"Gentleman Johnny" Gets the Best Lines
30 April 2004
There is little point denying that the greatest dramatist in England in the 20th Century was George Bernard Shaw. He was a great wit, and he had a view of society that he felt needed expressing in one play after another. But there was something irritating about him that has prevented him from overtaking Shakespeare in drama writing: His desire to give his views on this societal problem or that one led to polemics taking over his writings, so that the plays, even when good, can be uneven. He also displayed a monstrous ego at times that did not deserve to be admired or applauded by the public for most of his ninety three or four years.

In 1897 he had only a handful of plays that had been produced to show his talents: WIDOWERS HOUSE and MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION were the best of these, and the second had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain's office for treating the subject of prostitution as a business. He decided to do a play with one of London's leading actor managers of the time: Mr. William Terris. But while negotiating with Terris to appear in this play. a madman stabbed Terris to death. Looking around for another actor, Shaw contacted Mr. Richard Mansfield, thus beginning a brief business relationship with that stage star. Mansfield produced THE DEVIL'S DESCIPLE in America, where it was a big success (Mansfield also played Dick Dudgeon).

Shaw was looking at good and evil in the play, with Dudgeon being an anti-religious type who was cynical. But Dudgeon demonstrates a sense of right and wrong and compassion that is missing from the other characters in the play, making the title very ironic - Dick may boast of worshiping the Devil, but he never hurts anyone. In the play, because of his fast life style, the local Puritanical townspeople (especially his mother) disapprove of him, and all but ostracize him. Then his father's will is read, and they realize he is rich (and the other heirs, especially his mother are poor). Since they are hypocrites, the lucky break for Dick makes them even more vicious toward him (his mother cursing him before she dies). So far so good for Shaw.

As I said, the play begins well, and continues fine - introducing high comedy when General Burgoyne appears. Burgoyne was a dramatist too, so Shaw liked him. And here the play (and movie's) problems begin to be felt. Shaw was writing the play in a period that the Whig historians, like George Otto Trevelyan, wrote the history of the American Revolution. Trevelyan's books became best sellers, and were well researched. But he wrote of the Revolution as the backdrop of English Revolutionary spirit as well. To Trevelyan, the English lost the war due to the ineptitude of the Tory regime of Lord North. One example of this was the story of how General Burgoyne's brilliant plan to split the northern colonies in half and conquer both halves one at a time was ruined when the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord George Germain, failed to send vital plans to General Sir William Howe to link his men with Burgoyne. Instead, Sir William headed for Philadelphia, which he occupied, and heard nothing about Burgoyne until the latter surrendered in October 1777.

The play builds up to a comic misunderstanding between the British and Dudgeon, whom they arrest thinking he is the Reverend - Dick was alone with the wife of the Reverend at the time, and assumes the latter's personality because he does not want a scandal to break out. Soon the Reverend (who supports the Revolution) faces a court martial, with the whimsical Gentleman Johnny asking questions. Although the result is a foregone conclusion, (the British have already hanged Dick's father as the movie begins), Burgoyne is annoyed to discover after the verdict is about to be given that Dick is not the Reverend.

This is all in the film, and it still works, especially with Olivier's perfect performance as the British general, who is facing defeat but won't lose his cool about it. But Shaw's source, George Otto Treveylan, is no longer supported by students of history - he is regarded as a Whig who ignored the many errors of his own party, to concentrate on the failures of Lord North and his Tories. One mistake is the story of Lord George Germain's failure to send Sir William Howe his plans, because Lord George felt he had to go on his personal vacation to the country, and would not wait to send out those vital plans. It is not true, after all. Lord George did send Sir William the plans, but Howe ignored them, going out to capture Philadelphia instead.

"History will lie as usual" says Burgoyne to Major Swindon. Ironically, Shaw pushed the lie as truth himself. Now everyone who sees the play or film believes that Lord George Germain's vacation plans lost the Revolution. Not really. The forests of upper New York State, the lack of good roads, the immense supply train played vital, the vigor of Benedict Arnold as an American general led to Burgoyne's surrender. But that was not as amusing as Lord George Germain's "failure" to send the vital plans. One recalls the end of John Ford's LIBERTY VALANCE: When given a chance to print the truth of the legend, print the legend!
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