Tuesday 12 June 2012

Richard Dudgeon

Richard Dudgeon is the protagonist of The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw. It was apparently Shaw’s eighth play, but his first commercial success (the original production starred Richard Mansfield, who was briefly suspected to have been Jack the Ripper. See his blog post here.).

The play takes place in a small New Hampshire town during the American Revolution. The people in the town are Puritans (or Congregationalists or whatever they were calling themselves then), and Richard rejects their conservative, judgmental religion, which leads to him branding himself “The Devils’ Disciple.” [I am not exactly sure if Richard technically worships the devil or if he just claims allegiance to him because he rejects the hypocrisy of organized religion. I am leaning towards the latter].

Anyway, the play begins with the reading of Mr. Dudgeon’s will (he has died off-screen, if you will). Richard shows up to hear the will read, much to the chagrin of his extremely shrill, terrible, judgmental mother (okay, she’s a bitch). As the lawyer reads, it is revealed that Mr. Dudgeon revised his will to ensure that Richard, rather than his wife, inherited. [This was in line with old-time inheritance practices. In medieval England, widows only received one-third of the estate, while heirs received two-thirds]. Mrs. Dudgeon flies into a rage and vows never to live in the house with her good-for-nothing son; Richard promptly concurs and tells her she isn’t welcome. Richard, however, does invite his cousin Essie to stay with him. Essie is the young illegitimate daughter of his deceased uncle, who Mrs. Dudgeon never liked, courtesy of her having been conceived in sin. This is the first sign that Richard is a good person.

In the second act, Richard goes into town to visit the pastor and his wife, Judith. The pastor is away at Mrs. Dudgeon’s deathbed (her ire at her husband rapidly did her in), so Richard waits at Judith’s insistence. When the pastor is delayed, the two sit down to tea. Shortly thereafter, British troops burst into the house and proceed to arrest Richard, thinking he is the pastor. They intend to hang him the next day as a traitor to the crown. Richard orders Judith not to tell her husband and is led away, intending to die in the pastor’s place the next day. Of course, when Pastor Anthony returns home, Judith breaks down and tells him the whole story. The pastor immediately takes off, and Judith is left thinking he is a consummate coward.

In act three, Judith visits Richard, both out of gratitude and to ask if he offered himself because he loved her. Richard disabuses her of that notion, asserting that he did so simply because he felt it would be wrong to save his own skin by sentencing another to death [I think it is also implied that Richard feels Pastor Anthony is more worthy of life than him, al lá Sydney in A Tale of Two Cities]. Although Richard’s true identity is revealed at his trial, he is sentenced to die anyway because someone needs to be hanged as an example. As Richard is about to be hanged, General Burgoyne orders a pause so that he can meet with an American officer, flush from a recent victory. The officer turns out to be Pastor Anthony, who bargains for Richard’s release. Afterwards, the pastor reveals that he is better suited to be a soldier, while Richard seems better suited to be a minister. He suggests Richard replace him, although the play ends before we know for sure if Richard is going to become the town preacher.

Richard is thus a Christ-like figure, although he manages to escape with his life, unlike Jesus and Richard’s literary buddy, Sydney from A Tale of Two Cities. Although Richard is initially shown to be an outcast, mostly because his mother hates him, he is on top of the world at the end of the play. With his mother dead, everyone is free to judge him on his own merits – and people like him.

I heartily recommend that everyone read this play – it’s really fun. Plus, it has a great liberal message. You do not have to be a “Christian” to be a good person. Personally, that’s a message that we all need to hear.

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