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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 65-74

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All about Eve:
Testing the Miltonic Formula

Rhoda Nathan

When I was invited to give a talk at a plenary session of this conference, I chose a topic that I not only deemed appropriate to the theme of the proceedings but that I was certain would provide a slight "frisson" owing to the inevitable introduction of sexuality. I was going to talk on Bernard Shaw and positive eugenics with its attendant sexual implications. I so informed Professor Gillespie and had at the ready such social and sexual radicals as Havelock Ellis from whom to draw my information. Further, to make and prove the case, I found a letter from Shaw to Herbert Brewer, a socialist who declared himself a "eugenicist by profession and a postal clerk by accident," and appeared to have been inspired to have discovered eugenics through voracious reading in Shaw and H. G. Wells. I discovered in Daniel Kevles's book on eugenics a playful letter from Shaw to Brewer, written in January 1937, containing the following intriguing reflection: "When I, who have no children, and couldn't be bothered with them, think of all the ova I might have inseminated!!! And of all the women who could not have tolerated me in the house for a day, but would have liked some of my qualities for their children!!!" The wishful thought accompanied a check for a hundred pounds, and Kevles notes, the famous Shavian signature with a "phallic flourish at the tail." In a remarkably prescient afterthought, Shaw noted that, if indeed the science would one day progress to the desired point of its purpose, he should have, however, "made it a condition that neither the origin and the destination of the spermatozoon should be known to the parties."

This being said, I suddenly realized that the topic would not work, because, although there's sex in the Garden of Eden in the first act of Back to Methuselah, it has gone the way of other discarded quaint customs at the conclusion of the play. Where there is no sexual congress, there are no eugenics, positive or negative. Eve, however, the sex kitten in Genesis, is there at the end of the play, somewhat the worse for wear, presiding over a brave new world whose inhabitants in the year 31,920, have come into being [End Page 65] through a process of mutation, not positive eugenics. Although the offspring of Cain, her bad son, have mercifully vanished and only her good children have survived, they will exist in the future as bodiless essences or vortices of energy and thought. Moreover, embodied in these future avatars of morality and purpose, is, to my mind, a female progenitor bearing a striking resemblance to an earlier Eve, the version of John Milton, who, throughout Paradise Lost, an epic only slightly longer than Shaw's monumental later epic, appears to set the groundwork, in part, for Shaw's stunning portrait of the primordial prototypical female, who develops into a complex figure of interwoven strands of Puritan, feminist, and no-nonsense working woman, possibly even a boss. So the topic, with some alteration, remains, but the focus is now the character, not the process. All we must do now is provide the persuasive link between the biblical, Miltonic, and Shavian Eves, and here it comes. From Cleopatra, the nursery kitten, to the shopworn Mrs. Warren, Shaw has given his audiences versions of not only the biblical or mythic Eve, but of the clearly defined mother of mankind in Milton's epic Paradise Lost, who develops from her first appearance in Book V to her final maturity in Book IX into a feminist heroine born of a Puritan ethos. Consciously or instinctively, in his shaping of women, Shaw adapted the Miltonic formula to the formulation of his own incarnations of Eve. (Puritan principles were always on Shaw's mind. He published three plays in 1921 in a collection he called Three Plays for Puritans.) So, the subject still stands...


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