Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
Act 1: In the Beginning. In Eden, Adam discovers a dead fawn; he and Eve now understand that death must come to them, but Adam is also bored by the idea of eternal life. Adam disposes of the fawn, and the Serpent awakens and tells Eve that birth can overcome Death. She also tells Eve of Lilith, who gave birth to Adam and Eve by tearing herself apart, and that it takes two to give birth. Adam leaves and the Serpent tells Eve of the great secret of love and birth.
Several centuries later, in Mesopotamia, Adam is digging and Eve spinning. Cain enters and taunts Adam; Adam replies that Cain murdered his brother. Cain wants Eve to create more men so he can fight them. When Cain claims that he is a higher thing than man, Eve says he is simply Anti-Man. Cain wants martial glory and activity. Eve regards Lua, Cain’s wife, and her daughter as good-for-nothing. Eve worries that already her grandchildren are dying before they learned to live, and she thinks there must be something better than digging, spinning, and killing.
Act 2: The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas. After World War I, the brothers Barnabas discuss their theory of Creative Evolution and their belief that for humans to develop completely they need to live at least three hundred years; they believe that nature will work on the imagination and will accomplish this result. The brothers are joined by Franklyn’s daughter and a young clergyman, and the parlormaid says that if she were to live several hundred years, she would hesitate to marry her fiancé, the cook.
The brothers are visited by two politicians who think that the brothers have a scheme for winning the next election. They demonstrate their political stupidity and lose interest but still wish to exploit the theory. Haslam and Savvy are told that anyone might be the one to make this “evolutionary leap” yet they have no idea that it is to happen. Haslam laughs at this.
Act 3: The Thing Happens. Burge-Lubin, the president of the British Islands in 2170, wants Barnabas to attend a film on a system for breathing under water. The state is really run by a wise Chinaman named Confucius. Barnabas sees the film of high officials who drowned over the last several centuries and reports that four people from the past are the present archbishop of York. He turns out to be Haslam, who looks to be forty-five years old but admits to being 283 years old; he is forced to stage “deaths” because of bureaucratic rules and pension problems. Mrs. Lutestring enters and turns out to be the Barnabases’ parlormaid, now 275. She and Haslam realize that they can produce more long-livers and leave to discuss marriage. The others now believe the theory.
Act 4: Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman. In 3000, an Elderly Gentleman is on a visit to the lands of his ancestors on the Galway coast, accompanied by his son-in-law, the British prime minister, and General Aufsteig, who is much like both Cain and Napoleon. The Gentleman has been warned by a long-liver that this is a dangerous place for short-livers because of the disease of discouragement. He is given a companion, Zoo, a young girl of fifty-six; he is shocked when Zoo claims that long-livers are superior; she believes short-livers should be killed, like bad children. Leading the Gentleman to the temple of the Oracle, she says that the prime minister only pretends to consult the Oracle. The general confronts the veiled Oracle and says that he is the Man of Destiny, a military genius who has no talent except for war. Since he will be dethroned if he goes on making war, he asks the Oracle for a way out of this problem. Telling him he should die, she shoots him—but misses.
The Gentleman arrives with the British Envoy. After a talk with Zoo and others, the Gentleman becomes more discouraged. The Envoy wants to know whether he should call an election in August or in the spring. The Oracle tells him what she told his predecessor fifteen years before: “Go home, poor fool.” He leaves and decides to tell the people that he got the same answer as his predecessor. The Gentleman is left alone and begs the Oracle for help; he wants to stay. She kills him, saying that she can do nothing else for him.
Act 5: As Far as Thought Can Reach. The children of a.d. 31,920, who are born at the age of eighteen and become adolescents four years later, are playing and making love. Chloe realizes that art and pleasure no longer interest her and that she wishes only to think of mathematics. Today is a Festival of the Arts and a birth. A He-Ancient of eight hundred years comes by; the children are appalled at his way of life. A She-Ancient comes and breaks the giant egg shell and Amaryllis is born; she tells Amaryllis that she will live long but eventually die accidentally.
Arjillax makes statues of the Ancients, showing their maturity; the children dislike them. Martellus makes two life-size statues, Man and Woman, for a scientist named Pygmalion, who manages to infuse them with life. Everyone is disgusted with them because they are like Man of thousands of years before. They die of discouragement, and the Ancients warn the children against making “dolls”; the only things they can really make are themselves. Eventually there will be only thought, not people.
Night comes and the ghosts of Adam, Eve, Cain, and the Serpent appear. The ghost of Lilith, the mother of creation, appears and ends the play with a long speech about the constant attempts of the Life Force to create new and better forms of life.