The ever-foxy George Bernard Shaw had some unexpected opinions about his 1897 play
The Devil’s Disciple, now getting a worthwhile revival by Tony Walton at the Irish Repertory Theater. For example, he wrote that “it does not contain a single even passably novel incident.” About its plot, he gleefully confessed: “Every old patron of the Adelphi pit would…recognize the reading of the will, the oppressed orphan finding a protector, the arrest, the heroic sacrifice, the court martial, the scaffold.”
Indeed, Shaw even speculated that whatever it was that pleased the favorable reviewers of the day “will assuredly lose its gloss with the lapse of time and leave The Devil’s Disciple exposed as the threadbare popular melodrama it technically is.” Shaw was a wise bird, but about this gloomy glimpse of the future, he was mistaken. Today’s audiences remain the suckers audiences always are for melodramas in which a dashing hero puts his life at risk in order to save his fellow citizens, his country and the day. Nowadays, headlines-assailed ticket buyers may even be ravenous for such good tidings.
Shaw’s Revolutionary War-era hero is the cutely-named Dick Dudgeon (Lorenzo Pisoni), who’s evidencing high dudgeon only because he despises the religious hypocrisy of those around him in rebellious New Hampshire. But the effervescent lad might as well be called Dick Derring-Do for his courageous behavior, when he finds himself in a position to pass himself off as the minister Anthony Anderson (Curzon Dobell), whom the British are determined to hang as a warning to other colonial rebels.
The instance of mistaken identity comes about because for a brief period Dudgeon has been left alone with the minister’s wife, Judith (Jenny Fellner), just as the redcoats arrive on their fateful mission. Until Dick willingly goes off as her husband’s surrogate, Judith has disliked everything about his irregular Puritan behavior. She’s seen how off-handedly he behaves to his conventionally pious, unforgivingly harsh mother (Darcy Pulliam), including turning the old lady out of her house when he inherits it at his father’s death.
Because he so freely expresses his unorthodox moral code, Judith has believed him to be the devil’s disciple he proudly claims to be. But she changes her tune when she also witnesses his selfless willingness to go to the gallows as her vanished husband’s stand-in. At the kangaroo-court-like court martial, she’s especially impressed how he holds his own against suave, disillusioned General Burgoyne (John Windsor-Cunningham in the show’s most fully realized and subtly modulated performance).
Since the cynical Shaw himself insists there’s nothing new in his peek at 18th-century America, it’s no spoiler offense to report that things come out righter than it appears they will when Dick mounts those fatal steps. But it’s also important to second Shaw when he insists in his notes that the Dudgeon fellow makes his gesture from a sense of duty to humanity and not because he’s fallen for Mrs. Anderson. As also evidenced in the just-revived Pygmalion, the avoidance of conventional romance is perhaps based on Shaw’s need — operating in his work as he hoped it did in his life — to declare his independence of women. He presents this view well in the lively play and not entirely without a teaspoonful of the sentimentality he would like audiences to believe he roundly disparaged.
While Walton’s production has reached a certain level of earnestness and easy panache, there’s still the sense that an additional amount of Shavian swagger is yet to be attained. Pisoni appears to be only minutes away from a terrific Dick Dudgeon; he simply needs to gives himself license fully to let go with the effusive charm. Others with a strong handle on Shaw’s requirements include Pulliam as that mean mom, Craig Pattison as Dick’s oafish younger brother, and Cristin Milioti as Essie, Dick’s woebegone cousin.
One thing to be said about seeing a version of The Devil’s Disciple now is that it’s surely welcome for Shaw’s seasonally appropriate message: Do for others as you would have them do unto you.