One of my responsibilities as the 9th grade teacher in Pacific Grove, California back in 1959 and 1960 was to introduce the students to the library. The school had a large library overseen by Miss Whitehead. I wanted to encourage the students to see the library as a mine where, with sufficient exploring, you could find gems, but you had to know how and where to look. That was what I was supposed to teach them.
As we walked around the room I spotted a white leather bound edition of the complete works of George Bernard Shaw on the lowest shelf. I reached down and picked up the copy of Man and Superman. “Wow,” I quietly exclaimed. “I don’t think Miss Whitehead is aware that this is down here. Look, no one has checked this book out of the library for a long time.” And then I blew a lot of dust off the top of the book. I opened to Chapter III and quietly but with a sense of doing something illicit, I read the first lines of Don Juan in Hell.
THE OLD WOMAN Excuse me; but I am so lonely; and this place is so awful.
DON JUAN A new comer?
THE OLD WOMAN Yes: I suppose I died this morning. I confessed; I had extreme unction; I was in bed with my family about me and my eyes fixed on the cross. Then it grew dark; and when the light came back it was this light by which I walk seeing nothing. I have wandered for hours in horrible loneliness.
DON JUAN [sighing] Ah! you have not yet lost the sense of time. One soon does, in eternity.
THE OLD WOMAN Where are we?
DON JUAN In hell.
THE OLD WOMAN [proudly] Hell! I in hell! How dare you?
DON JUAN [unimpressed] Why not, senora!
THE OLD WOMAN You do not know to whom you are speaking. I am a lady, and a faithful daughter of the Church.
DON JUAN I do not doubt it.
THE OLD WOMAN But how then can I be in hell? Purgatory, perhaps: I have not been perfect: who has? But hell! oh, you are lying.
DON JUAN Hell, senora, I assure you; hell at its best: that is, its most solitary - though perhaps you would prefer company.
THE OLD WOMAN But I have sincerely repented; I have confessed-
DON JUAN How much?
THE OLD WOMAN More sins than I really committed. I loved confession.
DON JUAN Ah, that is perhaps as bad as confessing too little. At all events, senora, whether by oversight or intention, you are certainly damned, like myself; and there is nothing for it now but to make the best of it.
THE OLD WOMAN [indignantly] Oh! and I might have been so much wickeder! All my good deeds wasted! It is unjust.
Acting out a little scene I glanced around to make sure Miss Whitehead had not seen what I was doing with the students and said to them quietly in the manner of a conspirator, “There are real gems to be found in Shaw. But be careful,” I added, “there are folks who do not think Shaw is proper for young people to read.”
The next day Miss Whitehead said to me “George, you really turned those kids on to Shaw. Every copy of his books that we have in this library were checked out yesterday by your students.”
I wonder how many of them still remember those first lines of Don Juan in Hell?