As Far as Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920/§ i
- Summer afternoon in the year 31,920 A.D. A sunlit glade at the southernfoot of a thickly wooded hill. On the west side of it, the steps and columned porch of a dainty little classic temple. Between it and the hill, a rising path to the wooded heights begins with rough steps of stones in the moss. On the opposite side, a grove. In the middle of the glade, an altar in the form of a low marble table as long as a man, set parallel to the temple steps and pointing to the hill. Curved marble benches radiate from it into the foreground; but they are not joined to it: there is plenty of space to pass between the altar and the benches.
- A dance of youths and maidens is in progress. The music is provided by a few fluteplayers seated carelessly on the steps of the temple. There are no children; and none of the dancers seems younger than eighteen. Some of the youths have beards. Their dress, like the architecture of the theatre and the design of the altar and curved seats, resembles Grecian of the fourth century B.C., freely handled. They move with perfect balance and remarkable grace, racing through a figure like a farandole. They neither romp nor hug in our manner.
- At the first full close they clap their hands to stop the musicians, who recommence with a saraband, during which a strange figure appears on the path beyond the temple. He is deep in thought, with his eyes closed and his feet feeling automatically for the rough irregular steps as he slowly descends them. Except for a sort of linen kilt consisting mainly of a girdle carrying a sporran and a few minor pockets, he is naked. In physical hardihood and uprightness he seems to be in the prime of life; and his eyes and mouth shew no signs of age; but his face, though fully and firmly fleshed, bears a network of lines, varying from furrows to hairbreadth reticulations, as if Time had worked over every inch of it incessantly through whole geologic periods. His head is finely domed and utterly bald. Except for his eyelashes he is quite hairless. He is unconscious of his surroundings, and walks right into one of the dancing couples, separating them. He wakes up and stares about him. The couple stop indignantly. The rest stop. The music stops. The youth whom he has jostled accosts him without malice, but without anything that we should call manners.
THE YOUTH. Now, then, ancient sleepwalker, why don't you keep your eyes open and mind where you are going?
THE ANCIENT [mild, bland, and indulgent] I did not know there was a nursery here, or I should not have turned my face in this direction. Such accidents cannot always be avoided. Go on with your play: I will turn back.
THE YOUTH. Why not stay with us and enjoy life for once in a way? We will teach you to dance.
THE ANCIENT. No, thank you. I danced when I was a child like you. Dancing is a very crude attempt to get into the rhythm of life. It would be painful to me to go back from that rhythm to your babyish gambols: in fact I could not do it if I tried. But at your age it is pleasant: and I am sorry I disturbed you.
THE YOUTH. Come! own up: arnt you very unhappy? It's dreadful to see you ancients going about by yourselves, never noticing anything, never dancing, never laughing, never singing, never getting anything out of life. None of us are going to be like that when we grow up. It's a dog's life.
THE ANCIENT. Not at all. You repeat that old phrase without knowing that there was once a creature on earth called a dog. Those who are interested in extinct forms of life will tell you that it loved the sound of its own voice and bounded about when it was happy, just as you are doing here. It is you, my children, who are living the dog's life.
THE YOUTH. The dog must have been a good sensible creature: it set you a very wise example. You should let yourself go occasionally and have a good time.
THE ANCIENT. My children: be content to let us ancients go our ways and enjoy ourselves in our own fashion. [He turns to go]
THE MAIDEN. But wait a moment. Why will you not tell us how you enjoy yourself? You must have secret pleasures that you hide from us, and that you never get tired of. I get tired of all our dances and all our tunes. I get tired of all my partners.
THE YOUTH [suspiciously] Do you? I shall bear that in mind.
They all look at one another as if there were some sinister significance in what she has said.
THE MAIDEN. We all do: what is the use of pretending we don't? It is natural.
SEVERAL YOUNG PEOPLE. No, no. We don't. It is not natural.
THE ANCIENT. You are older than he is, I see. You are growing up.
THE MAIDEN. How do you know? I do not look so much older, do I?
THE ANCIENT. Oh, I was not looking at you. Your looks do not interest me.
THE MAIDEN. Thank you.
- They all laugh.
THE YOUTH. You old fish! I believe you don't know the difference between a man and a woman.
THE ANCIENT. It has long ceased to interest me in the way it interests you. And when anything no longer interests us we no longer know it.
THE MAIDEN. You havnt told me how I shew my age. That is what I want to know. As a matter of fact I am older than this boy here: older than he thinks. How did you find that out?
