Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'"

One thing I've been intrigued by for a while, but not pursued in any systematic way, is the phenomenon of the writer, artist, musician, film maker, etc who is an absolutely towering and central figure in their era, but then rapidly fades in prominence after their death, and is nowadays hardly ever thought of or referenced, let alone used as an influence or a starting point by successors.

Equivalents in rock history include Eric Clapton, once the focus for adulation on the level of the widely daubed graffiti slogan "Clapton Is God" ... but nowadays? Who today under the age of 40 (or even 50)  would actually listen to, let alone be influenced by Eric C?  Okay, he is not actually dead (not literally... artistically, perhaps). A properly deceased equivalent who has experienced a similarly swift eclipse of stature, a total demotion from the canon,  and who appears to have no progeny whatsoever: Janis Joplin.

In literature, there are many examples, but the one that fascinates me is George Bernard Shaw.

Usually one picks up little bits of knowledge about these sort of Eminences, even if you never actually get round to reading them, but until I looked at Wikipedia just now I wasn't aware of the extent of my non-informedness about G.B. Shaw.

With the exception of My Fair Lady, I don't think I've knowingly read or watched a word of G.B.S. He was already off the curriculum when I did English Literature at school in the Seventies. I don't think I've ever had a conversation with anyone in which Shaw even  cropped up.  Oscar Wilde has rarely dipped in his relevance levels since he popped his clogs, but you hardly ever run into a G.B. Shaw buff.

Yet Shaw was a literary titan in his time; a tireless text-generator (churning out plays, novels, essays, criticism, including music criticism - he had trenchant opinions: completely up Wagner's arse he was, but contemptuous of Brahms, albeit later to recant). Socially and politically engaged. Thorn in the side of the establishment. Outspoken. People then might not have liked him but they probably imagined he would continue to loom large for decades, even centuries, afterwards.

(Another one of the same ilk is G.K. Chesterton *. The work-rate of these dudes is always staggering, humbling).

Anyway the thing that blew my mind a bit -- and it's where the quote in the title, "You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?**
 - comes from, is reading about Shaw's science fiction drama cycle  Back to Methuselah. Written just after the First World War and performed in the early 1920s, B to M

"consists of a preface (An Infidel Half Century) and a series of five plays: In the Beginning: B.C. 4004 (In the Garden of Eden), The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas: Present Day, The Thing Happens: A.D. 2170, Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman: A.D. 3000, and As Far as Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920..

In the preface, Shaw outlines his belief in "creative evolution" and proposes that humanity requires much longer lifetimes (such that a century should barely be middle age) for the accrual of wisdom. 

The first two plays are BC and present time, and then the third "The Thing Happens" leaps to 2170.  Things get progressively more barmy.  The final instalment is called "As Far As Thought Can Reach: A.D.31,920, in which "Humans evolve to the point of becoming free-ranging vortices of energy, able to wander, solitary, through the Universe, thus requiring no government at all".

And this was staged? In theatres? Audiences sat patiently, reverently, through it? 

The sheer scale of it reminds me a little of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men

Not surprisingly there's no Youtube clips of B to M being staged...  Although the BBC did do it as a drama series in 1952, and it's been on the radio!

*  Chesterton also wrote a science fiction novel of sorts - The Flying Inn (1914), "set in a future England where the Temperance movement has allowed a bizarre form of "Progressive" Islam to dominate the political and social life of the country. Because of this, alcohol sales to the poor are effectively prohibited, while the rich can get alcoholic drinks "under a medical certificate". The plot centres on the adventures of  Humphrey Pump and Captain Patrick Dalroy, who roam the country in their cart with a barrel of rum in an attempt to evade Prohibition, exploiting loopholes in the law to temporarily prevent the police taking action against them. Eventually the heroes and their followers foil an attempted coup by an Islamic military force"

** "You see things.... Why not?" is often attributed to Bobby Kennedy, who used it in a speech.  Supposedly he noted its source before uttering. On the internet, J. F.K. is also said to have said it, and Teddy Kennedy (in the eulogy for Bobby). Confusing, and all serving to further erase G.B.S.


  1. More Chesterton sci-fi (well, speculative fiction / satire, really, because there's no "sci" in it): 'The Napoleon of Notting Hill'.


    Set in 1984!

  2. Also, Janis Joplin's progeny: what about the Alabama Shakes?! Although they are maybe not so much descendants and inheritors as direct copyists.

    There was also, sadly, some of Joplin's malign influence evident in the career of Amy Winehouse, I think.

  3. yeah you're right about Alabama Shakes - shudder

    not musically though with Amy W i don't think... she had other role models in terms of the soul / narcosis nexus -- billie holiday. lots of jazz and R&B singers