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Three Plays for Puritans by Bernard Shaw

Three Plays for Puritans (1901)

by Bernard Shaw

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Bernard Shaw

Three Plays for Puritans:
The Devil’s Disciple
Caesar and Cleopatra
Captain Brassbound’s Conversion

Penguin Classics, Paperback [2000].

8vo. xiii+354 pp. Preface by Shaw, 1900 [7-40]. Introduction by Michael Billington, 2000 [vii-xiii].

The Devil’s Disciple:
Written, 1896.
First produced, 1897.
First published in Three Plays for Puritans, 1901.
Revised, 1904.

Caesar and Cleopatra:
Written, 1898.
First published in Three Plays for Puritans, 1901.
First professional performance, 1906.
Revised Text and New Prologue (1912), 1930.

Captain Brassbound’s Conversion:
Written, 1899.
First produced, 1900.
First published in Three Plays for Puritans, 1901.

First published by Penguin, 1946.
Published in Penguin Classics, 2000.



Three Plays for Puritans


Why for Puritans?
On Diabolonian Ethics
Better than Shakespear?

The Devil’s Disciple: A Melodrama

Act I
Act II
Act III, Scenes 1-3

Notes to The Devil's Disciple:
General Burgoyne

Caesar and Cleopatra: A History

Prologue (1912)
An Alternative to the Prologue

Act I, Scenes 1-2
Act II
Act III, Scenes 1-2
Act IV, Scenes 1-2
Act V

Notes to Caesar and Cleopatra:
Cleopatra’s Cure for Baldness
Apparent Anachronisms
Julius Caesar

Captain Brassbound’s Conversion: An Adventure

Act I
Act II

Notes to Captain Brassbound’s Conversion:
Sources of the Play
English and American Dialects

[Bibliographical information and casts of the first performances]
Principal Works of Bernard Shaw


The movies brought me here. Two of these “plays for puritans” have been filmed memorably on the silver screen. But more of them, later. To begin in the beginning...

The Preface is the typical masterpiece of Shavian rhetoric designed to shock people into that most unnatural activity: thinking. (If you collect together all of Shaw’s Prefaces with a capital “P”, you will end up with a hefty volume of unparalleled ability to provoke argument.) Apart from specific comments on the plays, which I will quote and discuss at the right places, the Preface contains a great deal of general and not irrelevant reflections.

“Why for Puritans?” Well, because Shaw was dismayed by the insipid romances that ruled the English stage at the time, he considered them “an intolerable perversion of human conduct”, and he wished the Puritans would return and clean the theatre from its obsession with pleasant trifles untrue to life. “I have, I think, always been a Puritan in my attitude towards Art.” So Shaw asserts, rightly in my opinion, and continues to show in his plays that love, first, does not make the world turn, and second, it is rather more sexual in nature than generally recognised. He is sympathetic with the problems of managers and audience, but, all the same, he is not going to spare them.

Here, then, is a pretty problem for the manager. He is convinced that plays must depend for their dramatic force on appeals to the sex instinct: and yet he owes it to his own newly conquered social position that they shall be perfectly genteel plays, fit for churchgoers. The sex instinct must therefore proceed upon genteel assumptions. Impossible! you will exclaim. But you are wrong: nothing is more astonishing than the extent to which, in real life, the sex instinct does so proceed, even when the consequence is its lifelong starvation. Few of us have vitality enough to make our instincts imperious: we can be made to live on pretences, as the masterful minority well know.


Can any dilemma be more complete? Love is assumed to be the only theme that touches all you audience infallibly, young and old, rich and poor. And yet love is the only subject that the drawingroom drama dare not present.

Note, in the first passage, that Shaw imperceptibly merges specific stage criticism with a general indictment on Victorian prudery. This legerdemain, switching from specific to general and vice versa, is a Shavian specialty. It happens quite often, at various lengths, and it makes for some of the most thought-provoking passages in his prefaces (or stage directions, for that matter). Consider just this one example about human nature imitating art. “The worst of it is”, he writes at one place, “that since man’s intellectual consciousness of himself is derived from the descriptions of him in books, a persistent misrepresentation of humanity in literature gets finally accepted and acted upon.”

