Confucius [shaking his head, shocked at the President’s impoliteness]: No. No, no, no, no, no. Oh, these English! these crude young civilizations! Their manners! Hogs. Hogs. [Back to Methuselah, 135]

I somehow can't imagine that Shaw was happy about them building him a statue
Shaw poses by a statue of Shaw, lets some guy choke him.

Back to Methuselah is George Bernard Shaw’s epic “Metabiological Pentateuch,” a five-play cycle vaulting across time from the Garden of Eden all the way to 31,920 AD. It is concerned with time, Socialism, ethics, human wisdom and development, life, and the psychological importance of mortality. Perhaps so that people would take it seriously, Shaw made it 260 pages long; with its extensive prefaces, it clocks in at over 400.

Shaw’s agnostic, universal, common-sense approach to ethics in this and his other works make him an invaluable source of social wisdom in a time when we are led at every turn to compromise our ethics. He combines biting commentary on enduring social issues with witty aristocrats and dramatic stories, so by all rights he should be a regular visitor to our stages; but somehow, he is rarely produced.

Ethics! Ethics!

Shaw has a remarkable dedication to his own ethics, and is uncannily able to reverse the “common sense” hypocrisies of his time—which somehow endure into our own—on themselves, and show us what we know in our brains already to be true.

Haslam: [One] can’t help it. If there’s a living in the family, or one’s Governor knows a patron, one gets shoved into the Church by one’s parents.
Franklyn: One gets shoved out of it, sometimes, by one’s conscience.
Haslam: Oh yes; but where is a chap like me to go? [38-39]

As an Irishman living in London out of necessity, of course Shaw would see the church as an amoral organization. They freely supported British conquest, though it resulted in devastation, death, and ongoing war for his own people and for many others. I doubt that Shaw would be shocked to hear that the Church, in our time, was sheltering and facilitating pedophiles. He would only comment that of course the Pope was never arrested for the crime.

Assassination on the scaffold is the worst form of assassination, because there it is invested with the approval of society. [The Revolutionist’s Handbook, 735]

Always with the great beard, Shaw
Having grown up in poverty, Shaw had a lucid understanding of it

Throughout his career his works attacked not just the church but also slum-landlordism, party politics, classism, the self-appointed moral superiority of the rich, the self-interest of the medical profession, romanticism, warmongering and the cult of courage; and defended prostitutes, cowards/pacifists, feminism, polyamory, the poor and simple, and other concepts and groups which remain under attack today.

In keeping with these virtues, he wrote a host of powerful, independent female leads in a time when this was unheard of including Joan of Arc, Mrs. Warren the procuress and her accountant daughter, and even Eliza Doolittle, the flowergirl in Pygmalion who learns from Henry Higgins how to pass for a duchess, and then liberates herself from his oppressive, dogmatic influence.

Back to Methuselah

It was hard enough to stand the party politicians before the war; but now that they have managed to half kill Europe between them, I can’t be civil to them, and I don’t see why I should be. [Back to Methuselah, 46]

The plot of Back to Methuselah is that, directly after the First World War, a pair of brothers decide that humans must live to be 300 in order to develop any sense of responsibility. In the wake of the terrible crimes and follies of the global catastrophe, it is clear to them that we must live much longer than we currently do in order to behave in anything like the civilized manners we pretend to. 60 or 80 is a blink of an eye, they argue; we barely have time to learn anything. “Wisdom with age” is a sophistry of the worst kind, otherwise old men would never lead us to war, and commit the same follies that young men do.

What’s more, because of shortness of our lives, we don’t have to live with the repercussions of most of our actions. A politician with 250 years ahead of them, knowing that they will be in and out of power in a fraction of their lifespan, might take their actions more seriously, and look to create a better world for themselves, rather than pad their throne.

This change, remarkably, happens, and humans progress from the violent, ignorant, sensualist, chaotic creatures which made the original entrance into the Garden of Eden, into a slow-moving, erudite, ascetic masterpiece of evolution.

Problems

Children with anything wrong do not live here, my child. Life is not cheap with us. But you would not have felt anything. [217]

There are a few fairly objective problems with Back to Methuselah as a play. As a matter of fact, despite being identified as a World Classic in its own time, it could today be called his longest, most problematic, dated, and even in its own time difficult to grasp work. It is a proponent of the anti-Darwinist theory of Creative Evolution, which held that a species can will itself to change—the giraffe’s neck is long because the giraffe wanted the leaves at the top of the trees—along with a couple of other more distasteful concepts from the time.

But it’s also his most ambitious play, coming to grips with God and the Devil themselves, not to mention the origins of crime, fear, and humanity. It reaches out to the extremes of knowledge and fantasy, then dares to grasps at a solution to the world’s problems, and presents it. Of his plays, it’s the least pandering to public opinion, offering original, and in some cases radical, ideas on a variety of topics, ideals and issues. It’s also extremely funny in its satire, and spares no human institutions.

I’m setting out today to tackle this contradiction, and the mystery of Shaw’s odd absence from our stages, with my final goal being to develop an intelligent response to this monolith of a drama, by addressing each of the five plays in the Back to Methuselah cycle individually, in a series of short essays to follow this one.

With our minds freed from pretense and falsehood we could enter into the heritage of all the faiths. [Prefaces to Back to Methuselah, lxxix]

All of the quotes in these essays come from my ratty, six-volume Complete Plays with Prefaces, published in 1962. I indicate the play but not the volume number.

The title of this essay is from Back to Methuselah, page 39.

Advertisements