SPOILER ALERT!

The evolution of humanity played out on stage

Back to Methuselah - George Bernard Shaw

When I picked this book up again I noticed that I have already read and commented on it, and I suspect that the comment that I wrote was back when I simply commented on books that I had already read not realising that there were a number of books that I wanted to read again (including this one). However I have decided that what I will do is write an updated commentary, though I still believe the comments that I made originally still hold true. Further I will make some specific comments on each of the five parts.

Shaw calls this play a metabiological pentatuch, and the Biblical allusion is quite striking (and intentional). In the introduction Shaw indicates that when he first wrote about his theory of human evolution in [book:Man and Superman] the whole premise of the play was misinterpreted. Now, older and much wiser, he decided to approach it again, though we must be aware that Shaw rejects the idea of evolution being based around natural selection, otherwise described as 'red in tooth and claw'. As we will gather from this play Shaw believes that the violent nature of humanity is actually degenerative and in the end they will wipe themselves out leaving only the peaceful and wise intellectuals. However, as we gathered from Man and Superman, the nature of the violent aspects of humanity will go out to attack and in turn kill that part of humanity which it considers to be superior, namely the peaceful and the wise, and this is clearly identified in his statement in that play's postscript: 'when the divinity revealed itself we proceeded to crucify him'.

 

Part 1

This part is in two acts and takes us back to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Shaw adds a new twist to the idea of the corruption of humanity as we see with the conversation with the serpent. Shaw does not seem to be twisting the original story around but shining a new light upon the whole idea of humanity's corruption. The reason that he is doing this is because the church of his time (as it is today) was very resistance to change. In fact they fear change, as I discovered when I raised the point at my church as to why they still used the word catholic in the creed rather than changing it to universal (no, you can't change anything, you can only emphasise the meaning – once you begin to change things you begin to change other things). This, I would argue, is a case of weakness of faith because change is not only good, but necessary, and those who are strong in their faith can change things without destroying the faith. Without change we would never have had the Reformation and we never would have broken away from the Catholic Church.

The whole concept I see here is the introduction of ideas and the naming of ideas. Adam considers immortality to be a burden and discovers that he can die (in fact he discovers death after he discovers a dead faun in the garden). However the idea of death brings about the idea of extinction because if either Adam or Eve die then the other will not only be alone, but will also cease to exist (as was the case with the faun). The serpent however introduces the idea of procreation, and suggests that there are two forms – the egg, in which he creates more of himself, and the shedding of the skin, where he sheds his old self to take on a new and stronger self – the idea of rebirth. However with those ideas come the ideas of hope (the belief that not everything will stay the same but in the future get better), of fear (the belief that the future will not change), and procrastination (the idea that one does not need to do something now but can leave that something for tomorrow, another concept that is introduced). As such, with the ideas of death, of fear, and of procrastination entering the human mind humanity has become corrupted.

Then we jump forward to the story of Cain where another concept enters into the human consciousness: the concept of violence. The idea that Cain murdered Abel was that Abel was smart and that he brought good ideas to the race of humanity, ideas that Cain hated. Cain, being the violent one also brings in the idea of slavery and creating a two class system, namely the strong and violent ones who rule, and the weak and submissive ones, who are ruled. However there is a third class, as represented by Abel, that Cain sees a dangerous, and that is the intelligentsia. This class has no place in Cain's world and as such they must be destroyed.

 

Part 2

So we now jump thousands of years into the future to the years just after the end of the Great War (World War I). In this scene we have members of the elite class meeting together theorising on the future of humanity. In this scene we have people representing the clergy, the politicians, the scientists, and the business people. The strange thing is that the daughter is in love with the member of the clergy, the person who the rest of the company reject. He arrives and they are about to show him the door when the daughter comes down and tells them that he has come to visit her. The nature of the clergy here is that they represent a morality in humanity. Granted Shaw is an atheist, and he also believes that the church has problems with adapting to change, but he is not necessarily antagonistic towards the clergy. Granted, members of the clergy do represent the ruling class, but in some ways, as modernism begins to take hold, they begin to have less of a role in society and less of a say in the way society develops (these days one would hardly suggest that the clergy are members of the elite, but rather members of the intelligentsia).