A good deal of the preface is dedicated to Shavian self-analysis. Well, this is a type of autobiography, modest yet arrogant, humble yet proud, by turns wise and ludicrous, such as I have never read. If it is to make any sense at all, one must always remember, first, that Shaw had a prodigious sense of humour, which like every true sense of humour did not exclude himself, and, second, his candid description of his working method in Chapter VI of Everybody’s Political What’s What (1944). I am fond of quoting the latter:

It is always necessary to overstate a case startlingly to make people sit up and listen to it, and frighten them into acting on it. I do this myself habitually and deliberately.

Shaw describes himself as “a rather arrogant” writer and “a natural-born mountebank” who “first caught the ear of the British public on a cart in Hyde Park”. He admits that “I have advertised myself so well that I find myself, whilst still in middle life, almost as legendary as the Flying Dutchman.” Yet he is annoyed with critics who hail him as original because they “have mistaken the novelty of my shamelessness for novelty in my plays and opinions.” He is even more annoyed with those who “find originality and brilliance in my most hackneyed claptraps.” He firmly refutes any claims of originality as to the structure and sentiments of his plays. Indeed, he invites his critics to read Bunyan and Blake “and I shall be fortunate if they do not rail at me for a plagiarist.” Blake was an “avowed Diabolonian”, much like his “Devil’s Disciple”. Most charmingly of all, there is a vigorous defence of what has become accepted as one of Shaw’s most notorious habits:

The reason most dramatists do not publish their plays with prefaces is that they cannot write them, the business of intellectually conscious philosopher and skilled critic being no part of the playwright’s craft. Naturally, making a virtue of their incapacity, they either repudiate prefaces as shameful, or else, with a modest air, request some popular critic to supply one, as much as to say, Were I to tell the truth about myself I must needs seen vainglorious: were I to tell less than the truth I should do myself an injustice and deceive my readers. As to the critic thus called in from the outside, what can he do but imply that his friend’s transcendent ability as a dramatist is surpassed only by his beautiful nature as a man? Now what I say is, why should I get another man to praise me when I can praise myself?


I am ashamed neither of my work nor of the way it is done. I like explaining its merits to the huge majority who don’t know good work from bad. It does them good; and it does me good, curing me of nervousness, laziness, and snobbishness. I write prefaces as Dryden did, as treatises as Wagner, because I can; and I would give half a dozen of Shakespear’s plays for one of the prefaces he ought to have written. I leave the delicacies of retirement to those who are gentlemen first and literary workmen afterwards. The cart and trumpet for me.

Sometimes I have a notion that Shaw never quite got over his legendary fame. He probably found it too incredible and too embarrassing to be taken seriously. Certainly, it was genuinely exasperating to him that the public loved his comic banter but refused to take seriously his deeper message.

The Devil’s Disciple is the only play that has any historical connection with Puritanism. This is made clear in the Preface, substantial part of which, nearly the whole of “On Diabolonian Ethics”, is dedicated to this play. Shaw is the first to tell us that A. B. Walkley, the dedicatee of Man and Superman (1903), described him as “nothing if not explanatory”. And explain he does! But his explanation is very much worth considering:

Dick Dudgeon, the devil’s disciple, is a Puritan of the Puritans. He is brought up in a household where the Puritan religion has died, and become, in its corruption, an excuse for his mother’s master passion of hatred in all its phases of cruelty and envy. [...] In such a home the young Puritan finds himself starved of religion, which is the most clamorous need of his nature. With all of his mother’s indomitable selffulness, but with Pity instead of Hatred as his master passion, he pities the devil; takes his side; and champions him, like a true Covenanter, against the world. He thus becomes, like all genuinely religious men, a reprobate and an outcast. Once this is understood, the play becomes straightforwardly simple.

It is not quite so simple. There is a lot of meat in this play, as in every Shavian play, but unlike some others the meat here is served with fascinating characters and excellent comic plot with elements of farce.

