As a socialist, George Bernard Shaw tended to take a dim view of Americans, but as an Irishman, he had an even dimmer view of the British. He takes plenty of potshots at both in The Devil’s Disciple, his eighth play but his first to become a financial success, debuting in America to strong ticket sales.
The comedy takes place in Revolutionary War America, where Dick Dudgeon, a useless, hard-drinking rogue, scandalizes his family by inheriting a fortune from his father and uncle, the latter hanged by the British as a traitor. When the Redcoats come for a Presbyterian minister Dick knows to be fighting with the revolutionaries, he claims to be the minister and marches off to be hanged as well.
The play satirizes the conventions of Victorian melodrama, with mistaken identity, heart-tugging speeches, last good-byes, and breathless dashes of rescue. Yet Shaw also systematically sends up the colonists’ religious Puritanism and the colonizers’ incompetence and obsession with decorum. When Dick demands execution by firing squad instead of hanging, General Burgoyne points out that his soldiers are incredibly bad shots. (“Half of them will miss you. The rest will make a mess of the business … whereas we can hang you in a perfectly workmanlike and agreeable way.”) Shaw’s pointed wit is always welcome, and Pantagleize Theatre brings his play to the stage this weekend.