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Back to Methuselah

play evolution absorb ‘the

a play by G. B. Shaw, first performed in 1922; it is its author's most complete dramatization of his theory of ‘creative evolution’. Subtitled ‘a metabiological pentateuch’, it opens in the Garden of Eden, where Eve is confronted with a serpent who teaches her the facts of life and death and shares its evolutionary hopes: ‘You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.’ After an episode involving Cain, pioneer of destruction and fake heroism, the action shifts to 1920. Lubin and Burge, parodies of Asquith and Lloyd George, come to discover whether there is party advantage in the new ‘gospel’ of Franklyn and Conrad Barnabas, brothers who believe that ‘life is too short for man to take it seriously’, that disasters such as the First World War will be avoided only if man learns wisdom by going ‘back to Methuselah’, and that creative evolution will be ‘the religion of the 20th century’, leading eventually to ‘omnipotence and omniscience’. Then it is ad 2170, and ‘the thing happens’: the Barnabases' local vicar reappears as an archbishop who, like their parlourmaid, has lived nearly 300 years. The next section of the play occurs in ad 3000 and is set in an Ireland which, like the rest of Britain, is occupied by ‘long-livers’ who are currently considering whether to exterminate more ordinary beings. In their enlightenment, they treat with derision those representatives of the British Common-wealth, among them the Prime Minister and his conventionally minded father-in-law, who come from its headquarters in Baghdad to seek advice on the petty electoral matters that still absorb them. The play then leaps forward ‘as far as thought can reach’, to the year 31,920, when humans emerge as fully grown adolescents from eggs, absorb themselves for four years with love, the arts, and other supposed frivolities, and then develop into ‘ancients’, sexless, ascetic creatures who spend the rest of their very long lives in contemplation and wish only to escape from their bodies. Finally, the creator, Lilith, prophesies another stage in evolution, with life becoming pure intelligence and energy, ‘a vortex freed from matter’. The play, though obviously difficult to take seriously on a literal level, contains plenty of lively observation, and remains of interest for the light it sheds both on Shaw's growing disenchantment with democratic politics and on his Manichaean mistrust of sense, feeling, and human relationships.

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