Dick Dudgeon and his “romance” with Judith Anderson is an excellent opportunity for Shaw to make both of his major points. He knows Dick’s actions in Act II are hard to believe because they lack an obvious motive, but he argues this happens so often in real life that surely, once in a while, it is justified even on the stage where “your penny-in-the-slot heroes, who only work when you drop a motive into them, are so oppressively automatic and uninteresting.” For my part, the part from the Preface just quoted provides more than enough by way of explanation. But this is subjective and open to different interpretations. The important point is that in Act III it is made clear love has nothing to do with Dick’s motivation:

If I said – to please you – that I did what I did ever so little for your sake, I lied as men always lie to women. You know how much I have lived with worthless men – aye, and worthless women too. Well, they could all rise to some sort of goodness and kindness when they were in love. [The word love comes from him with true Puritan scorn.] That has taught me to set very little store by the goodness that only comes out red hot. What I did last night, I did in cold blood, caring not half so much for your husband, or [ruthlessly] for you [she droops, stricken] as I do for myself. I had no motive and no interest: all I can tell you is that when it came to the point whether I would take my neck out of the noose and put another man's into it, I could not do it. I don't know why not: I see myself as a fool for my pains; but I could not and I cannot. I have been brought up standing by the law of my own nature; and I may not go against it, gallows or no gallows.

You couldn’t be any blunter than that, could you? But the critics knew better than the author. They claimed that Dudgeon was clearly, unmistakably, overwhelmingly in love with Judith. This is what Judith herself believes, and the critics “somehow always agree with my sentimental heroines”, Shaw ironically notes in the Preface. “From the moment that this fatally plausible explanation was launched,” he continues, “my play became my critic’s play, not mine.” The critics were right about the love, actually. They just got the direction wrong.

Judith is a penetrating study of sexual repression and sexual starvation. She knows perfectly well she’s in love with Dick, she knows it from the beginning, and she knows this is a passionate, lustful love. She would not admit it even to herself, perhaps because she could not even put into words something so horrible, but her actions, most notably right before Dick is taken away, reveal her condition to the reader/spectator far more effectively. Maybe she loves her husband; she is kind and devoted with him. But she is certainly not attracted to him sexually. Shaw’s stage directions, verbose though they are, provide some insights not to be missed: “Rather a pathetic creature to any sympathetic observer who knows how rough a place the world is. One feels, on the whole, that Anderson might have chosen worse, and that she, needing protection, could not have chosen better.”

So, there you have it. First, love is not always the answer to every question, the medicine for every illness, or the motive for every action. Second, love is really rather more sexual than most people would care to admit even to themselves.

Tony Anderson is a wonderful character, too. “No doubt an excellent parson”, as Shaw, always incisive, describes him, “but still a man capable of making the most of this world, and perhaps a little apologetically conscious of getting on better with it than a sound Presbyterian ought.” Apart from his shattering goodness, which is the major cause of Dick’s catharsis, Tony is a great example that it’s never too late to find your real vocation and discard the false one. This is something Shaw knew perfectly well himself: he began writing plays seriously only in his mid-thirties. We know from the very beginning that Tony is a strange fellow. For he has done the crime of crimes, especially for a parson. He married for love! As for his actions in the fateful Act II, they are just as (un)believable as Dick’s, but also highly dramatic and beautifully written.

So far the story is quite timeless. Yes, Dick’s Puritanical background is important, but pretty much the same unfortunate side effects on his character could be produced in many other times and places in which hollow religion is used merely to justify sadism. The other part of the background is the American War of Independence. The play is set in New Hampshire of 1777 when “passions roused of the breaking off of the American colonies from England, more by their own weight than their own will, boiled up to shooting point, the shooting being idealized to the English mind as suppression of rebellion and maintenance of British dominion, and to the American as defence of liberty, resistance to tyranny, and self-sacrifice on the altar of the Rights of Man.”

So, last but not least, there is Gentlemanly Johnny: “My more intimate friends call me General Burgoyne.” He appears only in the last act and is really a minor character, but he speaks in epigrams and, as you might expect, is used by Shaw for a full-scale attack on British complacency and stupidity. Burgoyne is not only a honey-tongued gentleman, but as smart, courageous, cynical, humane and likable as they come. In a thorough biographical essay after the play, Shaw argues convincingly that the General is “as faithful a portrait as it is in the nature of stage portraits to be”. Be that as it may, you can’t help quoting his lines. Poor Major Swindon!