THE ANCIENT. Easily enough. You are ceasing to pretend that these childish games—this dancing and singing and mating—do not become tiresome and unsatisfying after a while. And you no longer care to pretend that you are younger than you are. These are the signs of adolescence. And then, see these fantastic rags with which you have draped yourself. [He takes up a piece of her draperies in his hand]. It is rather badly worn here. Why do you not get a new one?
THE MAIDEN. Oh, I did not notice it. Besides, it is too much trouble. Clothes are a nuisance. I think I shall do without them some day, as you ancients do.
THE ANCIENT. Signs of maturity. Soon you will give up all these toys and games and sweets.
THE YOUTH. What! And be as miserable as you?
THE ANCIENT. Infant: one moment of the ecstasy of life as we live it would strike you dead. [He stalks gravely out through the grove].
- They stare after him, much damped.
THE YOUTH [to the musicians] Let us have another dance.
- The musicians shake their heads; get up from their seats on the steps; and troop away into the temple. The others follow them, except the Maiden, who sits down on the altar.
A MAIDEN [as she goes] There! The ancient has put them out of countenance. It is your fault, Strephon, for provoking him. [She leaves, much disappointed].
A YOUTH. Why need you have cheeked him like that? [He goes grumbling].
STREPHON [calling after him] I thought it was understood that we are always to cheek the ancients on principle.
ANOTHER YOUTH. Quite right too! There would be no holding them if we didn't. [He goes].
THE MAIDEN. Why don't you really stand up to them? I did.
ANOTHER YOUTH. Sheer, abject, pusillanimous, dastardly cowardice. Thats why. Face the filthy truth. [He goes].
ANOTHER YOUTH [turning on the steps as he goes out] And don't you forget, infant, that one moment of the ecstasy of life as I live it would strike you dead. Haha!
STREPHON [now the only one left, except the Maiden] Arnt you coming, Chloe?
THE MAIDEN [shakes her head]!
THE YOUTH [hurrying back to her] What is the matter?
THE MAIDEN [tragically pensive] I dont know.
THE YOUTH. Then there is something the matter. Is that what you mean?
THE MAIDEN. Yes. Something is happening to me. I dont know what.
THE YOUTH. You no longer love me. I have seen it for a month past.
THE MAIDEN. Dont you think all that is rather silly? We cannot go on as if this kind of thing, this dancing and sweethearting, were everything.
THE YOUTH. What is there better? What else is there worth living for?
THE MAIDEN. Oh, stuff! Dont be frivolous.
THE YOUTH. Something horrible is happening to you. You are losing all heart, all feeling. [He sits on the altar beside her and buries his face in his hands]. I am bitterly unhappy.
THE MAIDEN. Unhappy! Really, you must have a very empty head if there is nothing in it but a dance with one girl who is no better than any of the other girls.
THE YOUTH. You did not always think so. You used to be vexed if I as much as looked at another girl.
THE MAIDEN. What does it matter what I did when I was a baby? Nothing existed for me then except what I tasted and touched and saw; and I wanted all that for myself, just as I wanted the moon to play with. Now the world is opening out for me. More than the world: the universe. Even little things are turning out to be great things, and becoming intensely interesting. Have you ever thought about the properties of numbers?
THE YOUTH [sitting up, markedly disenchanted] Numbers!!! I cannot imagine anything drier or more repulsive.
THE MAIDEN. They are fascinating, just fascinating. I want to get away from our eternal dancing and music, and just sit down by myself and think about numbers.
THE YOUTH [rising indignantly] Oh, this is too much. I have suspected you for some time past. We have all suspected you. All the girls say that you have deceived us as to your age: that you are getting flat-chested: that you are bored with us; that you talk to the ancients when you get the chance. Tell me the truth: how old are you?
THE MAIDEN. Just twice your age, my poor boy.
THE YOUTH. Twice my age! Do you mean to say you are four?
THE MAIDEN. Very nearly four.
THE YOUTH [collapsing on the altar with a groan] Oh!
THE MAIDEN. My poor Strephon: I pretended I was only two for your sake. I was two when you were born. I saw you break from your shell; and you were such a charming child! You ran round and talked to us all so prettily, and were so handsome and well grown, that I lost my heart to you at once. But now I seem to have lost it altogether: bigger things are taking possession of me. Still, we were very happy in our childish way for the first year, werent we?
STREPHON. I was happy until you began cooling towards me.
