Last night, I attended Gingold Theatrical Group's staged reading of the second half of G.B. Shaw's five-play cycle Back to Methuselah. Though I've read the piece multiple times, I'd forgotten how good the last play, As Far as Thought Can Reach, really is.
The play takes place in 31,920 A.D., thirty thousand years after Shaw wrote it. Though the play deals with many things, it is perhaps most interesting when it deals with art. One character, Arjillax, tells the story of "a supernatural being called the Archangel Michael." We soon guess (and Shaw later confirms) that the Archangel Michael is actually the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. According to the story:
He began by painting on the ceiling the newly born in all their childish beauty. But when he had done this he was not satisfied; for the temple was no more impressive than it had been before, except that there was a strength and promise of greater things about his newly born ones than any other artist had attained to. So he painted all round these newly born a company of ancients, who were in those days called prophets and sybils, whose majesty was that of the mind alone at its intensest.
The ancients in the play, however, have outgrown art completely in this remote prospect of the future. The play contains one of Shaw's most famous quotations: "Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable." What people rarely note, however, is that the line is uttered by an eight-month-old child who does not understand the world. It is Shaw's ancients who see clearly, and they seem to have outgrown art.