Swindon: As to that, General, the British soldier will give a good account of himself.
Burgoyne: And therefore, I suppose, sir, the British officer need not know his business: the British soldier will get him out of all his blunders with the bayonet. In future, sir, I must ask you to be a little less generous with the blood of your men, and a little more generous with your own brains.

Swindon: I can’t believe it! What will History say?
Burgoyne: History, sir, will tell lies, as usual.

Burgoyne: May I ask are you writing a melodrama, Major Swindon?
Swindon: No, sir.
Burgoyne: What a pity! What a pity!

Take it quietly, Major Swindon: your friend the British soldier can stand up to anything except the British War Office.

I disagree with those people, apparently in the majority, who claim this play is not among Shaw’s best. Certainly, it is. Short (just 90 pages or so), tightly constructed and seriously funny, I don’t know about the stage, but it makes a wonderful reading. In the Preface, Shaw offers this (astute but a little too modest) evaluation:

The Devil’s Disciple has, in truth, a genuine novelty in it. Only, that novelty is not any invention of my own, but simply the novelty of the advanced thought of my day. As such, it 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.

The subtitle, “A Melodrama”, is, of course, mischievous. It could have been one, in lesser hands, but with Shaw it became a comedy of the best type, the one verging on tragedy.

The Devil’s Disciple (1959) is a perfect movie adaptation. Plenty of changes were needed to expand the play into a full-length screenplay, but virtually all of them were made in fine Shavian taste. For instance, the role of General Burgoyne is expanded, Mrs Dudgeon is almost eliminated, Major Swindon is noticeably dumber, and Tony’s revolutionary activities are given in some hilarious detail. But the colourful characters and the spirit of farcical irreverence are beautifully preserved. And what a cast! It’s hard to see how the performances of Burt Lancaster (Tony), Kirk Douglas (Dick) and especially Laurence Olivier (Gentlemanly Johnny) could be surpassed. I only wish Shaw were more often acted on the stage with the same combination of vivacity and restraint. The very pretty Janette Scott as Judith and the brilliant Harry Andrews as Swindon are absolute delights. The whole thing is expertly directed by the then youngish Guy Hamilton, later famous as a Bond director.

(There is a 1987 TV film with Patrick Stewart as Anderson, Ian Richardson as Burgoyne and Mike Gwilym as Dudgeon. I haven’t seen it, but judging by a few clips on YT it is much closer to the play and much duller than the 1959 version.)

Caesar and Cleopatra is not, of course, “A History”. It is, at best, an interpretation of history. In fact, it’s an honest attempt to outdo Shakespeare. “Ha”, you might sneer, “that is not too difficult. Shakespeare’s Caesar is a decrepit old loon: it was a stroke of brilliant irony to name the play after him.” True, of course. But Shaw was after a much bigger game. He wanted to rectify a glaring omission in the Shakespeare canon:

But Shakespeare, who knew human weakness so well, never knew human strength of the Caesarean type. His Caesar is an admitted failure: his Lear is a masterpiece. [...] Caesar was not in Shakespeare, nor in the epoch, now fast waning, which he inaugurated. It cost Shakespeare no pang to write Caesar down for the merely technical purpose of writing Brutus up. And what a Brutus! A perfect Girondin, mirrored in Shakespear’s art two hundred years before the real thing came to maturity and talked and stalked and had its head duly cut off by the coarser Antonys and Octaviuses of its time, who at least knew the difference between life and rhetoric.

“Better than Shakespear” is the classic Shavian mixture of profound wisdom and profound nonsense. The analysis of Brutus falls in the former category, as does virtually anything Shaw has to say on Bardolatry or the relation between real genius and mere technical skill. And he is hilarious into the bargain. But when he breezily assumes that Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy of “sexual infatuation”, he shows remarkable lack of critical acumen. He is still hilarious, but he is also hilariously wide of the mark. There is ample evidence in the text that the infatuation between Antony and Cleopatra is far more spiritual than sexual. But that is another story!

