Going Back to the Future

September 22, 2013 § Leave a comment


shawThe Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw (Shaw, George Bernard)

Everything about this hardbound second-hand copy of Shaw that I have in my possession is an anachronism, from its austere auburn jacket with the dull gold lettering, to the slanting, extravagantly flourished cursive greeting on the first page:

“With Birthday Congratulations
To My Dear Friend
Heinz,
From Herbert. May 15th 1931.
When each time you read this book, think of me!”

How delightfully antiquated to present a friend with a book on his birthday! Even more out of date is the fact that the 1931 publication is presumptuously titled, ‘The Complete Plays of Bernard Shaw’, though we know now that Shaw continued to churn out plays until a few months before his eventual death in 1950.

Of course, one of the most anachronistic things about this book is the fact that I was reading Bernard Shaw at all, sitting in a subway train in New York, in 2013. His plays were all the rage when I was growing up in India 30 years ago, admired equally for his wit and his politics. Fabianism’s fall from fashion and favor has taken toll on the popularity of Shaw himself. Some of his other causes, like workers’ and women’s rights, have become a commonplace; a few, like his flirtation with eugenics, communism, vegetarianism and the creation of a phonemic language, were eccentric to begin with; the rest, like his commentary on British class discrimination and conservative politics, have over time lost the relevance they once had. Like his contemporary, Brecht, and Ibsen before them, many of Shaw’s plays are nothing without their social and political messages; they are stern sermons with a strong sense of humor. The wit takes the edge off somewhat but cannot disguise the didacticism. Taken without the wit, the pedagogy is a hard pill to swallow; without the messages, the wit would ring hollow. It is no coincidence that George Bernard Shaw remains the only person in history to have won both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize for Literature: he was a stand up comedian on a pulpit.

As a schoolboy, I have read parts of a different collection – the Bodley Head Collected Shaw – that contained not just the plays but also their lengthy prefaces. I stuck to the easier plays at the time – Arms and the Man, Androcles and the Lion, Pygmalion, Candida, St. Joan, Caesar and Cleopatra, and the like – but I read them with the prefaces and was equally entertained and educated by them, on class issues, religion and the nature of man-woman relationships. One could read just the play and be amused, or read it along with its preface for a richer experience. But the operative word, of course, is ‘read’. I have always believed that Shaw’s plays are meant to be read, not enacted. They often come with stage instructions like this, from Back to Methuselah: ‘The Envoy, a typical politician, looks like an imperfectly reformed criminal disguised by a good tailor.’ A merely mortal actor or theatre director would struggle to convey this precise sentiment to the paying public, and a merely mortal audience would barely register the effort.

Back to him (Image of Methuselah, courtesy Wikimedia)

Back to him (Image of Methuselah, courtesy Wikimedia)

When I read Shaw in my youth, I had wisely given his two longest plays (Man and Superman, and Back to Methuselah) a miss, and it was to read these that I picked up the present volume (the one presented by Herbert to Heinz on the occasion of the latter’s birthday in 1931). A major drawback of this edition, apart from its incompleteness as a Complete Works, is that it doesn’t include the prefaces to the plays. This is a pity, because these are two of Shaw’s most ambitious plays, he clearly has much to say in them, and a synopsis in Shaw’s crisp prose could possibly have prepared the reader adequately for them. Absent that, I found Man and Superman a bit of a rambling romantic comedy somewhat in the Bollywood tradition: girl-meets-boy, boy-is-not-interested, girl-chases-boy around the world, girl-finally-gets-boy, complete with a longish dream interlude in period costume, comic relief in the form of a chauffeur and some bandits, social messages on marriage, gender and class, and reflections on the nature of heaven and hell. But Back to Methuselah was something else altogether.

Written in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the play explores the purpose and meaning of human life, achievement, ambition and longevity. It comes up with plausible hypotheses about how human lives may evolve into having progressively longer time-spans, from a few deviant individuals in 2170 AD who live up to an age of 300, to an entire island full of ‘long-liveds’ in 3100 AD, to a completely transformed humanity in 31,920 AD. While Shaw’s evolutionary theories are more Lamarckian than Darwinian, his genius flows through in the depiction of the implications of each situation on society, culture and value system. How would society react to a few individuals who do not age? How would a community of 300-year olds behave when confronted with ‘normal people’? What would life be like, for an 800 year old ‘she-ancient’ in the 32nd millennium AD? What kind of things would she be interested in? What would she find boring? It is in the imagination of these things that Shaw excels. At a time when science fiction was in its infancy, and consisted mainly of sensationalistic speculation into the terrifying strangeness of technological progress and extra-terrestrial monsters, here was an extraordinarily mature work, one that takes characters that we can identify with immediately, and places them in alien circumstances, and draws morals and philosophical conclusions from their actions in that world that are pertinent to our understanding of human nature in today’s world.

Written in 1918-20, Back to Methuselah is way ahead of its time as a science fiction classic. Set largely in the remote future, it is possibly the most timeless of Shaw’s plays, the one that has aged the best, somewhat like the Biblical character in its name. Among the many anachronisms associated with my reading Shaw in 2013, this is possibly the most remarkable one.

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