Buoyant Billions

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Buoyant Billions

Buoyant Billions.jpg

1949 edition with designs by Clare Winsten
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered 21 October, 1948
Place premiered Schauspielhaus Zürich
Original language English
Subject A billionaire's daughter meets a world betterer
Genre comedy
Setting Panama; London

Buoyant Billions (1948) is a play by George Bernard Shaw. Written at the age of 92, it was his last full-length play. Subtitled "a comedy of no manners", the play is about a brash young man courting the daughter of an elderly billionaire, who is pondering how to dispose of his wealth after his death, a subject that was preoccupying Shaw himself at the time.

George Bernard Shaw Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, influential in Western theatre

George Bernard Shaw, known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.



Shaw began work on the play in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, but left it unfinished, returning to it in 1948. It was inspired by a painting of the Last Supper. Shaw had the idea that a man about to die would be surrounded by people giving him advice on how to dispose of his assets. [1] The play refers to recent political and scientific developments, notably the policies of the 1945-50 Labour government and the invention of the atomic bomb.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Last Supper in Christian art

The Last Supper of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles has been a popular subject in Christian art, often as part of a cycle showing the Life of Christ. Depictions of the Last Supper in Christian art date back to early Christianity and can be seen in the Catacombs of Rome.

Attlee ministry Government of the United Kingdom

Clement Attlee was invited by King George VI to form the Attlee ministry in the United Kingdom in July 1945, succeeding Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Labour Party had won a landslide victory at the 1945 general election, enacting much of the post-war consensus policies, especially the welfare state and nationalisation of some industries. The government was marked by post-war austerity measures, in giving independence to India, and engagement in the Cold War against Soviet Communism.



A young man and his wealthy father argue about the youth's future. The youth is excited by the new developments in science, believing that atomic energy can be a boon to mankind. He says he intends to become a "world betterer" and will travel the world to ponder his future. In Panama, he meets a young woman. After a sparring conversation, they fall in love; however, she is horrified by the thought of love, and returns home to London, declaring love to be a dangerous disease.

Panama Republic in Central America

Panama, officially the Republic of Panama, is a country in Central America, bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The capital and largest city is Panama City, whose metropolitan area is home to nearly half the country's 4 million people.

In London, the family of billionaire Bill Buoyant are debating how to hold on to his billions after his death, as they believe that the new Labour government will tax it away. They discuss the fact that Buoyant's oldest daughter is a black sheep, as she was born to their father's first wife before the family had money, and so behaves like a poor person, having learned to work. They were born to the more genteel second wife. The eldest daughter suddenly appears, declaring that she has returned from Panama to escape from love. Her lover soon arrives too, having followed her. He tells her frankly that he wants to marry her for her money, but is also unfortunately irresistibly attracted to her by "animal magnetism" and the "life force". The characters discuss the true nature of life, love and marriage. He convinces her that the money will be useful to pursue his schemes for making the world a better place. Impressed by the fact that he has thought this through, she eventually agrees to marry him once he convinces her that marriage need not be a form of slavery.

Black sheep

In the English language, black sheep is an idiom used to describe an odd or disreputable member of a group, especially within a family. The term stems from the genetic effect in sheep whereby a recessive gene occasionally manifests in the birth of a sheep with black rather than white coloring; these sheep stand out in the flock and their wool was traditionally considered less valuable.

Bill Buoyant appears and blesses the couple, then consults with his lawyer about disposing of his billions. He decides to leave money to his eldest daughter and her soon-to-be husband, but nothing to the children of his second wife. The family, unaware of this, discuss their ideas, as the young couple are hastily married.


Shaw originally intended that the play would be performed at the Festival Theatre, Malvern, but later decided to give the play its world première in Switzerland, in a German translation, because he believed that English critics were prejudiced against his recent work. Shaw's German translator Siegfried Trebitsch lived in Zürich, and Shaw discussed the translation in detail with him. The German version was entitled Zu viel Geld. Trebitsch had made it "more Germanically serious" in the words of Stanley Weintraub, and Shaw revised it drastically with the help of his assistant Fritz Loewenstein to reintroduce his characteristic light touch. [2]

Festival Theatre, Malvern theatre complex in Malvern, England

The Festival Theatre, now known as Malvern Theatres, is a theatre complex on Grange Road in Malvern, Worcestershire, England. Malvern Theatres, housed in the Winter Gardens complex in the town centre of Great Malvern, has been a provincial centre for the arts since 1885. The theatre became known for its George Bernard Shaw productions in the 1930s and from 1977 onwards, along with the works of Edward Elgar. Up until 1965, 19 different plays of Shaw were produced at the Malvern Festival Theatre, and six premiered here, including The Apple Cart at the opening Malvern Festival in 1929, Geneva, a Fancied Page of History in Three Acts in August 1938 and In Good King Charles's Golden Days in August 1939.

Siegfried Trebitsch Austrian author and translator

Siegfried Trebitsch (1868–1956) was an Austrian playwright, translator, novelist and poet. Though prolific as a writer in various genres, he was best known for his German translations, especially of the works of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, with whom he kept up a long and detailed correspondence. He is also known for translations of French writers, especially Georges Courteline.

Zürich Place in Switzerland

Zürich or Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland and the capital of the canton of Zürich. It is located in north-central Switzerland at the northwestern tip of Lake Zürich. The municipality has approximately 409,000 inhabitants, the urban agglomeration 1.315 million and the Zürich metropolitan area 1.83 million. Zürich is a hub for railways, roads, and air traffic. Both Zürich Airport and railway station are the largest and busiest in the country.

It was played at the Schauspielhaus in Zürich on October 21, 1948. Critics were still unimpressed. Hans Guggenheim wrote that it was a "conversation-piece whose scanty action seems accidental and unconvincing.... Mr. Shaw could doubtless have written a spirited and amusing essay instead of this not very gripping play. We thought that the actors did their best to breathe some real life into the phantom-like figures of the play, and were amused by the fireworks of Shaw's bon mots, but not very much impressed, and the evening resulted in what someone called 'manifestation of respect.'" [3]

Schauspielhaus Zürich theatre building in Zurich, Switzerland

The Schauspielhaus Zürich is one of the most prominent and important theatres in the German-speaking world. It is also known as "Pfauenbühne". The large theatre has 750 seats. The Schauspielhaus also operates three stages in the Schiffbau in the western part of Zürich, the Schiffbau/Halle, the Schiffbau/Box and the Schiffbau/Matchbox.

It was published in "an especially attractive edition" in Zürich. [1] A limited edition of Buoyant Billions was published in London in 1949, with illustrations by Shaw's neighbour Clare Winsten. [1]

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  1. 1 2 3 Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1956, pp. 664; 923.
  2. Weintraub, Stanley, Shaw's People, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, pp.204ff.
  3. Hans Guggenheim, "Letter to the Editor," John O'London's Weekly, LVII ( November 12, 1948), 546.