Shaw’s Caesar is human enough to be troubled by encroaching baldness and old age, but he is also inhumanly humane, clement and magnanimous. The last three qualities are rare enough to be accepted as genuine greatness. He laments the deaths of Pompey (“Was he not my son-in-law, my ancient friend...”) and Vercingetorix (“What a fool was I then!”), and rails against vengeance, murder and other terrible but rather useful human inventions. On the other hand, he is quite undisturbed by the burning of some “sheepskins scrawled with errors” in the fabled Alexandrian library. Of course, he is also witty, charming and quite indifferent to Cleopatra. The Queen, a much less interesting and quite childish creature, describes him best in Act IV, having matured quite a bit in six months of Caesarean education:

Pothinus: Does he not love you?
Cleopatra: Love me! Pothinus: Caesar loves no one. Who are those we love? Only those whom we do not hate: all people are strangers and enemies to us except those we love. But it is not so with Caesar. He has no hatred in him: he makes friends with everyone as he does with dogs and children. His kindness to me is a wonder: neither mother, father, nor nurse have ever taken so much care for me, or thrown open their thoughts to me so freely.
Pothinus: Well: is not this love?
Cleopatra: What! When he will do as much for the first girl he meets on his way back to Rome? Ask his slave, Britannus: he has been just as good to him. Nay, ask his very horse! His kindness is not for anything in me: it is in his own nature.

For all we know – and we know much about what Caesar did but very little about why he did it – the Shavian concept of Julius Caesar anticipating Jesus Christ may be quite accurate historically. Didn’t the real Caesar pardon his future assassins who fought against him in the Civil War? Either way, Shaw’s Caesar is a fine character that must be fun to watch or play on the stage. But not for a moment did I sense in him the man who shrewdly ruled Spain, courageously invaded Britain, which was the end of the world in those times, mercilessly conquered Gaul and brilliantly won the Civil War. There is little in him of the charismatic commander, the ruthless politician and the ladies’ man that Caesar must have been. He does have some great lines, though. Consider his anticipation of Jesus, so direct that it almost amounts to anachronism, his ambiguous attitude to the Roman civilisation, and his rhetorical dismissal of murder as a chain reaction:

If one man in all the world can be found, now or forever, to know that you did wrong, that man will have either to conquer the world as I have, or be crucified by it.

Shall we leave Rome behind us – Rome, that has achieved greatness only to learn how greatness destroys nations of men who are not great!

What! Rome produces no art! Is peace not an art? Is war not an art? Is government not an art? Is civilization not an art? All these we give you in exchange for a few ornaments. You will have the best of the bargain.

Do you hear? These knockers at your gate are also believers in vengeance and in stabbing. You have slain their leader: it is right that they shall slay you. If you doubt it, ask your four counsellors here. And then in the name of that
right shall I not slay them for murdering their Queen, and be slain in my turn by their countrymen as the invader of their fatherland? Can Rome do less then than slay these slayers too, to show the world how Rome avenges her sons and her honour? And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honour and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand.

The minor characters are one of the great delights of this play. Some of them are deft satirical projections of the aesthetic sensibility that flaunts “Art” at every opportunity (Apollodorus) or of the British passion for pedantry and propriety (Britannus). The latter, Shaw foolishly claims in his notes after the play, is a genuine portrait of the ancient Briton who hasn’t changed a bit for the last 20 centuries. This is possible, but not probable. The same, of course, is true of Apollodorus: he is just as much a product of the late nineteenth century. Among my personal favourites, I must also count Rufio, the blunt soldier who is apt, occasionally, to slip into quite unsoldierly eloquence; the slimy eunuch Pothinus, a master of Egyptian court intrigue; and the tongue-twister Ftatateeta, Cleopatra’s sinister nurse, confidante and private assassin.

