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  • Playwrights’ Progress:The Evolution of the Play Cycle, from Shaw’s “Pentateuch” to Angels in America
  • Julie Sparks (bio)

When asked by Oxford University Press to select one play among all his works as his "world classic," Bernard Shaw passed over the more well known candidates and chose his sprawling five-play cycle, Back to Methuselah.1 He defended this selection not because it was his best play, but because it was a work that "came straight from the Life Force operating as an élan vital" through not only its writer but also the lunatic (Barry Jackson) who ventured to produce this ruinously expensive and apparently noncommercial behemoth.2 In the Preface, Shaw explains his intentions by setting this ambitious work in its historical context (which he inevitably sees as "an evolution") from the Greek tragedy cycles, performed as a mode of civic self-examination and religious worship at the festival of Dionysus, to the Corpus Christi mystery plays, to Wagner's Ring cycle, which Shaw saw as a religious and political allegory expressing "the whole tragedy of human history and the whole horror of the dilemmas from which the world is shrinking today."3

In writing his own cycle play, Shaw believed he was serving the role of "artist-prophet" in the tradition of Sophocles, Michelangelo, Bunyan, Goethe, and Ibsen.4 Considering Shaw's consciousness of this high purpose and these noble forebears, it is not surprising that he first took up this artist-prophet role and experimented with the play cycle format early in his career, just a few years after he wrote his study of Wagner's Ring. By his own description, the four-act Man and Superman was his first effort to write his gospel of the Life Force, and Heartbreak House was another early forerunner to his lengthier Pentateuch. However, it was when Shaw became convinced [End Page 179] that modern civilization was in grave peril after the "stern admonition" of the Great War, that he chose to write not just another political play, but a play cycle that began with the biblical imagery of the medieval mystery plays, ended with elements of a Dionysian festival, and stretched to such grand proportions that it requires a production in the style of the Wagnerian Bayreuth festival to succeed with modern audiences. Despite its ambitious scope and the "world classic" label Shaw later affixed to his cycle, in a less sanguine mood he confessed that he was aware of "the crudity of this my beginning of a Bible for Creative Evolution." For a continuation of this great mission, Shaw put his hope in "a hundred apter and more elegant parables by younger hands [that] will soon leave mine as far behind as the religious pictures of the fifteenth century left behind the first attempts of the early Christians at iconography."5

Considering the inherent difficulties in writing, staging, and producing works of this magnitude, Shaw's wish might have seemed like a vain hope, but in fact, once one starts looking for them, play cycles can be found in abundance, both in Shaw's time and in ours. Of course many of these, even some of those by major writers, including Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, Eugene O'Neill, and Thornton Wilder, are relegated to the role of literary curiosities or at best are considered minor works, rarely, if ever, performed in full.6 While it may perhaps be too soon to judge the value of some contemporary cycle plays written by prominent playwrights, a few of the most recent play cycles have earned critical praise and even literary prizes. Among these I would place Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning two-play cycle Angels in America, Robert Schenkkan's nine-part study of Appalachian history, The Kentucky Cycle, John Barton's ten-play cycle of the Trojan War, Tantalus, Tom Stoppard's three-play cycle about nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries, The Coast of Utopia, and David Edgar's two-play commentary on contemporary American politics, Continental Divide. In relation to these recent works, Shaw's much-maligned Back to Methuselah begins to seem less like the embarrassing anomaly some Shavians have considered it to be and more like...


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pp. 179-200
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