“In the Beginning: 4004 b.c.e.”

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Adam, the first man, created by the splitting of Lilith into male and female. Adam is dull and plodding, the tradition-bound agrarian who adheres to conventional morality solely from a lack of curiosity.


Eve, who eagerly eats the Forbidden Fruit to trade the agonies of individual immortality for racial immortality. Eve, the eternally curious, has a compulsion to create. Dissatisfied by both Adam’s passivity and Cain’s senseless hunger for glory, she yearns for something better.

The Serpent

The Serpent, a wise and beneficent female serpent. She frees Adam and Eve from the burden of immortality and tells them that their wills have the power to create anything they desire.


Cain, the archetype of the ruling-class man: the destroying man and the exploiting man. Cain demonstrates that it is “the Voice of God” that makes him kill, while it is “the Voice of the Devil” that tells Adam, “Thou shall not kill.”


Enoch, the intellectual who, while young, manufactures doctrines to justify Cain’s rapacity. Fortunately, Enoch lives long enough to understand “the Voice” more clearly and to repudiate Cain.


Lua, Eve’s daughter and Cain’s wife. For her own greedy ends, she encourages Cain’s conquests.

“The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas: 1920 c.e.”

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Franklyn Barnabas

Franklyn Barnabas, a clerical English gentleman of about fifty.

Conrad Barnabas

Conrad Barnabas, Franklyn’s brother, a professor of biology. He and Franklyn are preparing to publish their proposal that human life be extended to three hundred years. Their belief is that this change is necessary if humanity is not to destroy itself.

Mr. Joyce Burge

Mr. Joyce Burge, a fifty-year-old former Liberal prime minister.


Lubin, a patriarch of seventy years of age, prime minister before Burge. Lubin and Burge are obvious demonstrations that short-lived men are too inexperienced to rule rationally. Both dismiss the Barnabas’ scheme when they cannot see how it can win votes in the next election.


Cynthia, Franklyn’s eighteen-year-old daughter. Because she has grown up without bourgeois manners, she is known as “Savvy,” short for “Savage.”

William Haslam

William Haslam, a boyish clergyman who is to marry Cynthia. He is one of those destined to live three hundred years.

A parlor maid

A parlor maid, who is leaving Franklyn’s employ to marry the village woodsman. Although she speaks ironically of only one life to live, she too is to live three hundred years.

“The Thing Happens: 2170 c.e.”

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The archbishop

The archbishop, actually William Haslam of the previous section. Now 283 years old, he still looks 45. His longevity, which he had concealed by faking drowning accidents, is accidentally discovered.

Mrs. Lutestring

Mrs. Lutestring, the domestic minister. She is actually the parlor maid, now 274 years old. She and the archbishop discuss the difficulty of living in a world without grownups in it. They agree to marry and have long-lived children.


Burge-Lubin, the president of England, a composite of the two politicians in the previous section but hardly an improvement on either of them.


Barnabas, the accountant-general, a younger and more commonplace version of Conrad Barnabas. He threatens the long-lived ones with extinction because he fears them and because they upset his actuarial tables.


Confucius, one of the Chinese civil servants who govern England in 2170. He takes stoically the fact that long-livedness is confined to the English race.

The Negress

The Negress, the minister of health, with whom Burge-Lubin has been carrying on a flirtation via television. The chance that he, too, may be long-lived makes him turn down a rendezvous with her.

“Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman, 3000 c.e.”

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Joseph Popham Bolge Bluebin Barlow

Joseph Popham Bolge Bluebin Barlow, O.M., the Elderly Gentleman, a descendant of Burge-Lubin....

(This entire section contains 283 words.)

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The British Isles are now reserved for the long-livers. Visitors from the Empire, which now has its capital in Baghdad, visit the British Isles to consult with them. The Elderly Gentleman is at Galway with a party that has come to consult the Oracle. His tragedy is his realization of the infinite foolishness of his own society. Unable to bear returning to his own world and too immature to remain in Britain, he is at last put mercifully to death by the Oracle.


Zoo, a “girl of fifty” who resembles Savvy of Part II. Acting as Barlow’s nurse, she is so enraged at his manner that she announces her conversion to the party of Colonizers, who wish to exterminate the short-livers.

Napoleon I

Napoleon I, Cain Adamson Charles, “the man of destiny.” He is a great general who fights because he has no other talents. He asks the Oracle how he can stop being a general without losing his glory. The Oracle quite logically takes his pistol from him and tries to shoot him.

The British envoy

The British envoy,

his wife

his wife, and

their daughter

their daughter, conventional and uncomprehending Britishers who act as chorus. The envoy is Badger Bluebin, son-in-law of the Elderly Gentleman.

