- How to Lose an Empire:Shaw's "Secretary for America" and General Burgoyne
Some of Shaw's most provocative stage characters disappeared, in cinema terms, on the cutting-room floor. Immenso Champernoon, his spoof of G. K. Chesterton, failed to make it into Back to Methuselah (1920) and survives only in a volume of Shaw's odds and ends, Short Stories, Scraps and Shavings (1934). Edward VIII, who relinquished all for love, turns up only in a skit that never made it beyond a newspaper piece. A dramatic dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate survives in a preface to On the Rocks (1933). George III, the last Founding Father, and his secretary for America, the imperious Lord George Germain, were written into The Devil's Disciple (1896) for an early 1930s film version—a scene never filmed and never staged. There are more, but such discards suggest the losses.
In May 1899, Shaw was questioned by the Daily Mail about any concerns he might have regarding a London production of The Devil's Disciple, set in New Hampshire and excoriating the British for their incompetence in losing America. His first success across the Atlantic two years earlier, it contrasts a patriot militia captain whose public face is that of a New England Presbyterian minister and an apparent reprobate and dissident who is an embarrassment to his upright Puritan family. Stealing the stage is a third-act walk-on, "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, a real-life sophisticated general who is wittily scathing about lackluster leadership in London and endemic mediocrity in the army that would cost his country its American Empire and Burgoyne his reputation.
That Britain lost the war, and the colonies, seemed an obvious box-office drawback in the West End. "Oh," Shaw scoffed, "that difficulty can easily be got over. I am preparing a new version of the last act in which the [End Page 34] British army achieves a crushing and final defeat of the American rebels. Washington will be shown on his knees on the field of battle, saluting the Union Jack and surrendering his broken sword to the victorious [General] Cornwallis. At the last moment General Burgoyne will arrive as King's Messenger, sent by George III to confer independence on the United States of America as an act of grace. . . . I think you will find that all will go right."1
The tongue-in-cheek ending was, of course, never written, but in 1933, when a film version was first considered, Shaw devised a new satiric opening. 2 A brief wordless scene opens in Philadelphia with Thomas Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence. The camera closes up on his signature. After a dissolve, a flagpole is revealed. The British Royal Standard is being pulled down and replaced by an American flag with thirteen stripes and a circlet of thirteen stars.
After another dissolve, we are in St. James's Palace in London about a year later, in 1777. George III is fussing at his prime minister, Lord North, unwilling to accept the fact of American separation. For the stage, Shaw oversimplifies the king's hands-on stubbornness. "Stuff and non-sense!" His Majesty shouts. "States! What do you mean by States? Colonies are not States: they are part of my State. Crumbs of it. Crumbs. What do you mean by New England? Where is it? Is it an island? Is it Robinson Crusoe's island? I never heard of it."
In reality, whatever the king's short fuse and the bullying of his ministers, he knew the maps his generals used very well, refused to let the colonies go, and liked to micromanage strategy. If it took increased land taxes to raise more British troops or rent foreign mercenaries, which seemed more practical given recruitment frustrations at home, King George wanted his unruly colonies retrieved. But the brief scene's purpose is to introduce the name of the ex-general coordinating the putting down of the rebellion, Lord George Germain. Those theatergoers well versed in their kingdom's history of the previous century would recall Germain—a Sackville with only a courtesy title who took a new name in 1770 in order to...