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By George Bernard Shaw
Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955
89 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2012

These comments are not written as a review of something that one has not yet seen or read. The comments below will assume that one has read the play and basically knows the text. If you have come across these notes and are not in that situation I would encourage you not to read further notes until you have first read the play itself.

Set in 1777, the first act takes place a small northern New England village. The scene is a small home run by Mrs. Dudgeon, a crabby elderly woman. She learns that her husband has just died while he was away attending his own brotherís hanging by the British army.

This is not a happy home or time. The British have a garrison on the townís edge and all citizens are on edge. Word has spread in the village of her husbandís unexpected death and the local minister comes to console her, but the magistrate also comes with hard news that before her husband died he wrote a new will, and that it is clearly legal. They will read the will to see what it holds.

Not only is the woman disposed of her home, but it is given to their son, Richard, whose self-chosen name for himself is the devilís disciple. He claims to have seen what God can do and decided to throw his lot in with the devil.

Richard also arrives and tells them that he will accept his mother in the home, but it will be run as he chooses and pleases and warns all that he will resist the British and protest the hanging of his uncle. He knows this is a dangerous act, but he also shames the people by pointing out that secretly all of them have compromised themselves with anti-British actions, but that they donít have the courage to now announce them and act of them publically.

The sole person who accepts Richard is his illegitimate young niece, Essie, whom he has just met for the first time.

In the second act we shift to the home of the local minister, Anderson. He consoles his wife over her self-professed hatred of Richard:

ďCome, dear, youíre no so wicked as you think. The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; thatís the essence of humanity.Ē

Richard them comes to the reverendís house, having been summoned by the reverend because he wants to warn Richard of the Britishís plans which may harm Richard. However, Richard rants on, scaring the reverendís wife even more and then the reverend is called away to attend to Richardís dying mother. Richard remains at the home to await the reverendís return, much to the disgust of the ministerís wife.

The woman rages at Richard and tells him how much sheíd rather have her husband than a man like him. Richard replies:

ď. . . You are right; but I daresay your love helps him to be a good man, just as your hate helps me to be a bad one.Ē

I enjoy the way Shaw so often has characters who are apparently ďbadĒ people, yet they think and say thoughtful and caring things. While there are often characters like the reverendís wife, who appear to be loving and decent, yet do and say things that just arenít decent or loving.

I note especially the same dichotomy as that between Richard and the reverendís wife, and that between Major Barbara and her father in the play Major Barbara.

The end of act two is a crazy scene of lightening fast activity. Soldiers burst in, wishing to arrest the minister, but mistake Richard for him. Rather than save himself he pretends to be the minister so that they will arrest him and not the reverend. The ministerís wife is astonished by Richardís courage and heroic act and doesnít know what to make of him. Soon they take Richard away still thinking he is the minister.

When Anderson does come home and discovers what has happened he undergoes an immediate change, takes money, his hidden gun, gets a horse and races off with hardly a word to his wife. She believes he is running away and is a coward, but I think few readers would come to that conclusion.

The final act is at the British prison where Richard, still believed to be Anderson, is about to undergo a quick show trial and be hung. However, the famous General Burgoyne has arrived and is overseeing this show trial. Nonetheless, he wants it all to be by the book. He is not himself running the trial, but is in control.

Richard is determined to go to his death as though he were the reverend in order to save that decent man. There is one of the funniest scenes Iíve ever read in a play when they announce to Richard that he will be hung shortly. Richard protests to the general that it would be much more decent for them to shoot him. Burgoyne goes on about what a terrible mistake that would be for Richard (Anderson), since the level of marksmanship of the troops is so bad that he would like suffer much much more from death by a firing squad than by hanging and Richard THANKS him for this sage advice. I was just roaring with laughter.

The ending is marvelously melodramatic and about what I had expected from early on, Shaw was not making it difficult for the reader to know what was coming.

Itís a wonderful play, and quite thoughtful. I enjoy the sassiness of Shaw and his penchant for making good guys out of characters who would normally be the bad guys and visa-versa. There seems to be much of Richard in the person of George Bernard Shaw himself.

A quick and delightful read.

Bob Corbett


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