THE MAIDEN. Not towards you, but towards all the trivialities of our life here. Just think. I have hundreds of years to live: perhaps thousands. Do you suppose I can spend centuries dancing; listening to flutes ringing changes on a few tunes and a few notes; raving about the beauty of a few pillars and arches; making jingles with words; lying about with your arms round me, which is really neither comfortable nor convenient; everlastingly choosing colors for dresses, and putting them on, and washing; making a business of sitting together at fixed hours to absorb our nourishment; taking little poisons with it to make us delirious enough to imagine we are enjoying ourselves; and then having to pass the nights in shelters lying in cots and losing half our lives in a state of unconsciousness. Sleep is a shameful thing: I have not slept at all for weeks past. I have stolen out at night when you were all lying insensible—quite disgusting, I call it—and wandered about the woods, thinking, thinking, thinking; grasping the world; taking it to pieces; building it up again; devising methods; planning experiments to test the methods; and having a glorious time. Every morning I have come back here with greater and greater reluctance; and I know that the time will soon come—perhaps it has come already—when I shall not come back at all.
STREPHON. How horribly cold and uncomfortable!
THE MAIDEN. Oh, don't talk to me of comfort! Life is not worth living if you have to bother about comfort. Comfort makes winter a torture, spring an illness, summer an oppression, and autumn only a respite. The ancients could make life one long frowsty comfort if they chose. But they never lift a finger to make themselves comfortable. They will not sleep under a roof. They will not clothe themselves: a girdle with a few pockets hanging to it to carry things about in is all they wear: they will sit down on the wet moss or in a gorse bush when there is dry heather within two yards of them. Two years ago, when you were born, I did not understand this. Now I feel that I would not put myself to the trouble of walking two paces for all the comfort in the world.
STREPHON. But you don't know what this means to me. It means that you are dying to me: yes, just dying. Listen to me [he puts his arm around her]
THE MAIDEN [extricating herself] Dont. We can talk quite as well without touching one another.
STREPHON [horrified] Chloe! Oh, this is the worst symptom of all! The ancients never touch one another.
THE MAIDEN. Why should they?
STREPHON. Oh, I don't know. But don't you want to touch me? You used to.
THE MAIDEN. Yes: that is true: I used to. We used to think it would be nice to sleep in one another's arms; but we never could go to sleep because our weight stopped our circulations just above the elbows. Then somehow my feeling began to change bit by bit. I kept a sort of interest in your head and arms long after I lost interest in your whole body. And now that has gone.
STREPHON. You no longer care for me at all, then?
THE MAIDEN. Nonsense! I care for you much more seriously than before; though perhaps not so much for you in particular. I mean I care more for everybody. But I don't want to touch you unnecessarily; and I certainly don't want you to touch me.
STREPHON [rising decisively] That finishes it. You dislike me.
THE MAIDEN [impatiently] I tell you again, I do not dislike you; but you bore me when you cannot understand; and I think I shall be happier by myself in future. You had better get a new companion. What about the girl who is to be born today?
STREPHON. I do not want the girl who is to be born today. How do I know what she will be like? I want you.
THE MAIDEN. You cannot have me. You must recognize facts and face them. It is no use running after a woman twice your age. I cannot make my childhood last to please you. The age of love is sweet; but it is short; and I must pay nature's debt. You no longer attract me; and I no longer care to attract you. Growth is too rapid at my age: I am maturing from week to week.
STREPHON. You are maturing, as you call it—I call it ageing—from minute to minute. You are going much further than you did when we began this conversation.
THE MAIDEN. It is not the ageing that is so rapid. It is the realization of it when it has actually happened. Now that I have made up my mind to the fact that I have left childhood behind me, it comes home to me in leaps and bounds with every word you say.
STREPHON. But your vow. Have you forgotten that? We all swore together in that temple: the temple of love. You were more earnest than any of us.
THE MAIDEN [with a grim smile] Never to let our hearts grow cold! Never to become as the ancients! Never to let the sacred lamp be extinguished! Never to change or forget! To be remembered for ever as the first company of true lovers faithful to this vow so often made and broken by past generations! Ha! ha! Oh, dear!
STREPHON. Well, you need not laugh. It is a beautiful and holy compact; and I will keep it whilst I live. Are you going to break it?
THE MAIDEN. Dear child: it has broken itself. The change has come in spite of my childish vow. [She rises]. Do you mind if I go into the woods for a walk by myself? This chat of ours seems to me an unbearable waste of time. I have so much to think of.
STREPHON [again collapsing on the altar and covering his eyes with his hands] My heart is broken. [He weeps].
THE MAIDEN [with a shrug] I have luckily got through my childhood without that experience. It shews how wise I was to choose a lover half my age.
- [She goes towards the grove, and is disappearing among the trees, when another youth, older and manlier than Strephon, with crisp hair and firm arms, comes from the temple, and calls to her from the threshold.]
