Reviews NYC Regional Published 25 July 2014

The Devil's Disciple

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey ⋄ 2nd - 27th July 2014

Shavian satire in New Jersey.

Patrick Maley

While The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey deserves full marks for taking a risk and staging this Shaw rarity, rather than any number of Shavian sure bets, this production achieves a level of delight far beyond its novelty. Under the direction of Paul Mullins, The Devil’s Disciple, Shaw’s rarely produced 1885 play set during the American Revolution, nimbly positions itself in the spaces between social critique, farcical send-up, and satire.

Set in 1777 Westerbridge, New Hampshire, the play explores its larger themes through the small lens of a family drama. A man has been hung by British forces as a rebel. His brother, captured in an ill-fated rescue attempt, has been hung as well. The wife and children of the latter must now cope with the wreckage of their patriarch’s hasty death. But of course Shaw will have no truck with sappy tears and melodrama. The man’s widow, Anne Dudgeon (Cynthia Mace) is a dreadful Puritanical tyrant, and a hypocrite to boot: she scolds her children for allowing their exhaustion to lead to sleep on the night of their father’s death, and then feigns tears when called on by neighbors. Anne dominates the stage during the opening of the play, and Mace eagerly makes the most of all of Shaw’s satire, giving us a character at whom we can scoff with delight.

Tension arises over the matter of the dead man’s will, and more so over the return of the prodigal first-born son for its reading, a terrifying circumstance his family and the townspeople. Dick Dudgeon (James Knight) is a smuggler, scallywag, and unabashed realist who refuses to go in for the Puritan life of Westerbridge. The play’s title comes from Dick’s professed Devil worship, and when his father’s will makes him a property owner in town, his family and neighbors grow even more terrified of his unsettling influence.

But Dick’s Devil worship is not some sort of satanic cult, bowing to the prince of darkness in quest to thwart all that is good. It is much more of a Nietzschian refusal of faith and its impositions of self-denying morality. Shaw was deeply influenced by Nietzsche, and the philosopher’s sense of the Bacchic infuses every aspect of characters like Andrew Undershaft and Mrs. Warren. Dick Dudgeon is another great Shavian Bacchus. He is resolute in his refusal to participate in the ideals held so highly by those around him, smugly confident in his own ethical compass, and decidedly unimpressed by those like the Reverend Anthony Anderson (Paul Niebanck) who define themselves by commitments to some spuriously higher calling. Dick’s calling is the life in front of him, and he is happy to live it as he sees fit.

Of course war has a funny way of forcing difficult choices to even those most sure of their convictions. When the British forces reach Westerbridge determined to make an example of a townsman the way they did of Dick’s father and uncle, both Dick and Reverend Anderson find themselves making choices that surprise the folks around them who seemed so certain in their understanding of these men. It seems that their true nature becomes clear only at the moment of crisis, and the play’s second act explores the ramifications of these two seemingly uncharacteristic decisions.

As the play progresses, Shaw allows his satire to sharpen, especially as he turns his gaze away from the Puritanical Americans and onto the British soldiers. In the play’s cross section of military prestige—from the cockney Sergeant (Sheffield Chastain), to the principled Major Swindon (Matt Sullivan), to the elder statesman, General Burgoyne (Edmond Genest)—Shaw finds the space to take shots at any number of different ideals. Burgoyne turns out to have been in the military game long enough to recognize its pretensions, and his own strand of Nietzschian anti-idealism emerges in the dialogue he shares with Dick.

The scenes between Genest’s Burgoyne and Knight’s Dudgeon turn out to be the evening’s highlight, as Shaw has great fun underscoring the common ground between men from very different stations in life.  All told, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production makes a very strong case for The Devil’s Disciple’s place in the theatrical repertoire along with other more recognizable Shavian staples.


Patrick Maley

Patrick Maley, PhD is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law and author of After August: Blues, August Wilson, and American Drama (University of Virginia Press, 2019). His work also appears in Modern Drama, Theatre Journal, Comparative Drama, Field Day Review, Eugene O'Neill Review, Irish Studies Review, and New Hibernia Review. He also reviews theater regularly for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com.

The Devil's Disciple Show Info


Directed by Paul Mullins

Cast includes Connor Carew, Sheffield Chastain, Michael Daly, Elizabeth A. Davis, Edmond Genest, James Knight, John Little, Cynthia Mace, Paul Niebanck, Nancy Rich, Matt Sullivan, Rosemary Wall, Katie Willmorth

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