BBC Radio 7, 15 February 2009
Set during the American War of Independence, The Devil's Disciple
takes pot-shots at organized religion and colonialism, suggesting that there is very little distinction between the two. In
Brian Miller's 1980s revival, it seemed at first as if Dick Dudgeon (James Laurenson) occupied the play's moral centre, as
he accepted his punishment at the hands of General Burgoyne (Tony Church), even though he had actually committed no crimes.
The reason for this was obvious; he conceived himself as the devil's disciple, rejecting organized religion and remaining
stubbornly committed to self-determination. Dudgeon certainly had a point; the Puritan community he inhabited was so obsessed
with procedure that it seemed to have forgotten the basic purpose of religion. It was for this reason that Anderson (Tenniel
Evans) fell foul of the British colonizers, and would have received his just deserts if Dudgeon hadn't swapped identities
However Dudgeon's Sidney Carton-esque desire for death (recalling Dickens's A
Tale of Two Cities) was frustrated by circumstance: the British authority over the American people gradually eroded,
as local forces kept defeating them in a series of skirmishes. As a leader of one of these local armies, Anderson stopped
Dudgeon's execution in the name of an American citizen, and boldly proclaimed the truth; that he, not Dudgeon, had been responsible
for preaching anti-British propaganda from the pulpit. This ending frustrated our expectation Dudgeon would meet a noble end:
Anderson sounded positively triumphant as he revenged himself on his former British masters, while proclaiming at the
same time that in this War of Independence there could be no place for old-fashioned heroes.
The production ended on a final note of absurdity, as Anderson revealed that he had
left the clergy and joined the militia, while Dudgeon admitted that he had espoused the Puritan cause and thereby renounced
the cult of individualism. As with many of his plays, Shaw pokes fun at institutions such as the church or the army,
suggesting that their members have no particular ideological beliefs, other than that of personal survival. Once Dudgeon
and Anderson have admitted this, both to themselves and their close friends, they can pursue their lives as independent individuals.
Miller's produciton had its longueurs, particularly during some of Shaw's long speeches
(where he seems more concerned to preach rather than entertain). Nonetheless, I believe that, despite his satiric concerns,
he remains fundamentally benevolent - as witnessed, for instance, in the way he sets the scene for each act, not
only describing the setting, but also summarizing the story so far, for the benefit of anyone who might seem confused. Like
any good storyteller, he wants to show us why his play is worth listening to. The fact that his stage-directions were delivered
in Miller's revival by that fruity-voiced Irish actor Denys Hawthorne only served to reinforce this impression.