Eric Bentley has called the “don juan” act from Man and Superman “a piece of persuasion if there is a piece of persuasion in all of world drama.” In a dream act, nowadays often performed separately as Don Juan in Hell, Juan, the Devil, the Commander, and Doña Ana debate for some 80 or 90 minutes the advantages of Hell (art, beauty, love, pleasure) and Heaven (rational discourse and promulgation of the Life Force). The Devil, of course, defends those hedonistic amenities, whereas Juan, a true Shavian, wants none of them and heads for a thinker’s Heaven. The Commander, who had become the Statue, and Doña Ana, the Lady par excellence, make their own idiosyncratic contributions to the great debate.
Shaw’s mastery is manifold. He gives all four characters their particular pungency and argues each of their respective philosophies with skill and gusto. He makes clashing ideas electric and challenging; this is dialogue as wit in action, cerebration as drama emerging from four chairs. Granted one cannot, for all of Juan’s eloquence, figure out what exactly is meant here by the Life Force – it seems not much more than the joy of cogitation – but the way Juan extols it and the Devil disputes it makes us attend with utmost participatory glee.
Charles Boyer in 1951, and Ricardo Montalbán in 1972, were irresistible Juans, but in the barely staged reading at the Irish Rep, Fritz Weaver is right up there with them, even if in a more oratorical way. Donal Donnelly would be a mischievously sparkly Devil if only he could read faster. (Charlotte Moore, the director, could have asked for more memorization and allowed for occasional movement to good effect.) James A. Stephens is perhaps a trifle lightweight as the Commander but has a nice, dry wit. Celeste Holm is a more feminine Ana than Agnes Moorehead was both in ‘51 and ‘72, but much of the time she just reads in a by now rather reedy voice. When she rouses herself, though, she is pleasantly sassy. The whole thing could use a little more razzle-dazzle; even so, Shaw’s metaphysical drollery and acrobatic repartee come unsquelchably through.