Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095
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 the Life Force (a force that has faith in itself though it may have no relation to humankind) and of Creative Evolution. The woman will, by nature, select the best mate for her children; woman is the huntress, man the quarry. In Saint Joan, the reader sees an advanced human (though she is not allowed to live long) who is superior to the ordinary desires and social practices of human life. Shaw believed in the force of will, in human ability to create a thing if it were willed hard enough.
Shaw’s visionary fable must not be taken too literally. It is a myth or a metaphor, an imaginative vision of what might or could be, but it is not a literal plan or program for the future. Shaw’s faith is in life, not necessarily in human beings. The specifics of the play are only imaginings, a way of suggesting possibilities, and an attempt to present to the audience the glorification of the will and of the Life Force. In each of the five acts, there is at least one spokesman for the Life Force: In act1 it is the Serpent; in act 2, the brothers Barnabas; in act 3, the archbishop (and Mrs. Lutestring); in act 4, the Oracle (and Zoo); and in act 5, it is the Ancients (and Lilith).
Just as a number of the characters appear and reappear under various names and offices, so do a number of themes recur. The theme of war and the soldier occurs in acts 1, 2, and 4, as Shaw makes some of the same points about military matters as in Arms and the Man (1894). The theme of discouragement reappears in acts 2 and 4, after having been introduced by Eve in act 1. Discouragement, as Shaw sees it, is the recognition of a sense of futility in human life, and it is strong enough to kill. In acts 2, 3, and 4, one can see political themes, but overriding all—in every part of the play—there is the triumph of life over death and matter. In the final act, the condition of the Ancients, who aspire to become pure thought (though they have not as yet done so), represents the triumph over matter, the ability to put aside the things of children, such as art and pleasure, and to arrive at mature contemplation.
Shaw’s philosophy and dramatic practice do not always coincide, however. Shaw insists, for example, that humans can choose to live longer, yet in acts 2 and 3, where the first “leap” is made to long-living, it is the parlormaid and the Reverend William Haslam, who think little of the idea of living longer, who become the first of the long-livers, apparently chosen by chance. Shaw always extolled the idea of living longer so that humans could accomplish better and more work, especially in social organization and politics. In the play, however, the state and any sort of social organization seems to have withered away. The Ancients do nothing but think, which issues in no more than a kind of self-gratification.
The play presents other dramatic difficulties. Act 1 seems to be the most dramatic and playable. The other parts are often dull, as Shaw admitted. Shaw was always known for the extended use of discussion in his plays, but this discussion seems to be indulged in for its own sake. Despite the frequent prosiness of the play, however, there are many entertaining comic scenes and acts, especially in the political commentary in acts 2, 3, and 4, in the character of Eve in act 1, and in the confrontation of the short-livers with the long-livers in act 4. The play has probably to be regarded more for its thought and content than for its innate dramatic qualities. Nevertheless, the final scene, where, on a darkened stage, Lilith in a poetic soliloquy delivers Shaw’s summation of the past and future possibilities of humans, is a triumph of the fusion of thought and language.