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Back to Methuselah by Bernard Shaw (BBC, 5 parts, 1952)

Ellen Pollock as The Serpent in Part 1 of Back to Methuselah

Ellen Pollock as The Serpent in Part 1 of Back to Methuselah

On Friday 23 May, as part Screen Plays season ‘Classics on TV: Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’ at BFI Southbank (details here), we are holding a half-day symposium on the subject. It is shaping up to be a richly interesting afternoon (the schedule is here). Attendance is free, but do please mail Dr Amanda Wrigley [] if you would like to attend. Amanda will be presenting on television productions of J. M. Synge, there are papers by Dr Leah Panos and Dr Michelle Paull on the 1969 BBC production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (screened earlier in the season) and a keynote by Dr Billy Smart, ‘Edwardian values, 1970s television: John Galsworthy on BBC1’.

I am contributing a paper to the symposium on television productions of the plays of Bernard Shaw, a topic on which I recently wrote a Guardian article. Shaw’s dramas were frequently produced from 1937 onwards, but perhaps the most extraordinary presentation of his work was the five-part cycle of Back to Methuselah shown in the summer of 1952. The medium of course was a very different world sixty-plus years ago (not least in all drama being live, with no recordings made), but even I find it truly remarkable that BBC Television should have devoted five consecutive Tuesday evenings to a seemingly unstageable work about which even Shaw himself acknowledged, ‘I was too damned discursive’.

Shaw started writing Back to Methuselah in the final months of the First World War, and the five plays plays plus a mammoth 30,000-word preface took him two years to complete. Then in his mid-sixties, he thought that this would be ‘the last work of any vigor I shall produce’ and he envisaged it simply for print publication. In his great biography of Shaw, Michael Holroyd offers this outline of what is effectively a science fiction epic:

His cycle of plays is a metaphysical (or what he called metabiological) enquiry into the causes of pessimism in the development of thought since Darwin, and a search for a legitimate philosophical basis on which to engage optimism…

Back to Methusalah is the vision of an extravagant fantasist, a Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained which seeks to demolish our concepts of normality, reintroduces the imaginative quality of free will as an unconscious process, and treats the present as a passing phase of history in which crisis and even collapse might be interpreted as vital changes for the future. (Bernard Shaw: The One-Volume Definitive Edition, London: Vintage, 1998, pp. 498-499)

520506_RT billingThe first play, In the Beginning, concerns Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and then some centuries on in Mesopotamia. The first live broadcast, on 7 May 1952, played after a visit that evening to Blackpool Tower Circus and was introduced by the eminent theatre critic Harold Hobson. In The Listener Reginald Pound ducked the task of reviewing the drama and instead discussed Hobson’s preface:

Undoubtedly he succeeded in disarming the doubts of numerous viewers who were prepared to be bored or not to view at all. it was done by no manner of guile or abstruse argument but by a clear, direct statement of what the play is about. What result he may have achieved does not matter here. The manner was first-rate. (‘Critic on the Hearth: Television’, 15 May 1952, p. 806)

In those early days, television was reviewed in The Manchester Guardian by an anonymous ‘Radio Critic’, and she was forthright in response to the first broadcast:

The opening scene with the serpent seemed badly set and dressed, though the conversation flourished. Television makes scenes with forest, trees, undergrowth, and so on look infinitely artificial, and the sort of paper-leaf-and-sateen effect of the costumes in the Garden of Eden looked desperately like the efforts of an amateur dramatic society. There was also an apparent coyness in the acting which seemed contrary to Shaw’s intentions. A few centuries further on, however, these drawbacks were overcome, and Heather Stannard’s Eve, John Justin’s Adam and Sydney Tafler’s upstanding Cain gave force and edge to the argument. The Serpent of Ellen Pollock left one in two minds: was it sinister or funny? (‘Back to Methuselah’, 14 May 1952, p. 5)

When Back to Methusaleh was published in 1921 Shaw sent copies to many of his friends and even mailed a copy with a special inscription to Lenin. The revolutionary leader found time to read at least part of the book, adding marginalia as he went along and writing ‘Bien dit’ (Well said) at one point. But Shaw seems not to have expected that there would be anyone foolish enough to stage the piece, although Lawrence Langer and the American Theatre Guild did just this in New York from February 1922. Twenty-five performances of the complete cycle were given over nine weeks, and the backers shouldered a $20,000 loss.

