We hesitated before committing to The Devil’s Disciple this year because, frankly, we failed to see much in the play when we first saw it thirteen years ago. But friends were saying good things about the show, Evan Buliung was starring, and the play was, after all, supposed to be one of Shaw’s most popular. Maybe, we thought, we just didn’t get it thirteen years ago. Or maybe the 1996 production was under par.
So we went after all, and this one was well worth the price of admission. We still can’t rank The Devil’s Disciple with our very favorite Shaw plays, especially The Philanderer and Arms and the Man. But this time around it struck us as one of Shaw’s wittiest. And this particular show has some larger-than-life performances. The play swept us along along so nicely that we weren’t bothered by the improbable twists of its plot. We enjoyed it a lot.
The Devil’s Disciple is set in 1777, in the third year of the Revolutionary War, and centers around Dick Dudgeon (Evan Buliung), a young reprobate who is the black sheep of the Dudgeon family because of his impiety and his line of work (smuggling). (There are eight Dudgeons in the play, two of whom die shortly before the first act, and keeping them all straight is a bit of a challenge at first.) As the play begins, Dick’s puritanical mother (Donna Belleville, who gives a strong performance) gets the news of her husband’s death from the Presbyterian minister, Anthony Anderson (Peter Krantz).
To his mother’s irritation, Dick shows up with the other relatives for the reading of his father’s will. He scandalizes his mother, shocks Lawyer Hawkins (Lorne Kennedy), and repels the minister’s devout, pretty wife (Fiona Byrne) by bragging about his allegiance to the devil. To Mrs. Dudgeon’s even greater consternation, her husband’s deathbed will and testament leaves everything to Dick.
But the British are coming! General Burgoyne’s army, invading from Canada, is just a few miles away and bent on making examples of rebel sympathizers. The Dudgeons all flee, except for Dick, who announces that he is going to join up with the rebels. When the redcoats march into town, their first order of business is to arrest Reverend Anderson for his seditious sermons. But when the soldiers arrive at his house, they mistake his visitor Dick for the Reverend. In the tradition of Sydney Carton, the gallant Dick does not undeceive them, nor does Mrs. Anderson.
The soldiers arrest Dick and take him away to be hung. At the British headquarters, Dick meets General John Burgoyne (Jim Mezon) and his aide Major Swindon (Peter Millard). “Gentlemanly John” Burgoyne is unenthusiastic about the proposed execution and, indeed, about the British mission in America altogether:
BURGOYNE (throwing himself onto Swindon’s chair). It is making too much of the fellow to execute him. However, you have committed us to hanging him: and the sooner he is hanged the better.
SWINDON. We have arranged it for 12 o’clock. Nothing remains to be done except to try him.
When he wrote The Devil’s Disciple in 1896, Bernard Shaw hoped to meet the popular demand for melodrama, and indeed the play has a lot of that. Or so we suppose — we’re not sure we’ve ever actually seen a melodrama. Our notion is a moralistic story with a wicked, blasphemous villain, a virtuous young woman who must be preserved from a fate worse than death, dramatic scenes of unconsummated romance, a family lawyer’s reading of a will, and life-and-death suspense.
The Devil’s Disciple has all these cliched elements — but Shaw has made a comedy out of them. As Christians, we ought to feel cold shivers when we hear Dick Dudgeon’s blasphemies, but we don’t. We ought to fear for the purity of the minister’s wife when sparks begin to fly between her and the gallant Dick, but we don’t. We ought to shudder when they lead Dick to the gallows, but we don’t. The play’s light tone reassures us that things will come out all right in the end.
Not surprisingly for a play written by a Irishman about a war between England and its colonies, The Devil’s Disciple is devoid of anything like patriotic sentiment. Shaw reserves his satire mostly for the British and their pretensions of “duty” and “honor.” And he makes it clear that he thought American independence was inevitable, the British management of the war ludicrously incompetent, and the mutual slaughter senseless:
RICHARD. Let us cow them by showing that we can stand by one another to the death. That is the only force that can send Burgoyne back across the Atlantic and make America a nation.
JUDITH [the minister's wife] (impatiently) Oh, what does all that matter?
RICHARD (laughing). True: what does it matter? what does anything matter? You see, men have these strange notions, Mrs. Anderson; and women see the folly of them.
Hardly anything anyone says in this play can be taken at face value; Shaw means for us to judge the characters strictly by what they do. Mrs. Dudgeon claims vociferously to be a Christian, but Shaw (as he so often does to Christian believers in his plays) makes her a hypocrite; she bullies and abuses an orphan niece, feigns remorse at the news of her husband’s death, and tries to turn her own son from her door. Dick claims to be the devil’s disciple — but it is he who protects the orphan, saves the honor of a susceptible woman, and offers his life for his friend.
Evan Buliung is as rousing and dashing a Dick Dudgeon as anyone will ever see. But Jim Mezon as the heavy-jowled General Burgoyne — world-weary, clear-sighted, and practical — is wonderful; his scenes with Peter Millard (as Major Swindon) are superb. If Mezon is not the world’s finest actor of Shaw, he can’t have many rivals.
How could Shaw have expected his play to pass for a melodrama when he peopled it with such complex, multifaceted characters? In fact, we don’t think he did; in his script Shaw dropped a clue that he knew full well that his play wasn’t a melodrama at all:
BURGOYNE (suddenly becoming suavely sarcastic). May I ask are you writing a melodrama, Major Swindon?
SWINDON (flushing). No, sir.
Although Buliung is a mature and accomplished actor in his own right, we thought we detected the influence of the veteran Mezon in his performance. We’ve seen and heard Mezon many times on the Shaw Festival stages, and at several points Buliung seemed to be channeling Mezon’s distinctive inflections and delivery. He could do far worse.
Thoughts on other 2009 Shaw Festival productions:
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Garson Kanin’s classic American comedy Born Yesterday (see this post)
Left-wing ideology in Born Yesterday (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)
“Nothing personal” from The Devil’s Disciple through The Godfather to Ted Kennedy (see this post)