Because Back to Methuselah is made up of five full-length plays, it is extremely difficult to produce. Its first full production was at the Garrick Theatre in New York, with acts 1 and 2 being done on February 27, 1922, acts 3 and 4 on March 6, and act 5 on March 13. This first production resulted in a budget deficit of twenty thousand dollars. Obviously, a play that demands three long nights in the theater is unlikely to be produced often, both because of the expense and because of the demands on the audience.
The play presents the most complete representation of George Bernard Shaw’s mature thought. In addition to its main themes of Creative Evolution and the Life Force, the work embraces many other typically Shavian beliefs and themes. It is Shaw’s most profound statement and at the same time often almost unactable.
The point of the play is simple enough: For humans to profit from their experience, they must learn to live longer and gain wisdom. Shaw believed that the human race had rarely, if ever, demonstrated that it had learned from the past or that it had made any progress in moving beyond the mundane passions of individuals. As a noted socialist, Shaw had spent many years on the public platform, written many pamphlets and books arguing for a socialist society, and composed many plays that presented the virtues of a socialist view of life and the vices of capitalism. Shaw believed, however, that socialism was only a short-term solution to such problems of life as evil, the organization of society, and equality. In Back to Methuselah, he does not deny socialism or give up on it, but turns instead to the possibility of a long-term solution. Socialism may be said to be a political solution, while Creative Evolution is a spiritual, even religious, solution. Socialism, Shaw believed, could prepare the way for the type of humans and society able to progress to the basic lessons of Creative Evolution.
The pattern presented in the play and reflected, for example, in the character of Eve in act 1, is that something higher is desired, taken into the imagination, and finally willed to happen. This pattern is Shaw’s answer to Darwin, whose idea on the origin of species Shaw detested for its mindless mechanism and for its dependence on chance. In opposition to this, Shaw set up the centrality of the will.
In terms of Shaw’s thought, the play should be read in conjunction with Man and Superman (1903) and Saint Joan (1923). Together, these three plays present Shaw’s most concentrated efforts to supply humankind with a new creed and a new theology. Man and Superman presents the ideas of...
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