The following year Barry Jackson, the Birmingham ‘butter king’, philanthropist and backer of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, took up the challenge in Britain, and organised four cycles in Birmingham in the autumn of 1923 followed by four cycles at the Court Theatre in Sloane Square in the spring of 1924. In Radio Times when the 1952 television performance was mounted, Jackson recalled that he had taken the playwright home after the first night Birmingham where they had been greeted by Jackson’s Pekinese Lulu. The great man bent down to pat her and said, ‘You were very wise to stay at home, Lulu. It was a rotten play.’ Yet Jackson also praised the significance of the text:

Back to Methuselah, like innumerable great works, was much in advance of its time, and I have every hope that through the medium of television, its presentation will again arouse thoughtful and excited interest. (‘Shaw’s Back to Methuselah‘, 2 May 1952, p. 41)

Part 2 of the cycle, screened on 13 May 1952, has a Radio Times listing in which both a producer, Harold Clayton, and a director, Alan Bromly, are credited, and this is one of the earliest separations of the roles that I have encountered. This second play is set in a house overlooking Hampstead Heath just after the First World War, and the cast included Andre van Gyseghem and Andrew Cruikshank. C. A. Lejeune in the Observer was full of praise for the simple staging and the cast, and she noted that she was looking forward to the next instalment with an eagerness I haven’t felt since the silent film days of The Perils of Pauline.’ (‘Television’, 18 May 1952, p. 6)

Ursula Howells as Zoo and Maurice Colbourne as the Elderly Gentleman in Part 4 of Back to Methuselah

Ursula Howells as Zoo and Maurice Colbourne as the Elderly Gentleman in Part 4 of Back to Methuselah

Parts 3, 4 and 5 spin off into the future, with 3 being set in the set in the official parlour of the President of the British Islands, A.D. 2170. The fourth part comes from Galway Bay around A.D. 3000, and the final instalment ‘takes place in a sunlit glade at the foot of a wooded hill in the year 31,920. Incidentally, in this fifth part the role of Strephon is taken by Michael Redington. Can this possibly be the producer who six years later was to begin working with Sir Kenneth Clark on his lectures on art for ATV. If so, Michael is still with us – and I am fascinated to see if he recalls anything of this production.

After Part 4 Philip Hope-Wallace in The Listener mused on the differences between seeing Back to Methuselah from the stage and on television, as he wrote:

In the theatre I have sometimes (though not at the start or the end) found Methuselah protreacted. But in the theatre so much else could happen, one keeps longing for a variety of stimulating theatrical experience which the television screen cannot yet provide. Paradoxically, the television screen is still much less a stage, let alone a communal altar, than a checking board to help us listen to good talk. Since we get so little good talk on television, Shaw (who never wrote anything more beautiful than that speech of the She-Ancient which will have been heard in the last instalment before these words of mine appear) seems doubly welcome. The accuracy and success of the whole undertaking can hardly be overpraised. Harold Clayton has the thanks of us all, Shavians or not; and the large cast may imagine itself bowing to long-drawn applause. (‘Television: Good Talk and Novels’, 5 June 1952, p. 934)

While agreeing about the value of hearing ‘such good sense in words’ so beautifully spoken, C. A. Lejeune offered a small counter to Hope-Wallace’s encomium by writing ‘the Methuselah cycle leaves very little room for “visuals”. It’s stiff stuff; stiff to assimilate, and equally stiff to set out, I’m positive.’ (‘Television’, The Observer, 1 June 1952, p. 6) Lejeune was back on the case the following week with a wrap-up:

The Shaw marathon Back to Methuselah ended with all its colours flying. The last instalment must have been the trickiest of the lot to handle, and I am full of admiration for the way Harold Clayton managed his crowds, without ever making the screen look cluttered or losing definition. (‘Television’, The Observer, 15 June 1952, p. 6)

Attesting to the extraordinary popularity of Shaw (at least among drama producers) later in 1952, the drama department of BBC radio presented another complete Methuselah cycle. For ‘Radio Critic’ in The Manchester Guardian, this was a Shavian step too far:

The recent [radio] production of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah was a choice difficult to justify. So much of Shaw makes good radio, but to broadcast all this work seemed a dreary exercise in ‘doing’ Shaw just because it is Shaw. It was strange too to do it so soon after the television performance. Of course the majority of people have no television sets, but there was some point in experimenting with this work in the new medium, whereas apart from that one would have to guess that anyone who wanted to go all through Back to Methuselah would get as much fun from reading it. (‘Balancing Radio Drama’, 27 October 1952, p. 3)

Since 1952 television has never gone back to Back to Methuselah.


3 thoughts on “Back to Methuselah by Bernard Shaw (BBC, 5 parts, 1952)

  1. Thank you for posting. I’m unclear on one point. Have you seen the BBC’s Back to Methuselah? Is it extant? After reading about it, I’d like to see it for myself, if it’s still around.

    Posted by girl | 26 August 2014, 12:07 am
    • Sadly, no, there is no known copy of Back to Methusaleh. It was made just before the BBC began preserving some of its live output on film and so, like so much early television, it is almost certainly lost forever.

      Posted by John Wyver | 26 August 2014, 2:08 am
  2. But did the BBC preserve a radio recording? If not, perhaps, they would consider a new performance.

    Posted by David Barnard | 18 November 2017, 5:19 pm

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