THE TEMPLE YOUTH. I say, Chloe. Is there any sign of the Ancient yet? The hour of birth is overdue. The baby is kicking like mad. She will break her shell prematurely.
THE MAIDEN [looks across to the hill path; then points up it, andsays] She is coming, Acis.
- The Maiden turns away through the grove and is lost to sight among the trees.
Acis [coming to Strephon] Whats the matter? Has Chloe been unkind?
STREPHON. She has grown up in spite of all her promises. She deceived us about her age. She is four.
ACIS. Four! I am sorry, Strephon. I am getting on for three myself; and I know what old age is. I hate to say 'I told you so'; but she was getting a little hard set and flat-chested and thin on the top, wasn't she?
STREPHON [breaking down] Dont.
ACIS. You must pull yourself together. This is going to be a busy day. First the birth. Then the Festival of the Artists.
STREPHON [rising] What is the use of being born if we have to decay into unnatural, heartless, loveless, joyless monsters in four short years? What use are the artists if they cannot bring their beautiful creations to life? I have a great mind to die and have done with it all. [He moves away to the corner of the curved seat farthest from the theatre, and throws himself moodily into it].
- An Ancient Woman has descended the hill path during Strephon's lament, and has heard most of it. She is like the He-Ancient, equally bald, and equally without sexual charm, but intensely interesting and rather terrifying. Her sex is discoverable only by her voice, as her breasts are manly, and her figure otherwise not very different. She wears no clothes, but has draped herself rather perfunctorily with a ceremonial robe, and carries two implements like long slender saws. She comes to the altar between the two young men.
THE SHE-ANCIENT [to Strephon] Infant: you are only at the beginning of it all. [To Acis] Is the child ready to be born?
ACIS. More than ready, Ancient. Shouting and kicking and cursing. We have called to her to be quiet and wait until you come; but of course she only half understands, and is very impatient.
THE SHE-ANCIENT. Very well. Bring her out into the sun.
ACIS [going quickly into the temple] All ready. Come along.
- Joyous processional music strikes up in the temple.
THE SHE-ANCIENT [going close to Strephon]. Look at me.
STREPHON [sulkily keeping his face averted] Thank you; but I don't want to be cured. I had rather be miserable in my own way than callous in yours.
THE SHE-ANCIENT. You like being miserable? You will soon grow out of that. [She returns to the altar].
- The procession, headed by Acis, emerges from the temple. Six youths carry on their shoulders a burden covered with a gorgeous but light pall. Before them certain official maidens carry a new tunic, ewers of water, silver dishes pierced with holes, cloths, and immense sponges. The rest carry wands with ribbons, and strew flowers. The burden is deposited on the altar, and the pall removed. It is a huge egg.
THE SHE-ANCIENT [freeing her arms from her robe, and placing her saws on the altar ready to her hand in a businesslike manner] A girl, I think you said?
THE TUNIC BEARER. It is a shame. Why cant we have more boys?
SEVERAL YOUTHS [protesting] Not at all. More girls. We want new girls.
A GIRL'S VOICE FROM THE EGG. Let me out. Let me out. I want to be born. I want to be born. [The egg rocks].
ACIS [snatching a wand from one of the others and whacking the egg with it] Be quiet, I tell you. Wait. You will be born presently.
THE EGG. No, no: at once, at once. I want to be born: I want to be born. [Violent kicking within the egg, which rocks so hard that it has to be held on the altar by the bearers].
THE SHE-ANCIENT. Silence. [The music stops; and the egg behaves itself].
- The She-Ancient takes her two saws, and with a couple of strokes rips the egg open. The Newly Born, a pretty girl who would have been guessed as seventeen in our day, sits up in the broken shell, exquisitely fresh and rosy, but with filaments of spare albumen clinging to her here and there.
THE NEWLY BORN [as the world bursts on her vision] Oh! Oh!!Oh!!! Oh!!!! [She continues this ad libitum during the followingremonstrances].
ACIS. Hold your noise, will you?
The washing begins. The Newly Born shrieks and struggles.
A YOUTH. Lie quiet, you clammy little devil.
A MAIDEN. You must be washed, dear. Now quiet, quiet, quiet: be good.
ACIS. Shut your mouth, or I'll shove the sponge in it.
THE MAIDEN. Shut your eyes. Itll hurt if you don't.
ANOTHER MAIDEN. Dont be silly. One would think nobody had ever been born before.
THE NEWLY BORN [yells]!!!!!!
ACIS. Serve you right! You were told to shut your eyes.
THE YOUTH. Dry her off quick. I can hardly hold her. Shut it, will you; or I'll smack you into a pickled cabbage.