The Devil's Disciple
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
December 8, 2007
In the preface to the published version (and his prefaces are sometimes longer than the actual plays), George Bernard Shaw informs us thoroughly about The Devil's Disciple, telling us most candidly that it "does not contain a single even passably novel incident." He readily cites plot points borrowed from William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, and others. The story, however, is but the vehicle; this smart play, now exuberantly revived by the Irish Repertory Theatre, though set during the American Revolution, feels as fresh as any commentary on our contemporary culture.
The self-proclaimed Devil's disciple, Dick Dudgeon, relishes in shocking and offending his Puritan family and hometown folks. He despises his mother's rigid and narrow practice of religion, and the loveless lifelessness that has resulted from it. His mannerisms and behavior are particularly appalling in the eyes of Judith, the wife of the town's minister, Anthony Anderson.
Dick is invited to Anderson's home to be informed that British troops, intending to hang a rebel as a warning against revolution, may come after him. But as fate has it, when the soldiers do show up, it's Anderson they want. Dick is found having tea along with Judith. The soldiers assume he is Anderson, and to Judith's horror Dick plays up the misidentification and is taken away. When Anderson returns, he grabs his gun and rushes out of town. Judith is left with a terrible decision to make.
Dick is a bold and enormously charismatic protagonist. At first he seems just as impossibly self-righteous as the conventions and authorities he rails against. But soon his considerate and honorable nature reveals itself at virtually every turn. One of the delights given to the audience is to be let in on the expected disapprovals from those around him, and then experience their ultimate realization and respect of his integrity.
Shaw plays with the popular melodramatic formulas of his time, and turns them on their heads. More than witty repartee, this play doubles as comic delight and social indictment of the institutions of religion and marriage. Upon inheriting his parent's house, Dick announces, "[the] Devil has saved me from having my spirit broken in this house of children's tears....From this day this house is his home, and no child shall cry in it; this hearth is his altar, and no soul shall ever cower over it in the dark evenings and be afraid."
Toward the end the play takes us into a riotous courtroom farce that proffers some of the biggest laughs. General Burgoyne, a sage and cynical observer who presides over the trial, comments on the folly of the British military policies. It was these sentiments by Shaw that may have contributed to the initial unpopularity of this play in England, as opposed to this side of the pond. When asked, "Have you realized that though you may occupy towns and win battles, you cannot conquer a nation?", the general replies, "My good sir, without a Conquest you cannot have an aristocracy"—a comment that might be appropriately directed to the makers of our own nation's current foreign policy.
The production itself lives up to the script's splendor. Directed and designed by Tony Walton, the show is polished and lively. Walton notes in the program that the first New York production 110 years ago sported a cast of 100 or more. He has adjusted that to a total of nine actors (three of them doubling), plus two non-speaking guards, which seems more than adequate. The supporting performances are uneven, but the four leads are simply smashing. Lorenzo Pisoni's Dick Dudgeon is wildly delicious and, at crucial moments, movingly dignified. Jenny Fellner doesn't allow Judith to fall into empty histrionics, but carries her off with genuine feeling. Curzon Dobell's Anderson is fully fleshed and admirable. And John Windsor-Cunningham's General Burgoyne steals the show with his deadpan, understated sarcasm.
See The Devil's Disciple for the high entertainment or for the singular Shavian theses. It is a deliriously enjoyable comedy with flashes of biting and brilliant insight.