The Devil's Disciple
by George Bernard Shaw
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

first staged: London, 1897

collected in —
Three Plays for Puritans

August 2014

  
Not so Devilish after all

George Bernard shaw's play The Devil's Disciple is rather too grandly named for what it is: an anti-morality-tale of Church and State in Revolutionary America, 1777. However, titling it "Unconventional Patriots" or "Free-Thinkers, Moralists, & Soldiers" would not have the same ring, nor entice as large an audience.

We begin with an American household repressed and bullied in the name of religion and propriety by the mother of the family. We see introduced to this the wayward son and heir, a lively verbal diabolist called "the Devil's Disciple", and the depressing effect of the opening lightens considerably.

Then however comes the British Army to occupy the town, intending to arrest and hang one or more prominent citizens as a warning to rebels — as indeed, they hanged a relative of the family in a neighboring town shortly before the play begins.

With the arrival of the soldiers, we see emotional repression supplanted by physical oppression: that is, censure and browbeating trumped by arrest and execution. However, the American politico-religious natures splash into the British politico-military natures opposing them. New subtleties and counter-currents, strengths and weaknesses emerge. This happens within the characters, hence on a larger canvas in the opposing forces. Now the play becomes far more interesting, and the action gripping.

As often for me in a Shaw play, the characters convey a sense of being paraded as talkative straw-men pitching Shaw's theses, tending to smudge the dramatic turns. The wrap-up of the main characters' transformations (or self-realizations) is awkward, quite too sketchy to be believable, but a playwright can do only so much in three acts.

A major interest is the historical person present in the latter part, British General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne — a name I was aware of as a boy. Shaw allows him to speak to the larger issues of the time — freedom and empire — as well as the personal crises at hand. Shaw gives General Burgoyne a thoughtful mind and largely sympathetic stance, and he emerges as one of the key players. (In an Afterword, Shaw discusses Burgoyne's biography and character.)

It would not be too much to call Burgoyne as presented here an ironic Devil's Advocate for the British Empire; and if the Disciple's tale is the personal drama, it is the Advocate's analysis which is being enacted on the real stage of the world.

  

  
© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
How 'The Devil' Hauled Shaw Up From Hell by Colin Wilson in The New York Times in 1988 provides a more laudatory view than mine of this play (full of plot spoilers), with interesting backstage & biographical details. Wilson seems more willing than I am to agree with Shaw that early critics mistook a key point of characterization, undercutting his theme; but in this case I agree with those early critics. If Shaw intended differently he ought to have been clearer.
  


  
The Devil's Disciple
with Shaw's historical notes
available online at Classic Reader

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