George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 42
Plays For Puritans

IN 1896, WHEN THE ADELPHI THEATRE "REACHED THE SUMMIT OF ITS GLORY AS the home of melodrama," the handsome William Terriss was always the hero, Jessie Millward the heroine, and Harry Nichols the comic relief. One day Terriss, who was planning a world tour, proposed to Shaw, whom he regarded as one of the "greatest intellectual forces of the day," that they collaborate in a play which should contain every known "sure-fire" melodramatic situation. Terriss actually produced a scenario fulfilling his promise: "in every act he was falsely accused of some acutely dishonourable crime through the machinations of a beautiful but diabolic vamp, and torn by the police from the frantic embrace of his virginal true sweetheart." When the curtain rose again he turned up fresh as paint without the smallest reference to this misadventure, and went through it all afresh.

Shaw solemnly pointed out to Terriss that the plot was too melodramatic. "In London," he said, "you are the accepted hero of melodrama. But everywhere abroad they will have their own local Terriss, with whom you must not compete. From you, the travelling London star, they will expect Irving --Hamlet." To which Terriss promptly replied: "Mister Shaw, you have convinced me"--and flung the scenario (a carbon copy) into the fire, with the definitive air of one who well knows that he has another draft lying in his desk.

One day, to the great surprise of Terriss, who meanwhile had abandoned his world tour and forgotten all about the Shavian Hamlet, Shaw turned up with The Devil's Disciple in his pocket. The play, explains Shaw, was "stuffed with everything from the ragbag of melodrama: reading of a will, heroic sacrifice, courtmartial, gallows, eleventh-hour reprieve, and all complete with--as Ellen Terry used to say of her acting--just that little bit of my own that makes all the difference." The writing of the play was a two months' pastime for Shaw, who struck it off (in part!) during sittings for a portrait to Nellie Heath in October, 1896.1

Shaw had written the play with an eye on both England and the United States, Terriss and Mansfield. When news of Mansfield's success in the play

____________________
1
Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence ( New York, 1931), pp. 84-86.

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