George Bernard Shaw
"I finished my play to-day. What do you think of that? Does that look like wasting my time? Three acts, six scenes, a masterpiece all completed in a few weeks..."
The arrival of the 20th century marked an evolution in the theatre. Ibsen and Chekhov were writing their last plays, and the torch of advancing the art form was being handed to a different type of theatre artist in England. At this time, George Bernard Shaw was developing his own view of what it meant to be a playwright. He joined with Ibsen and Chekhov in disputing the common idea that theatre should only be "...frothy, sentimental entertainment;" they argued for a larger purpose. Collectively, they believed that theatre in which thought and intellect were highly favored and encouraged. They argued it would create a more informed and educated society. The Devil's Disciple: A Melodrama was Shaw's attempt to write a play that mirrored these beliefs.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s theatre-going audiences were inundated with what Shaw liked to call "stage sensuousness." Theatre audiences were accustomed to exaggerated plots, the use of stereotyped characters and a blatant appeal to the audience's sentimentality. In his prologue for The Devil's Disciple he states: "And so we must conclude that the theatre is a place which people can only endure when they forget themselves: that is, when their attention is throughly roused, their sympathies raised to the eagerest readiness, and their selfishness utterly annihilated." Shaw sought to engage his audience by creating plays that depicted particular events and characters to convey universal truths.
After seeing a melodrama at the Adelphi in London, Shaw wrote a favorable review in which he stated: "A really good Adelphi melodrama is of first-rate literary importance, because it only need elaboration to become a masterpiece." The review prompted a collaboration by the actor-manager of the Adelphi, William Terriss. Shaw began writing The Devil's Disciple in September of 1896, and completed it just three months later. William Terriss fell asleep during the first reading, and the idea was abandoned. Richard Mansfield, believing he owed Shaw a favor for passing on Candida, decided to direct the play in America. In October 1897, The Devil's Disciple premiered at the Hermanus Bleecker Hall in Albany, New York. It transferred to the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City after it's third performance. By the end of the year, Shaw writes to Ellen Terry "I roll in gold." The Devil's Disciple was Shaw's first commerical success. Shaw was correct in stating that melodrama "only needs elaboration to become a masterpiece," becuase all of the characters in The Devil's Disciple are stock characters, and all the situations audiences had seen a thousand times before. What was so appealing and successful about The Devil's Desciple is simple; it was a "..melodrama vitalized by intelligence and seriousness...with ironic overtones and a realism based on a will to survive and change the world." This was the first play in which the Shavian principle was clearly exemplified.
The success of The Devil's Disciple allowed him to re-publish many of his earlier plays that were not as successful at first such as Mrs. Warren's Profession, Candida and Arms and the Man. By the turn of the century Shaw had matured into a successful dramatist with Man and Superman, Major Barbara, and Heartbreak House. Shaw was able to spread his ideologies and beliefs by encoding them in his critiques and plays. In doing so he cemented his place in theatre history as one of the great playwrights of the 20th century.