The Devil’s Disciple, by George Bernard Shaw (Irish classic, play)

“Set in Colonial America during the Revolutionary era, the play tells the story of Richard Dudgeon, a local outcast and self-proclaimed ‘Devil’s disciple’. In a twist characteristic of Shaw’s love of paradox, Dudgeon sacrifices himself in a Christ-like gesture despite his professed Infernal allegiance.”

Book cover of The Devil's Disciple, by George Bernard Shaw
The Devil’s Disciple

The above description sounds serious, but the play itself is quite satirical. While Dudgeon is certainly a Christ figure, he is an unlikely and irreverent one, although he fills this role in a way I don’t find offensive. I love satire, however, so if you don’t, you might come away from this play with a different opinion. The mix-up of identities that leads to Dudgeon going to the gallows will inevitably remind readers of the switch that occurs between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. One of the primary differences between Carton and Dudgeon, however, is that Carton acts on feelings of sincere love, and Dudgeon sets out to sacrifice himself for entirely different reasons:

RICHARD. If I said—to please you—that I did what I did ever so little for your sake, I lied as men always lie to women. You know how much I have lived with worthless men—aye, and worthless women too. Well, they could all rise to some sort of goodness and kindness when they were in love. (The word love comes from him with true Puritan scorn.) That has taught me to set very little store by the goodness that only comes out red hot. What I did last night, I did in cold blood, caring not half so much for your husband, or (ruthlessly) for you (she droops, stricken) as I do for myself. I had no motive and no interest: all I can tell you is that when it came to the point whether I would take my neck out of the noose and put another man’s into it, I could not do it. I don’t know why not: I see myself as a fool for my pains; but I could not and I cannot. I have been brought up standing by the law of my own nature; and I may not go against it, gallows or no gallows. (She has slowly raised her head and is now looking full at him.) I should have done the same for any other man in the town, or any other man’s wife. (Releasing her.) Do you understand that?

Act 3

Even that quotation from Richard Dudgeon sounds too grave to give you a feel for the humor in this play, so here are a couple of examples of it:

RICHARD. I think you might have the decency to treat me as a prisoner of war, and shoot me like a man instead of hanging me like a dog.

BURGOYNE (sympathetically). Now there, Mr. Anderson, you talk like a civilian, if you will excuse my saying so. Have you any idea of the average marksmanship of the army of His Majesty King George the Third? If we make you up a firing party, what will happen? Half of them will miss you: the rest will make a mess of the business and leave you to the provo-marshal’s pistol. Whereas we can hang you in a perfectly workmanlike and agreeable way. (Kindly) Let me persuade you to be hanged, Mr. Anderson?

Act 3

RICHARD (with the horror of death upon him). Do you think this is a pleasant sort of thing to be kept waiting for? You’ve made up your mind to commit murder: well, do it and have done with it.

BURGOYNE. Mr. Dudgeon: we are only doing this—

RICHARD. Because you’re paid to do it.

SWINDON. You insolent— (He swallows his rage.)

BURGOYNE (with much charm of manner). Ah, I am really sorry that you should think that, Mr. Dudgeon. If you knew what my commission cost me, and what my pay is, you would think better of me. I should be glad to part from you on friendly terms.

Act 3

Now imagine Kirk Douglas performing the role of Richard Dudgeon, Laurence Olivier as General Burgoyne, and Burt Lancaster as the minister Anthony Anderson. These three great actors bring the story to life in the 1959 film by the same name.

Movie cover for The Devil's Disciple 1959
The Devil’s Disciple 1959