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Back to Methuselah

At N.E. Mutual Hall through Saturday

By Caldwell Titcomb

What if the average person were to live 300 years? Or 3000? Well, this is the problem examined by Bernard Shaw in his Back to Methuselah. This play is getting its first American production since the 1922 world premiere in New York. It is especially welcome and timely in view of Wellesley's current presentation of Man and Superman. For Shaw wrote Methuselah in 1921 as a companion sequel to his Superman of 1903. In the earlier play Shaw argued his thesis, taken from Schopenhauer, that woman is the pursuer rather than the pursued; and his ideas, taken from Bergson, about the Life Force (elan vital). Methuselah continues the same discussion, except that Shaw now adopts Bergson's later term Creative Evolution.

Actually, this fantasy-comedy is a mammoth pentateuch in eight acts, requiring three evenings for an uncut performance. Its scope is epitomized in the uniquely blatant way it violates the classical "unity of time;" it starts at the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden and ends 30,000 years from now.

Shaw himself regarded Methuselah as not only his greatest work but also one of the supreme monuments of literature. "It is a world classic," he said, "or it is nothing." Few people would share his verdict; for it is an amazingly uneven and windy work. Yet at its best, its diction attains the force and eloquence of the Bible.

Arnold Moss has taken on the seemingly impossible task of condensing the whole work into one two-and-a-half-hour evening, with surprisingly successful results. None of the original five parts is wholly dispensed with; and the eight acts have been compressed into six scenes. Moss has rightly stuck to the main theme of the work. He has pared away the lengthy digressions and the superfluous characters (such as the comic takeoffs on the British statesmen Asquith and Lloyd George).

Moss has shown good taste, too. He has done most of the cutting in the central triptych, where Shaw's writing was weakest and most forced. The two acts of Part I ("In the Beginning") remain virtually intact, and these are really great writing and great theatre. In Part II ("Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas"), Moss has strung several comments by one man together into a short address; with the house lights half up, Professor Barnabas speaks to the audience as though addressing one of his biology classes--an effective solution indeed. For Part III ("The Thing Happens") Moss drew largely on the final portion. In Part IV (the long-winded "Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman") and Part V ("As Far as Thought Can Reach"), he concentrated on the first and last sections.

The quality of Part V almost equals that of Part I, even though it may offend contents-wise in its insistence that art is a child's toy only, that "art is false and life alone is true," that no-one today lives long enough to profit from his own experience, that the day will come when there will be no people but only thoughts, and that God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient but trying to become both through trial and error.

The adapter also hit on the idea of having Shaw himself deliver a prologue and brief between-scenes commentary. This material was drawn both from the playwright's voluminous preface and from the postscript that Shaw wrote in 1944 for the Oxford Press' new edition of the play. Felix Deebank, dressed and made up to look exactly like Shaw, delivers all this in fine brogue-tinged fashion.

Philip Burton has staged Parts I and V admirably. But if this show is to survive on Broadway, he will have to be more inventive in Parts III and IV to compensate for Shaw's sagging script. Marvin Reiss's sets and John Boyt's costumes are quite adequate, and Paul Leaf has achieved some handsome silhouettes and stunning lighting.

This show brings out the versatility of the five stars--Celeste Holm, James Daly, Valerie Bettis, Michael Tolan and Arnold Moss--who are called on to play from two to five different major roles each. All these performances are polished. Miss Holm (young and elderly Eve, Mrs. Lutestring, Zoo, and Lilith) seems a bit uneasy as young Eve clad only in a few leaves, but she is first-rate after that, especially in her denunciatory speech to Adam and Cain, and in Lilith's concluding monologue. Daly (young and elderly Adam, Archbishop, and An Ancient) is also uneasy at first but fine thereafter, particularly at the end.

Miss Bettis (The Serpent, and Fusima) makes the most of her wonderfully modulated and deep-throated voice. As "the most subtle" Serpent she slightly lingers with superb effect over the sibilants that Shaw carefully placed in her speeches. Tolan (Cain, and Zozim) brings real fire to the role of the world's first transgressor of the Fifth and Sixth Commandments. Moss (Prof. Barnabas, Accountant General, and the Elderly Gentleman) manages to make individual his three well-seasoned men. John Granger (Strephon) and Dorothy Whitney (Chloe) round out the cast.

This production clearly tallies up as a major theatrical event.

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