- The Devil on the Road to Damascus: Saint Paul in The Devil’s Disciple
While The Devil’s Disciple (1897) immediately situates itself firmly within a Judeo-Christian context by name alone, the title page also reminds us that it is, perhaps above all else, a melodrama. This article will examine how The Devil’s Disciple presents conventional theatrics of the genre, but then upsets audience expectation, a disruption that offers an extraordinary alternative to both stagnant Victorian melodramas and stultifying, puritanical Protestantism, and that challenges melodrama’s theatrical conventions and religious underpinnings. 1 Both are accomplished easily enough through religious iconography: Raphael’s Saint Paul Preaching at Athens hanging in Anthony Anderson’s house. The painting accents the disruption of the melodramatic plot convention of self-sacrifice as a romantically motivated act, and offers instead the religious idea of Pauline conversion.
Since its premiere in 1897 and publication in 1901, The Devil’s Disciple has been subject to a variety of interpretations, largely focusing on the play’s disruption of stage conventions—Michael Holroyd calls it “conventional as to form but extraordinary in style,” 2 and Anthony Abbott considers it one of Shaw’s most mechanically adept plays 3 —or of religious ideals. 4 Although criticism of The Devil’s Disciple largely examines how the play disrupts these conventions and ideals, most critics seem to agree with Abbott that, to some extent, “Shaw was using the conventional devices of melodrama for his own purposes by first whetting the critics’ appetite for the conventional and then deliberately throwing the unconventional in their faces.” 5 That Shaw is simultaneously a playful and cantankerous challenger of popular drama goes without saying, but he is also a shameless self-promoter. In the second preface to Three Plays for Puritans (1901), “On Diabolonian Ethics,” [End Page 59] Shaw sets himself up as his own best interpreter and critic when he asks, “Why should I get another man to praise me when I can praise myself ? I have no disabilities to plead: produce me your best critic, and I will criticize his head off.” 6 And if not the best critic, he was perhaps the first: religious and theatrical interpretations are firmly rooted in the first two prefaces to Three Plays for Puritans, “Why for Puritans?” and “On Diabolonian Ethics.” Each speaks of Shaw’s desire to challenge stage conventions expected by the “puritan” theatergoers, while also challenging the ethics of religious Puritanism. Thus, there is another point of entry to The Devil’s Disciple, an overlooked critical perspective that has its roots in the preface to the later Back to Methuselah (1921), where Shaw states that “art has never been great when it was not providing an iconography for a live religion” (CPP V, 333), 7 and that continues in the research of Shaw biographers Michael Holroyd and A. M. Gibbs.
Shaw confided to Ellen Terry on 13 March 1897, “I am being pressed to publish my plays.” 8 This pressure came from the young Grant Richards (1872–1948), who had recently set up a new publishing house and was looking for promising authors. Shaw initially declined—the public, he felt, did not read plays 9 —but Richards persisted, and by the spring of 1897 a commercially unsuccessful and disenchanted Shaw agreed to publish his plays to (in his words) “appeal to the imaginations of those who are capable of reading them.” 10 This forms the crux of my own interrogation: Shaw’s interest in a public that, if they did not read plays, still read novels. If the public was not going to change their reading habits, Shaw would do it for them. By publishing inexpensive three-play volumes that eschewed technical terms in favor of lengthy stage descriptions, Shaw produced pseudonovels for a public that demanded its money’s worth. Holroyd describes Shaw’s meticulousness and fastidious editorial supervision as follows:
Shaw’s ideas on book design derived from William Morris. 11 He looked at a page as a picture and at a book as an ornament that could be admired by a man who could not read a word of it, ‘as a XII century chalice or loving...