The Devil’s Disciple

Contextual Notes and Background

We would like to thank Erika Tuck for preparing the contextual Notes on The Devil’s Disciple.

Born to an underprivileged family in Dublin in 1856, George Bernard Shaw’s contribution to English drama did not truly begin until moving to London in 1876, and even then only after a brief stint of unsuccessful novel writing. Acknowledging his lack of success with novels, Shaw began a lucrative career in art, music, and drama criticism reviewing for a number of publications, including The Saturday Review. His duties as an art critic caused him to form some strong critical opinions on the ills of fin de siècle English theatre, which he deemed too invested in sensational, formulaic, plot-driven narratives that capitalize on melodrama. While Shaw was writing these kinds of critiques, a new, innovative kind of theatre was being performed on the English stage, usually referred to as the New Drama, or Higher Drama. Inspired in part by the plays of Henrik Ibsen, they were characterized by their insistence on drama as a tool for social critique, and it is from this milieu that Shaw’s own drama writing emerges.

In his critiques of the commercially successful West End London theatre, Shaw’s political persuasions were evident. Associated with the New Drama and its proponents was a political movement called the Fabian Society, a social-democratic mode of thought emerging in the late nineteenth-century in England that stressed gradual socio-political improvements over revolutionary change. Many of Shaw’s colleagues and fellow theatre enthusiasts comprised this socialist movement, which was influential in the formation of the Labour Party of England at the turn of the century. Shaw’s involvement with both of these groups, the New Drama and the Fabian society, profoundly inform his writing of The Devil’s Discipline.

The Devil’s Disciple was first produced in 1897 in Albany and published in 1901 in a volume titled Three Plays for Puritans. It marked a turning point in Shaw’s career, in that it brought him artistic and financial success heretofore unknown to him, and allowed him to abandon reviewing as a means of earning a living. The collection includes a Preface written by Shaw that introduces many of his political, religious and literary ideologies that inform his writing of the plays and functions like a manifesto that begins with a discussion on his new approach to drama. His approach has a negative definition, in that it attempts to be as “undramatic” as possible, exactly not the kind of drama he was usually exposed to as a theatre critic.

However, The Devil’s Disciple’s employment of familiar devices, or stock situations, of fashionable London theatre—mistaken identities, self-sacrificing heroes, murder, adultery, and narrow escapes— and its subtitle defines it as just that: a melodrama. In fact, when he began writing the play, his initial aim was to create a melodrama, at the request of William Terris, a well-known London actor. The result though was a play that exploits melodramatic conventions only to undercut them through parody, and as such, acknowledges the usefulness of adopting a popular mode of drama as a means of re-educating the theatre-going masses.

The corruption of religious ideals upheld by popular melodrama was as frustrating for Shaw as its reliance on stock situations. Much of the play (and the other plays of the Three Plays collection) are meditations on modern religion. In the section of the Preface titled “On Diabolonian Ethics,” Shaw writes of the severe Puritanism of Mrs. Dudgeon and how her dubious piety (a mask for hatred and hypocrisy) naturally leads her son, Dick (Richard) Dudgeon, to dissent, which in turn reveals his true adherence to Christian values. But this tale of familial rebellion in eighteenth-century America has a distinctly modern tenor, as Shaw asserts, “there never was a play more certain to be written than The Devil’s Disciple at the end of the nineteenth century. The age was visibly pregnant with it.” The timeliness of his play lies in its questioning and redefinition of both historical and contemporary religious conviction, which he saw as a pivotal and necessary foundation for provoking social change.

As Shaw’s “Notes” to The Devil’s Disciple reveal, certain characters are taken straight from the pages of history. General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was a British officer who surrendered at the Battle of Saratoga, a crucial battle during the American War of Independence that is often seen as the turning point of the war that lost England its American colony. The historical importance of Burgoyne for Shaw was his being rendered the proverbial scapegoat, the proof positive that the British military defeat in America was not from a lack of righteousness or virtue, but one man’s individual failure. Using the backdrop of the American Revolution, Shaw critiques his country’s (failing) imperialism and casts their military men in an unfavourable light during a time when England was anxious of a number of outside threats, including the expansion of German naval power in the 1890s. The unpleasantness involved in this depiction of an inglorious military defeat for patriotic, nervous English audiences explains the play’s initial lack of success in England but instant triumph on the American stage.

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