In this discussion they theorise on the idea of the short lifespan. The idea is that a short life span hinders the ability to be able to evolve, which is why the politician's catch cry is 'Back to Methuselah'. Once humanity can increase its lifespan, humanity can gain wisdom, and in gaining wisdom, humanity and evolve into the next stage. While they have the short lifespans that they currently have they will not truly evolve because, to put it simply, they will not grow up.

However evolution does not come about through gene manipulation, or even mutilating a body, but rather through the force of will. As is suggested in the introduction, an experiment was performed upon mice by cutting off the tail and breeding them and it was discovered (not that it was not already known) that it did not matter how many tails that you cut off of the mice, they would still be born with tales. As such, evolution comes about through willpower, or as Nietzsche suggests, the will to power. However, unlike Nietzsche, Shaw does not see the will to become power as being a force for evolution, but rather the will to evolve, that is to move onto the next stage where humanity becomes wiser and thus begins to discard many of its childish ways (as the violent nature of humanity is not a strength but rather a weakness).

 

Part 3

We are now three hundred years in the future and once again the world has changed. There is a debate among the ruling class about the idea of the longer life, and many of them believe that it is a theft because they believe that by living longer they are stealing from those who are not living as long: namely by drawing a pension. If everybody draws a pension at the age of 70 yet they live for three hundred years, then it will be a drain on resources. In fact we are discovering it in many advanced states today because as we are living longer our resources are becoming strained, which is why the retirement age is being extended. However the counter argument, coming from one of the longlifers, is that because they live longer, and thus age slower, they are more productive and therefore they are not necessarily a drain on society.

There are a couple of interesting things that Shaw brings into this part of the play, the first being the discrimination against the long-lifers, and also the nature of wisdom. It is clear that the long-lifers are being discriminated against, and there are two in this part, the archbishop, and one of the secretaries. As it turns out both of them have had considerable problems being able to prove their identity because nobody would believe that they were as old as they claimed. As such the archbishop got into the habit of staging his own death and then taking on a new identity. However, due to the length of his life, and the associated accumulated wisdom, he has managed to rise to the top levels of society.

The second long-lifer was actually the parlour made from part II and has now, also, risen to the top of the social ladder, thanks in part due to her accumulated wisdom. However, unlike the archbishop, who has always lived a comfortable life (with the exception of the allegations of fraud when he attempted to draw a pension at the age of 70), the parlour maid has not. In fact, to her, a long life was a curse because by living a long life she would also be living in misery and poverty. However, as society changed, she found herself being lifted out of poverty, and also, like the archbishop, has risen to a ministerial position.

Of course, there are also discussions about killing off the long-lifers (due to them being a drain on the social coffers), but the conclusion is that it is an impossible thing to do because first of all they do not know who they are, and secondly they have no guarantee that more of them will be born.

The second thing is the nature of wisdom, and Shaw indicates that the accumulated wisdom of a long-lifer will be greater than the greatest of the wise men known of Earth, and to that extent, Shaw introduces the character of Confucius, who is the leader of the Chinese state. Of course, much of Confucius' writings were political in nature and argued along the grounds of how to behave in a political environment, but despite his wisdom being handed down to us, he is still one man who lived a relatively short life. However, Shaw does not seem to notice that wisdom can be accumulated and passed down from generation to generation, meaning that through the use of the written word, we can preserve the statements of our wise forefathers and from that continue to grow in our own wisdom. As is indicated in the book of Proverbs, the reason that the book is being compiled is so that the son may learn from the mistakes of the father.

