The Devil’s Disciple: Are You Writing a Melodrama, Sir?

I have read a lot of George Bernard Shaw plays in University and I have studied the Shavian language and read essays on Shaw’s messages, themes, and his use of irony, wit and humor to comment on his contemporary British society. Yet, despite the fact that Shaw, in all his stage directions glory, wrote his plays so that they could be read and examined in depth, I think that for these plays to find the immediacy and relevance needed to prevent them from a seeming like an archaic slog through Victorian England, they must be vividly given life on the stage.
I went into the production of The Devil’s Disciple, playing until October 11th at the Festival Theatre at the Shaw Festival, a little unsure of what to expect. Would it be long and dull; the perfect museum piece to cater to a conventional Shaw Festival matinee audience for whom George Bernard Shaw’s work will always resonate because he was a literary giant in their own lifetime? I eased my way into the show slowly as my brain became saturated with names and familial connections and I grasped a bit for context and a sense of where this narrative was going. Then, in burst Evan Buliung as Dick Dudgeon and I found myself immediately engrossed in the story that Shaw was telling.
George Bernard Shaw, like other writers of his time, was a master at knowing how to scrutinize the hypocrisy, absurdity and injustice that plagued the moral, political and economic climate of his time without getting his work censored or banned. For this reason, it is difficult to discern to what extent Shaw is being ironic, and opens his work up to numerous interpretations. The Devil’s Disciple, for example, can be read as a mockery of the popular Victorian theatre genre, the melodrama, and therefore the villain turning out to be the hero and those usually perceived as being virtuous becoming the villains, can be seen as simply the subversion of melodramatic conventions, rather than overt criticisms of British society. This can be frustrating, as academics can never be quite sure how liberal Shaw’s opinions were, especially regarding the status of women in reference to his play Pygmalion.
Regardless of what Shaw’s intentions were in writing this play, or what the first audience’s predominate interpretations were, The Devil’s Disciple seems to me to be a delightful irreverence of all that was considered virtuous and sacred during the Revolutionary Era in the United States. Here, Dick Dudgeon is the black sheep of his pious and god-fearing family. His mother, Mrs. Timothy Dugeon, is the ultimate of severity and devout self-righteousness and Shaw paints her as a woman who works so vigorously and shuns anything with a morsel of pleasure in it, that it is no wonder that she holds such a grudge against anyone who has found even the smallest enjoyment in life. Dick, however, with his respect for children (even the illegitimate ones), considers himself the disciple of the devil, and as he conducts himself in the exact opposite manner as his mother, it becomes clear that of all the characters in the play, his humanist compassion and zest for life is one to be admired.
Evan Buliung gives a remarkably vibrant performance as Dick Dudgeon at the Shaw Festival, infusing the play with so much energy and spirit, it is nearly impossible to not get carried along for the wicked ride. I found Peter Krantz’s Reverend Anthony Anderson to be utterly deplorable which gives testimony to his credible performance. Jonathan Widdifield provided some wonderful comic moments with Christy, Dick’s incompetent younger brother, while Peter Millard and Jim Mezon were hysterical as two Vaudevillian clowns in their performances as the British Officers Swindon and Burgoyne respectively. The play was directed by Tadeusz Bradecki and I found that it had a very filmic quality to it, as though it were a historical American epic where anything was possible and the stakes and passion rocketed to the skies as the play progressed. It is relatively simple to hang a man in a film with all the editing technology of contemporary science. However, it is quite a different matter to hang a man onstage in front of a live audience; and usually, I think, it would be assumed that it could not be done. Bradecki, however, had so lured me to the edge of my seat throughout the play that I was certain that within this magic realm of theatre, anything was possible.
From a playwright whose wit includes such lines as “History, sir, will tell lies as usual” and “Is it nothing to you to do wicked things so long as you do it like a gentleman?” comes a play that I think still holds onto its relevance in a world where the devout still condemn certain lifestyles to Hell and where the answer to “who won the Vietnam war,” or better yet, “who are the terrorists of the 21st Century?” depends on which news station you have been watching. Yet, The Devil’s Disciple is still a melodramatic romp with its heroes and its villains, its jesters and ingénues that will tie up its loose ends before curtain call as to not send you out disparaging into the streets. Despite the fact that Shaw flips the melodrama genre on its head and alludes to the American Revolutionaries as being “communists,” The Devil’s Disciple still upholds the hope and the idea of a happy ending. And sometimes, even now, there is solace and security in that.
The Devil’s Disciple plays until October 11th at the Festival Theatre at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, for more information on tickets and schedules, please visit this fine website.

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