In 1923, a British theater manager told George Bernard Shaw that he wanted to produce the playwright’s latest work, a sprawling five-play cycle called “Back to Methuselah.”
“I asked him was he mad,” Shaw said, according to biographer Michael Holroyd. “I demanded further whether he wished his wife and children to die in the workhouse. He replied that he was not married. I began to scent a patron. . . .”
History repeated when Washington Stage Guild artistic director Bill Largess asked executive director Ann Norton whether their Shaw-based troupe should finally tackle the daunting “Methuselah,” breaking its five acts into three parts that would open in three successive seasons.
“Is this crazy?” Largess asked.
“I like this idea,” Norton replied.
Though the play cycle was quickly published and sold well in Europe, Shaw didn’t expect his visionary, wildly imaginative science fiction to be produced. Not only was it impossibly long, but it starts in the Garden of Eden (where Adam and Eve decide that mortality is a good thing) and spirals to a final act titled “As Far as Thought Can Reach,” set in 31,920 A.D.
In between, people figure out how to live for centuries, giving them a greater stake in the long-term future that might raise an eyebrow in our own do-it-now YOLO culture. Hopefully everyone gets wiser, including the governing class.
“We need to grow up faster,” Largess says of Shaw’s argument, which was written just as the horror of World War I was winding down.
The full “Methuselah” is so seldom staged that Largess (pronounced LARGE-ess) and Norton reckon their show may be only the third (or so) professional production in the Western Hemisphere, including the 1922 world premiere in New York. It’s the kind of extravagant venture that needs major anniversaries to justify it: Canada’s Shaw Festival produced the whole cycle in its 25th year, 1986. At the Washington Stage Guild, the first two acts – “In the Beginning” and “The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas” – are playing at the cozy Undercroft Theatre. The next two acts will come next season, and the final installment is slated for 2016, as the troupe turns 30.
“We know we’re taking a risk here,” says Largess, who is directing the 21 / 2-hour show. “If people don’t like the first part, it’s safe to assume they won’t come back for parts two and three.” But he has novelty on his side: “It’s probably your only chance to see it, ever,” Largess says.
Political types may recognize this from the first moments of the show: “You see things and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were, and I say ‘Why not?’” Robert F. Kennedy was known to use the line, and Edward Kennedy repeated it when he eulogized his brother in 1968. In “Methuselah,” the ever-puckish Shaw gives that seductive thought to the serpent, talking to Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Shaw died in 1950 at the age of 94, and in the “Pygmalion” playwright’s long career, “Methuselah” comes between the doom-filled “Heartbreak House” (with the characters giddily waiting for the war’s bombs to fall) and “St. Joan.” Then, in 1925, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
“From then on, the plays are insane,” Largess says. Norton, sitting with Largess in the company’s small office in Mount Vernon Square United Methodist Church (where they’ve been the resident company in the Undercroft for several years), adds, “He stopped caring at all what people say.”
He certainly didn’t worry about practicalities when he spent two years writing “Methuselah.” He immediately declared that there was “no money in it,” and when the Royal Shakespeare Company produced an abridged version in 2000, a London critic raised the obvious question: “Is anything unstageable?”
Colleges produce parts of it, and sometimes the whole thing. A small company in Los Angeles ventured “Methuselah” when the play entered the public domain in the 1990s, and so did the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in 2001.
But Leonard Conolly, author of “The Shaw Festival: The First Fifty Years,” e-mails from Ontario: “One other heavily cut version (down to two acts) was on Broadway (Ambassador Theatre) in 1958 (29 performances). So for full productions we are left with the Theatre Guild in 1922, the Birmingham Rep (in Birmingham and in London) in 1923 and 1924, the Shaw Festival in 1986, and the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in 2001. The WSG will be joining exclusive and distinguished company!”
Despite the infrequent sightings, the issues in “Methuselah” still resonate, Norton says. “We ARE living longer,” she says, with implications for retirement age and pensions — the kinds of nuts-and-bolts public policy that Shaw routinely funneled into scripts that act like drawing room comedies. By the third installment — the one set in 2170, with Baghdad as the capital of Great Britain — Shaw began to make predictions, with characters communicating on video screens a la “Star Trek” and Skype.
“They’ve actually all happened already,” Largess says of Shaw’s forecasts (although not the Baghdad bit).
Classics outside the established hit parade can be as dicey with audiences as new plays, Norton notes. But the WSG has a hard core of Shaw loyalists, and what “Methuselah” does not represent is an outsized production budget. The necessarily thrifty WSG has been an Equity troupe since its inception, and most of its money pointedly goes to actors. The small Undercroft stage can’t accommodate the kinds of lavish futuristic effects that some shows have employed to render the future (the 1922 New York production used film projections, and it lost $20,000).
What the plays demand, Norton suggests, is “lung power” – the ability to deliver long sentences fluidly and convincingly.
“Everyone is waiting for their turn to talk,” Largess says of Shaw’s style, making it sound like election night on cable TV. “Shaw really did excel at making sure everyone’s ideas got out there. He gives everyone a fair hearing. He doesn’t have a straw man.”
The WSG once gave “Methuselah” a dry run with readings when the troupe lacked a home stage. The entirety was read during one Saturday marathon for about two dozen Shaw diehards who showed up at 1 p.m. and stayed until 10 p.m., with a two-hour dinner break. Largess says that popular Washington actor Rick Foucheux, now appearing in Arena Stage’s “Mother Courage,” “made gumbo for the audience.”
by George Bernard Shaw. Through March 16 at Washington Stage Guild, the Undercroft Theatre in the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Tickets $40-$50. Call 240-582-0050 or visit www.stageguild.org.