to do shows that force us to reflect on our world a little bit,” Cunningham said. “I’m not sure people are taking time to reflect in this day and age.

“So much entertainment today is mindless, numbing,” he said. “I don’t want theater to be dumb. We’re not the movies. We’re an art form that’s supposed to engage people at all levels. Shaw goes for my brain, he makes me actively use my brain.”

Drawing its title, and its approach to moral problems, from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Man and Superman” has no shortage of big ideas.

And if Shaw’s witty, elegant dialogue strikes modern audiences as “talky,” Cunningham feels it has merits that he wants to restore.

“There were some things they were doing then that I wish we were doing now,” he said. “I wish people comported themselves with dignity. This happens with style.”

Audiences can be entertained by stylish dialogue if they are made to feel part of the discussion, which is what Cunningham directed his cast of theater majors to do.

“There are lines you throw directly at the audience because it’s a big thought,” he said. “The audience is another cast member for you. You want to engage them with that thought so they can bring it back to the play. There are not a lot of playwrights that will engage you at that level.”

In Cunningham’s production, even the sets follow the development of Shaw’s ideas.

“The bookcases will open,” he said. “Each act is opening our mind further. The whole set expands, and it becomes more expansive. It grows, just like we hope people’s thinking and feeling grow.”

Those experiences, and Shaw’s plays, are meant for everyone, Cunningham said.

“It’s not just a play for brainy people. It’s romantic, funny,” he said. “It’s extremely entertaining. The costumes are gorgeous, too.”

IF YOU GO What: "Man and Superman" by George Bernard Shaw When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 11-13 and 18-20, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m. Where: Mainstage Theatre, Salem State University, 352 Lafayette St. Tickets and more information: $15 general admission, $10 students and seniors, online at or by phone at 978-542-6365.