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  • A Connecticut Yankee on the Court Theatre Stage:An Ancestor for Undershaft
  • John Emigh (bio)

The models Shaw used to create Andrew Undershaft have presented something of a mystery. Stanley Weintraub names four "Fathers for Barbara": German arms merchant Alfred Krupp; dynamite king and philanthropist Albert Nobel; globe-trotting arms peddler Sir Basil Zaharoff; and a little-known Confederate arms maker, the father of Shaw's friend, Charles McEvoy.1 He also cites parallels with several industrialists, including steelmaker Andrew Carnegie, and elsewhere, ironically, with the Salvation Army's own founding "General," William Booth.2

Sidney Albert mentions Benjamin Disraeli's fictional industrial village of Trafford, featured in his 1845 novel Sybil, and the real "model village" it inspired in the 1850s, Sir Titus Salt's Saltair—nestled next to his alpacagarment producing "Palace of Industry." Albert follows this chain of influence to chocolate baron George Cadbury's model town at Bourneville in 1879, William Lever's utopian village of Port Sunlight in 1887, and Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow before arriving, once again, at Krupp's impressive industrial empire.3 Shaw's correspondence and other writings make it clear that he was cognizant of most if not all of the above figures. He also, in later correspondence, accepted some parallels with Henry Ford.4 As Stanley Weintraub pointed out to me in e-mail correspondence, though, Ford did not make a major impact until 1908, so he could hardly have been a "model" for a character that appeared on London's Court Theatre stage in 1905.

None of the "originals" mentioned so far is a perfect fit. None seems to combine the flamboyant personality of Undershaft with both his approach to weapons manufacturing and sales and his building of a utopian industrial village. There is, of course, no reason why these components should [End Page 65] be found in one person. Undershaft is Shaw's fictional creation. And, as he emerged into consciousness, Shaw himself viewed him with some surprise as a melding of his own prior creations of Broadbent and Keegan from John Bull's Other Island—with a dose of Mephistopheles thrown in for good measure.5

There is, however, a historical personage who does satisfy all these requirements, though there is no definite evidence that this person was on Shaw's radar at all. For someone who grew up, as I did, in the industrial towns of central Connecticut, Samuel Colt (1814–62)—the inventor and manufacturer of the underwater mine and submarine battery (undershafts?) and, most notably, of rifles and pistols with revolving chambers frequently referred to, by Colt and by others, as "Peacemakers"—is an obvious, missing "real-life" (if already richly mythologized) ancestor. What follows is an attempt to place Sam Colt—outsider, innovator, explosives expert, industrial genius, visionary, tycoon, philanthropist, whoremaster, patent thief, patriot, purveyor of genocide, model employer, bigamist, world traveler, brass band enthusiast, ruthless businessman, and utopian planner—on the family tree as a possible progenitor of Undershaft and his already recognized brothers and cousins. Along the way, I will have some reflections on why he may have been so long absent from this genealogy and what significance his addition may have to our understanding of his progeny and to historiographical concerns.

On 4 July 1829, a crudely lettered handbill was passed around the village of Ware, Massachusetts: "Today, Sam'l Colt will blow a raft sky high on Ware Pond." Colt was fifteen at the time. He had ingeniously rigged wires for a remote detonation of his new underwater device but had over-estimated the charge needed for this unique patriotic display. As the raft drifted from its moorings, a huge geyser of filthy mud and water flew up into the air and drenched the displeased townsfolk, who evidently took it all as a poor (though not uncharacteristic) prank.6 This was the first but certainly not the last time Colt would attempt to blow up a large object in the water with mixed results. In 1844, in a spectacular demonstration for a doubting Congress, he blew up a moving five hundred ton warship in the Potomac River using an improved system of underwater cables and mines...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1480
Print ISSN
0741-5842
Pages
pp. 65-84
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-24
Open Access
No
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