Saturday, November 9, 2019


George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) spent the final years of World War I and a bit beyond writing his longest play titled Back to Methuselah (1918-1921).  It is really a five-play cycle under one title that portrays humanity from life in the Garden of Eden to the year 31,920 A.D.  For this post, my discussion relates to the first two plays--PART I titled IN THE BEGINNING and PART II THE GOSPEL OF THE BROTHERS BARNABAS.  It is in Part I, Act II that Shaw discusses what motivates man to kill and in Part II Shaw examines the aftermath of World War One. I do not intend to discuss these two plays as they relate to Shaw’s major thesis for the cycle—the political inadequacy of humankind and how humans need creatively to evolve beyond their present considerations.  The only lens I will use for these two plays is their relationship to World War One.

Part I, Act I titled “In The Beginning” is Shaw’s version of how Adam and Eve were introduced to the idea of procreation.  Act II is set “A few centuries later.”  The time is “Morning” and the location is “An oasis in Mesopotamia.”  It is the simple living area where the very old Adam and Eve currently reside.  Even though Cain’s parents have not forgiven him for slaying his brother Able, he arrives to visit his parents. It is Cain’s discussion with Adam and Eve that reveals his rational for battling and killing other men.  Cain believes fighting is important to feeling alive “life lived to the very marrow” as well as fighting makes man the master of woman. However, Eve counters with “she makes you fight to bring her the ornaments and treasures of those you have slain.”  Cain believes “There is something higher than Man. There is hero and superman.” Cain also claims: “I have striven with a man: spear to spear and shield to shield.  It is terrible; but there is no joy like it.  I call it fighting.  He who has never fought has never lived.”

The scene continues as he educates his parents about war and the trophies it brings. His list includes the bonus of other individuals to work for him. Also Cain claims: “Without danger I cannot be great.”  He proudly acknowledges knowing “the craft of fighting and of hunting: in a word, the craft of killing.”   He proclaims: “Woman is the creator and man is the destroyer.” Eventually Adam is won over by Cain’s arguments for killing, but Eve never buys into the rationale. Shaw’s version of how man evolved into the warrior/hero illustrates that continuing to have wars is inevitable as long as the ideas expressed by Cain and his war trophies are desirable.

PART II THE GOSPEL OF THE BROTHERS BARNABUS is set during the first years after World War One. It is a fine afternoon in spring.  The setting is “a well-furnished spacious study” located in “Hampstead Heath towards London.” It is the home of “The Clerical Gentleman” (Franklyn) who is the brother to “The Tweeded Gentleman” (Conrad) a professor of biology at Jarrowfields University. These two men are the Brothers Barnabas, who spread their gospel for “creative evolution” as a means of stopping wars. Mr. Haslam, the newly appointed young rector, arrives, but he is a “very unwelcome” guest.  He has really come to see Franklyn’s daughter named Savvy, who considers herself a “Simple-Lifer.” This term refers to a lifestyle that existed from 1913 and throughout the years of the war. It refers to a person who claims to live a simple life often connected to nature. It was not unusual for these individuals to have an income that sustained their lifestyle and allowed them neither to care about social considerations nor to what was currently fashionable.

Shaw used this play to illustrate his sense of society’s condition following the war. The politicians who visit the Brothers Barnabas, just bicker about how their various proposed policies have not succeeded. The characters named Mr. Burge and Mr. Lubin revisit the problems resulting from the war. Audiences in the 1920s would have found Mr. Lubin recognizable as H. H. Asquith (1852-1915) and Mr. Burge as David Lloyd George (1863-1945). Asquith and George served consecutively as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the years 1908-1922. Shaw makes the point that politicians as well as the church failed to make progress in solving the warring state of humans and their countries.  At one point, Shaw sums up the early 1920s as “A world without conscience that is the horror of our condition.” 

Franklyn and Conrad tell the visiting politicians that they are just leading the country into another war.  The solution that the Brothers Barnabus advocate is beyond politics. It relates to humans having a long enough lifespan to evolve into better human beings. The Brothers Barnabus believe it would take extending human life to at least three hundred years since currently humans “are just beginning to have a glimmer of the wisdom and knowledge needed for their own government.”

The remaining three plays in the cycle illustrate Shaw’s vision for creative evolution that could  provide humans with the wisdom to stop all killings and wars.

This cycle of five plays subtitled by Shaw “A Metabiological Pentateuch,” has an interesting production history. The premier performance was undertaken by the Theatre Guild in New York City where it was presented at the Garrick Theatre. It opened on February 22, 1922 and closed in March,1922 after playing for twenty-five performances. Since Back to Methuselah took at least ten hours to see it in its entirety, the Theatre Guild presented the entire cycle of five plays over the course of three consecutive nights before starting again with Part I.

The first production in England was presented by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and it opened on October 9, 1923. Barry Jackson (1879-1961) founder of this theatre, was determined to gain the rights to this play.  When Shaw met Jackson, Shaw revealed that he “had discarded all though of production until perhaps fifty years after my death.”  Shaw did not know that Birmingham Repertory Theatre had produced his plays for years. Shaw finally gave his permission for Jackson to stage Back to Methuselah.

Birmingham Repertory Theatre brought its original Birmingham production to London. Back to Methuselah opened with Part I at the Court Theatre on February 18,1924. Each play in the cycle opened on a different night. Part II opened February 19th, Part III the following night, Part IV on the 21st and Part V on the 22nd.  Each Part was repeated four times and the production closed following the March 6, 1924 performance of Part V. Audiences were curious and interested in this play. It was considered a bold experiment.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre brought back its production of Back to Methuselah to London’s Court Theatre on March 5, 1928.  Once again, each part was staged on separate consecutive evenings for a total of ten times each. Colin Keith-Johnson (1896-1980) played Adam as he had done in the 1923-24 production.

 A National British radio version of Back to Methuselah Part I was aired on January 2, 1935. Part I starred Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891-1992) who also played Eve in the original Birmingham Repertory Theatre production. I do not know if other plays from the cycle were aired on later dates.
The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the United States produced a seventy-five minutes radio version in 1937 of Back to Methuselah. This version of the play was prepared by Shaw and it was broadcast in Canada as well as the United States.
The Theatre Guild mounted a second Broadway production of Back to Methuselah that opened at the Ambassador Theatre on March 26, 1958. It played for twenty-nine performances before it toured throughout the United States. This successful production had been cut from 90,000 words in the original script to 30,000 words by Arnold Moss (1910-1972). This version of Back to Methuselah was a two-act play. Moss also appeared on stage playing Bernard Shaw. Moss used this role to keep the play moving by chatting about it in a witty and charming Shavian manner.  Celeste Holm (1917-2012) and James Daly (1918-1978) starred throughout the drama in multiple roles as did other well-known actors.  This version was directed by Margaret Webster (1905-1972).

 In 1969 Canada’s Shaw Festival presented Back to Methuselah, Part One. A more complete version of the play was presented during the Shaw Festival’s 1986 season.

Back to Methuselah was initially published in 1921 by Constable and Company Limited, London. 

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