On the whole, however, Caesar and Cleopatra is rather uneven. Except for the tremendous fourth act, the Shavian sparkle is unusually sporadic. It is very well-constructed and quite readable, but this is mostly because Shaw was unfit by nature to write anything either badly constructed or unreadable. (Truth to tell, the last act is very short and quite superfluous, so is the prologue, and the first three acts are mostly lacklustre.) I am a little surprised that it is, or was until the 1970s, one of Shaw’s most popular plays. Indeed, I am surprised it was lavishly filmed as late as 1945. It is my least favourite of the “three plays for puritans”. It seems that without a specific axe to grind, without concrete ideas to impart to his audience, Shaw found his inspiration a somewhat harsh mistress.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), reportedly the most expensive British film at the time, was made in close collaboration with Shaw who, though almost 90 at the time, had lost none of his vitality. To be sure, it keeps very close to the play, it is as pretty as a postcard, and it does boast an outstanding cast. Claude Rains (Caesar), Vivien Leigh (Cleopatra), Stewart Granger (Apollodorus), Flora Robson (Ftatateeta), Francis Sullivan (Pothinus), Cecil Parker (Britannus) and Basil Sydney (Rufio) do their considerable best to extract every ounce of fun from Shaw’s lines with minimum of exaggeration. Vivien does an especially good job with the transformed Cleopatra in the beginning of Act IV, including her great lines about happiness and her prediction of the mighty affair with Mark Antony (the latter is so accurate that it may be counted as another anachronism):

When I was foolish, I did what I liked, except when Ftatateeta beat me; and even then I cheated her and did it by stealth. Now that Caesar has made me wise, it is no use my liking or disliking; I do what must be done, and have no time to attend to myself. That is not happiness; but it is greatness. If Caesar were gone, I think I could govern the Egyptians; for what Caesar is to me, I am to the fools around me.

Can one love a god? Besides, I love another Roman: one whom I saw long before Caesar – no god, but a man – one who can love and hate – one whom I can hurt and who would hurt me.

Yet nobody from the cast is very memorable. It is not their fault. The play’s flawed. It contains no raw material for Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois or Karen Stone (Vivien Leigh), Captain Renault (Claude Rains), Colonel Peregrine (Cecil Parker) or Claudius (Basil Sydney).

Captain Brassbound’s Conversion is indeed “An Adventure”. Exotically set in Morocco, a setting Shaw admits to have stolen complete from a recent travel book by Cunninghame Graham, this is a delightful farce full of memorable characters. Shaw being Shaw, he insinuates some provocative reflections on justice and the judicial system, both in the notes after the play and in the play itself:

One of the evils of the pretence that our institutions represent abstract principles of justice instead of being mere social scaffolding is that persons of a certain temperament take the pretence seriously, and when the law is on the side of injustice, will not accept the situation, and are driven mad by their vain struggle against it. Dickens has drawn the type in his Man from Shropshire in Bleak House. Most public men and all lawyers have been appealed to by victims of this sense of injustice – the most unhelpable of afflictions in a society like ours.

Sir Howard: Justice! I think you mean vengeance, disguised as justice by your passions.
Brassbound: To many and many a poor wretch in the dock you have brought vengeance in that disguise – the vengeance of society, disguised as justice by its passions.

Captain Brassbound is a picturesque fellow of mixed English-Brazilian extraction, Black Paquito by nickname, and something of a brigand, a smuggler, a pirate and an excellent all-round scoundrel. He is involved in an epic multigenerational family drama with Sir Howard. You will see it coming from a mile away (in this case, from the first pages), but that, like the complete incredibility of both the plot and the characters, matters not. I never cease to be astonished by people who criticise drama – including plays in prose, not to mention those in verse – for its lack of realism. Of course this is true; it must be. But this is not the point. Characters and situations in drama, in the best drama, must be exciting and thought-provoking, not necessarily logical or realistic. Shaw can be accused neither of being a lightweight bore nor of stooping to sordid realism.

Sir Howard himself is an ambiguous character. He is as snobbish and conceited as only a Briton could be, and a judge to boot. Sometimes he is as deviously hypocritical as people all over the world are, alas. But he does try to look at the major problem from several different angles, and when he says, recalling his youth, that it is ignorance “to suppose that when I was a struggling barrister I could do everything I did when I was Attorney General” he is revealed as a sensitive human being whose stellar judicial career has come at a price of which he is aware and by which he is troubled. It is this sort of believable complexity that makes dramatic characters endure the test of time. It may or may not be – and much more often it is not – coupled with believable behaviour on the stage.