The Pythoness

The Pythoness, who is 170 years old. She is so advanced beyond the “mortals,” although only half-grown herself, that her gaze is enough to cow Napoleon and to kill the Elderly Gentleman.


Zozim, a very young “adult.” His and Zoo’s bored and mocking manner, as they attend the Oracle, offend the visitors.

“As Far as Thought Can Reach: 31,920 c.e.”

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Strephon and


Acis, two youths.


Chloe and


Ecrasia, two nymphs. With Strephon and Acis, they frolic in a glade before a temple in the style of Greece in the fifth century b.c.e. They watch the birth of a nymph and the tragedy that grows out of the sculptors’ competition.


Amaryllis, a beautiful nymph delivered from her egg while the children watch.

A She-Ancient

A She-Ancient, who delivers Amaryllis from her egg.


Arjillax and


Martellus, two sculptors. Martellus claims that he has discovered the greatest of artists, Pygmalion.


Pygmalion, a squarish, benevolent, and somewhat pedantic man who has captured the Life Force and sculptured a living man and woman. When Pygmalion tries to keep the female figure from killing the male, she bites him. Her being is so gross in comparison to Pygmalion’s that he dies on the spot.


Ozymandias and


Cleopatra-Semiramis, the male and female figures. As primitive as humans of today, they pompously proclaim mystical claptrap and, after Pygmalion dies, plead human nature and beg for mercy.

A He-Ancient

A He-Ancient, who is called to decide the creatures’ fate. He humanizes them to the point of wishing to die for each other, then allows them to die. The Ancients’ evolutionary goal, he tells the young people, is complete freedom from the flesh, existence as a state of pure intelligence.

The Ghost of Adam

The Ghost of Adam,

the Ghost of Eve

the Ghost of Eve,

the Ghost of the Serpent

the Ghost of the Serpent, and

the Ghost of Cain

the Ghost of Cain, who all appear as the children drift off. They puzzle over the meaning of all that has happened.


Lilith, the Universal Mother. She appears to pronounce a benediction over humanity’s history. Humankind has redeemed itself from sin and violence. Best of all, humans are not yet satisfied.

Places Discussed

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Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden. Playground of the biblical Adam and Eve, whose petty quarrels are interrupted by a gigantic and gloriously colored serpent.


Oasis. Location in Mesopotamia where, a few centuries after leaving Eden, Adam and Eve are confronted by their son Cain’s adolescent rebellion.


*London. Capital city of Great Britain, where, after the end of the Great War, in a house overlooking Hampstead Heath, the Brothers Barnabas conceive a scheme of Creative Evolution to recover the longevity of Adam and Eve. They attempt, unsuccessfully, to interest various politicians.


Board. Parlor of the president of the British Islands in the year 2170. The room’s end wall is a massive television screen. The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas has been rediscovered, and its principles found to be in action; however, the president cannot convince the representatives of various religions of this fact.

*Galway Bay

*Galway Bay. Atlantic Ocean inlet in western Ireland where, in the year 3000, a confrontation occurs among a diplomat from the capital of the British Commonwealth (located in Baghdad), the emperor of Turania, and representatives of a long-lived, culturally superior race. The revelations of an oracle voiced in a temple near Burrin pier fail to convince the visitors that their folkways are obsolete.

Temple on the hill

Temple on the hill. Edifice on a wooded slope, perhaps on the same site as the temple previously featured. A ritual performed before its altar ends with the oviparous birth of a Newly Born individual, whose curiosity requires a prompt education in the mysterious ways of the Life Force. The ghosts of Adam, Eve, and Cain subsequently reappear outside the temple, so that Lilith can explain to them that their ultimate descendants have given up on vulgar matter to become purified souls.


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Crompton, Louis. Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. Includes an excellent chapter on Back to Methuselah, which discusses Shaw’s debts to the thinkers and writers of his time.

Ervine, St. John. Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends. New York: William Morrow, 1956. An account that draws on personal knowledge of and correspondence with Shaw. The author often takes issue with Shaw’s ideas.

Joad, C. E. M. “Shaw’s Philosophy.” In George Bernard Shaw: A Critical Survey, edited by Louis Kronenberger. New York: World Publishing, 1953. The best overall view of Shaw’s ideas of Creative Evolution and the Life Force and their relations to other basic Shavian ideas.

Shaw, George Bernard. “Preface: The Infidel Half Century.” In Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with Their Prefaces. Vol. 5. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. Indispensable. Shaw’s own lengthy and discursive discussion of the play, why he wrote it, and how it should be understood.

Whitman, Robert F. Shaw and the Play of Ideas. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. A discussion that emphasizes the way in which the play presents and resolves contradictions. Also deals with the importance of hope in the play and in the Shavian scheme of things.


Critical Essays