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  • Don Roberto in Bernard Shaw’s Plays
  • Rodelle Weintraub (bio)

“When the Master of Life and King among Men walked down the street, the children scampered behind him, mimicking his swagger,” wrote Cedric Watts and Laurence Davies in their biography of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. 1 Who was Cunninghame Graham, and why did Shaw inform us that Sergius in Arms and the Man and Captain Brassbound, i.e., Black Paquito, were based in part on Cunninghame Graham, as was Hector Hushabye in Heartbreak House? Don Roberto, however, was hardly the romanticized cavalry officer of the earlier play and certainly not the brigand of Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. Nor was he the lapdog whose appearance in Arab robes in Heartbreak House would have reminded knowledgeable audiences of Cunninghame Graham.

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852–1936) was considered during his lifetime a romantic, heroic figure, even a “mythogenic figure: an attractor and generator of legends.” 2 Born into the Scottish aristocracy— as a Menteith, directly descended from Robert II—Cunninghame Graham said that he should have been king of Scotland had he wanted to pursue his claim to the throne. Heir to properties in three Scottish counties, he would, in 1883, inherit the family estates in Dumbartonshire, Gartmore, and Gallangad—and the debts that had accrued. As the Laird of Gartmore, he was expected to contribute generously to every public cause, although there were no funds to maintain the great houses and lands.

His grandmother, Dona Catalina Paulina Alessandro de Jiminez, married the Scottish admiral Charles Elphinstone-Fleming, and then Admiral James Katon, but remained staunchly Spanish. From her, Don Roberto learned to speak Andalusian Spanish and to be as comfortable in Spanish-speaking countries as in his native Scotland and England. Influenced by his seafaring grandfather and step-grandfather, Cunninghame Graham became a traveler and fortune seeker, droving cattle in South America, ranching in Texas, [End Page 149] hunting for gold in Spain, bargaining for carpets in Morocco. In 1870, he made his first trip to Central and South America, arriving in Buenos Aires to attempt to become a rancher. The inexperienced teenager quickly lost his investment in land and cattle and became a cattle drover, hoping to get horses and cattle from Argentina to Uruguay. Along the way he was recruited as a gaucho into a revolutionary army. The revolution over, the eighteen-year-old Don Roberto organized a citizen’s protest that resulted in his first imprisonment. Rescued by the British consul, he survived a bout of typhus, and then went on an expedition to sell horses to the Indians in Uruguay and Chile before returning to Scotland in 1872. Returning to South America the next year, he explored areas in Brazil and Paraguay. From 1877 to 1881, he was in Scotland. In 1881, he went to Mexico and Texas as a land and cattle speculator. In the decade between his eighteenth and twenty-eighth birthdays, he had beat off rustlers, saw action with a revolutionary army, and may have been captured by marauding Indians. Escaping from them, he was captured and imprisoned, survived another bout of typhus, learned the skills of a gaucho, developed his superb horsemanship, and began his career as a social revolutionary. In 1891, he was the only non-Irish mourner at the funeral of the Irish revolutionary Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1901, he wrote A Vanished Arcadia, about the expulsion of the Jesuits from South America.

Elected to Parliament in 1886 as Liberal MP for North-West Lancashire, the radical thirty-three-year-old advocated free secular education, the eighthour working day, and the nationalization of industry and commerce. During an impassioned debate, he used the word damn and, when ordered to withdraw his criticism, said “I never withdraw.” He was temporarily suspended. In 1887 he was arrested during the Bloody Sunday Socialist demonstration at Trafalgar Square and spent six weeks in an English prison. His only complaint about his prison stay was, “If I were Home Secretary, I would not send a brother Member of Parliament to sit solitary in Pentonville.” As a result of that prison experience, he wrote a humorous, “heart-warming” sketch, Sursum Corda (Lift Up Your Hearts). He served...


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