George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 64
The Final Years

THE TASK OF MINUTELY TRACING THE FAMILIAR STEPS OF DECLINE OF PHYSICAL and mental powers, the predestined lot of mankind, shall be left to others who delight in such physiological symptoms. I shall preoccupy myself with no such clinical study. There are, however, several remarkable features concerning the latter years of this remarkable figure. His attitude toward life, to the observant, had always been marked by extraordinary optimism, cheerfulness, and gaiety. His theory of longevity, in particular the notion that great increase in length of days would come like a thief in the night, had eventually obsessed his mind so completely that it hardened into a conviction. He did not live to hear Nicolai Bulganin state that there was a Russian living today at the age of one hundred and forty-eight. Scientists have predicted that within the reasonably foreseeable future the Biblical average life span of seventy will increase to one hundred and fifty. Shaw's own figure of three hundred years was chosen arbitrarily; and we have his own word for it that he hoped and expected to reach the age of one hundred. I think that this wish was not prompted merely by the desire to live after living had become a burden and weariness of the flesh, but to give an initial demonstration of the possibility of increasing the life span by striving to attain it.

Not a few of his friends and admirers wished that he had ceased to carry on his titanic efforts to compose plays, write books, speak in public, and write letters to the press after, say, the age of seventy or thereabouts. Saint Joan at the age of sixty-seven marked, for many, the apex of his fame as a dramatist and greatness as a man. Thereafter the decline from that dizzy altitude set in; and is traceable throughout the remainder of his life. It was symbolic that he deliberately chose to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday in Moscow, where he could, as he imagined, observe the first successful steps ever made in human history toward equalizing opportunities and potentialities, economically and culturally, for every individual human being.

The reasons which actuated Shaw to continue his labors were compelling. In the Preface to what was actually his last completed play, he said definitively and for the last time, what he had repeatedly stated, in substance and under various forms, to many people, including myself:

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