Among the other characters, there are rough sailors, grandiloquent sheikhs, a Scotch priest, and one Felix Drinkwater (aka Brandyfaced Jack), “an extreme but hardy specimen of the abortion produced by nature in a city slum”, who speaks in a dialect that may sound as musical as anything but it’s nearly unreadable when reproduced phonetically (e.g. “E’s-weoll, e’s maw Kepn, gavner”). None of these fellows is boring, though. Shaw’s obsession with accents, dialects and phonetic experiments can be annoying but deserves to be forgiven because it led to one of his finest plays. Felix Drinkwater is not a forgettable character.

But it’s Lady Cicely Waynflete who steals the show. She is Shaw’s first attempt in this volume at the creation of a strong female character. It is not an unsuccessful attempt. In the first act you may think Lady Cicely is simply silly, in the second it will begin to dawn on you that she is not so silly after all, and in the third you will be convinced she is a genius. She is consistently and exasperatingly charming. She is so devoid of self-consciousness that you can’t help being smitten with her. Shaw apparently fell in love with her while writing, for in the end he included one battle of sexes between her and Brassbound, as unexpected as it is natural in a farce, and a really terrific sting in the tail.

It is difficult to give an adequate idea of Lady Cicely’s liveliness and charm by quotations. She is full of wit and wisdom, but it sounds really inadequate out of context. Nevertheless, one must try.

It is left to Lady Cicely, for instance, to deliver the deadliest blows on judicial authority. She begins with an innocent point about semantics. To the present day in most countries, the oath (or affirmation) for sworn testimony in court requires the witness to tell the “whole truth”. But is this really possible? Lady Cicely’s immortal words are rightly quoted on the back cover of this edition; they should be inscribed above the entrance of every courtroom: “What nonsense! As if anybody ever knew the whole truth about anything!” A minor point, no doubt; but it makes you think about the elusive and ambiguous nature of human languages and the possibility of manipulating judge and jury with words alone (e.g. rhetorical speeches or deliberately misleading expressions). Lady Cicely’s coup de grâce is her succinct explanation how, and why, the System may corrupt its servants, even when they are essentially good people:

Bless me! your uncle Howard is one of the most harmless of men – much nicer than most professional people. Of course he does dreadful things as a judge; but then if you take a man and pay him 5,000 pounds a year to be wicked, and praise him for it, and have policemen and courts and laws and juries to drive him into it so that he can’t help doing it, what can you expect? Sir Howard’s all right when he’s left to himself.

To be sure, it is dangerous to trust people’s faces as much as Lady Cicely does or to treat them with her relentless goodwill. But you could do worse. After all, “when it comes to the point, really bad men are just as rare as really good ones.” ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Dec 6, 2017 |
I enjoyed these plays. Although none of them struck me quite as deeply as Candida did. I'd like to go back and read Caesar and Cleopatra again after now having read Plutarch's Lives. I remember some of the duplicated scenes and would like to see how Shaw elaborated on what Plutarch wrote. Shaw's research must have included Plutarchs work. ( )
1 vote pickwick817 | Jan 15, 2007 |
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'I am as fond of fine music and handsome buildings as Milton was, or Cromwell, or Bunyan; but if I found that they were becoming the instruments of a systematic idolatry of sensuousness, I would hold it good statesmanship to blow up every cathedral in the world to pieces with dynamite'

Disgusted and bored by the trend for titillation and sham on the London stage, Shaw wrote these plays both to educate and entertain his audiences. In The Devil's Disciple, a clergyman turned soldier and the Shavian ideal of a Puritan hero—'like all genuinely religious men, a reprobate and an outcast'—willingly risks his life for a stranger. Caesar and Cleopatra, a brilliant satire on contemporary Britain, contains an utterly unexpected portrait of Julius Caesar ('part brute, part woman'). In Captain Brassbound's Conversion it is Lady Cicely's cunning manipulation of the truth that ensures that fairness, rather than justice, prevails.

Three Plays for Puritans reveals Shaw's constant delight in turning received wisdom upside down and celebrating the triumph of the individual conscience over accepted morality.

The definitive text under the editorial supervision of Dan H. Laurence

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:59 -0400)

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