 

Part 4

Now we have come to the year three thousand, and as happens between each of the parts, the world has changed significantly. There are now two distinct races of humans, the short-lifers and the long-lifers. The long-lifers have set themselves up in the British Isles, and for some strange reason the British people have relocated to Babylon, a place they consider their traditional home (I am not sure what is going through Shaw's mind, but maybe it has something to do with the Fertile Crescent being the cradle of Western Civilisation). The thing with the long-lifers is that they have evolved further so that the short-lifers can only associate with the younger ones, while the older ones can only be approached when they are wearing a veil, otherwise the short-lifer will die. It seems to reflect the idea that Moses could not see God's face because if he were then he would die.

The younger of the long-lifers are considered children, which is probably why the short-lifers can relate to them because they are still technically children, but once they hit their two-hundreth year, their wisdom will embarrass the short-lifer to a point where the short-lifer will simply die. The elder long-lifers have effectively become gods, with the leaders of the short-lifers making pilgrimages to the British Isles to visit the oracle, a particularly long lived long-lifer.

This part is divided into two acts, with one act set on the Irish Coast and the second part set at the oracle. The first part has a short-lifer, one of the leaders, speaking with a long-lifer, and discovering that he can only speak with the younger ones otherwise he will die, simply because the wisdom that they produce is intolerable. This follows through into the second act, however there is one interesting part, and that involves Napoleon.

I suspect that Shaw is using the same analogy with Napoleon as he did with Confucious in Part 3. Here Napoleon represents the ultimate in violent humanity, and against the power of the oracle Napoleon is made to look like a fool. Napoleon is what Cain, in part 1, aspired to become: the strong and warlike ruler. However what we discover here is that what Cain had set out to do in part one has come to naught because Napoleon is nothing in front of the oracle. The Oracle is the evolved humanity and has evolved to a point where his violent nature cannot overcome it.

 

Part 5

Now we come to the end of the play and to the far, far future where humanity has evolved again (but not to the final point). Here humanity lives for four years as children, where they play as children play. They are artists, they have partners, and they worship deities, but as they approach four they begin to change and begin to withdraw from their childish ways. The children protest at this but the truth is that they grow, and as they grow they change. This is not like what happens in our world, for there are many of us who as we grow up we do not want to put aside our childish ways, and in not doing so we never in effect grow up. There are many of us who still pursue childish pursuits and surround ourselves with wealth and luxury yet eschew wisdom. That is because growing up is a scary thing, and to have responsibility is hard work, but by eschewing responsibility we never learn to look after ourselves. This is why we hear bad guys in movies say that humans need to be lead, and in fact many of us still look to our leaders to make decisions for ourselves, but complain when the decisions that are made are not to our liking. However, unfortunately, we as humans need government because we as humans do not know how to make wise decisions for ourselves, but the catch is that we end up electing people who can't make wise decisions to make those decisions for us.

Another interesting part of this section is Pygmalion's creation of a male and a female automaton. Pygmalion comes from the Greek legend where a man was so disappointed with human women that he made a statue of a perfect woman, and in doing so the gods gave the statue life and they ended up living happily ever after. Yet despite their wisdom (or lack of because they are still children) they are not able to create perfect automatons. As much as they try the automatons are violent and warlike, as is evident when one of them kills Pygmalion. That is when the ancient arrives and kills both automatons because they are, in their words, abominations. Thus we have harkened back to the beginning.

The play ends with the characters from the beginning coming back and looking at the history of humanity. Cain is now obsolete because humanity is no longer violent, and Adam is obsolete because humanity no longer tills the soil. Eve is also obsolete because humanity no longer needs to pro-create through male and female, but have learned to pro-create asexually. Then we have the serpent whose wisdom has been overturned as humanity has evolved, and is thus also obsolete. This leaves what was at first called the voice and turns out to be Lilth, the first human. Lilith created male and female by splitting into two (something that sounds very Aristophanic). Lilith sees that humanity has come full circle, but still has a way to go because the next step, a step that Lilith herself has made, is to shed the flesh and to become pure energy (something that many cults have used to lure their followers into committing suicide and handing all of their wealth over to their leader).

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/20975740