The Lessons of Blanco Posnet (Scene 1)

George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, Dec. 6, 1934. (Credit:  Davart Company, New York City, USA)

George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, Dec. 6, 1934. (Credit: Davart Company, New York City, USA)

An Irishman who lived in the entrails of the British Empire, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote two plays that are still lucid commentaries on the United States.

The Devil’s Disciple (first produced by Richard Mansfield in 1897) is set in the American Revolution, and tells of a Diabolonian hero who is more religious than his Puritan contemporaries.

The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, a one-act play subtitled “A Sermon in Crude Melodrama,” was banned by the Lord Chamberlain in London, and was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Ireland by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats in 1909. In a letter to Shaw, Tolstoy criticized the play: “The problem about God and evil is too important to be spoken in jest.”[1]

In cowboy melodramas and Western films, the Old West has been a constant metaphor for the nation at large.

The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet opens with a chorus of women “whose dress and speech are those of pioneers of civilization in a territory of the United States of America.” Their conversation echoes like a trickster’s howl across time until it reaches us today:

In a place like this, where every man has to have a revolver, and where theres [sic] so much to try people’s tempers, the men get to be too free with one another in the way of shooting.

Through one of his characters, Shaw leaves no doubt as to his views on the American love affair with guns:

Men are like children when they get a gun in their hands: theyre [sic] not content till they’ve used it on somebody.

He also did not hold American Justice in high regard, and shared Mark Twain’s distaste for the American tradition of lynching:

Would one of them own to it … if they lynched the wrong man? Not them. What they call justice in this place is nothing but a breaking out of the devil thats [sic] in all of us. What I want to see is a Sheriff that aint [sic] afraid not to shoot and not to hang.

Into an “old English tithe barn” that will serve as a courtroom, a blackguard by the name of Blanco Posnet is dragged by sheriff’s deputies. Blanco is accused of stealing the Sheriff’s horse. He is contemptuous of the women (“Drive these heifers out.”) who shout insults and tear at him, and objects to the assembled jury “on the general ground that it’s a rotten jury.” The Jury Foreman objects to Blanco’s characterization: “I say you lie. We mean to hang you, Blanco Posnet; but you will be hanged fair.”

One of the town’s Elders (Blanco’s brother, who is hiding this fact from his community) tries to bring Blanco back to religion before his execution. The prisoner accuses the Elder Daniels of hypocrisy, because the Elder makes his living by lending money and selling drink to others. Daniels justifies himself against “silly temperance reformers:”

What keeps America today the purest of the nations is that when she’s not working she’s too drunk to hear the voice of the tempter.

But Blanco knows better: “You sell drink because you can make a bigger profit out of it than you can by selling tea.”

Blanco Posnet’s favorite expression is “Lord keep me wicked til [sic] I die!” He has no expectation of surviving his trial: “Not that I’m guilty mind you; but this is a rotten town, dead certain to do the wrong thing.” And he hopes to be damned rather than saved: “I have no taste for pious company and no talent for playing the harp.”

Blanco’s trial is interrupted by the arrival of a strange woman who horrifies him:

Sheriff: that woman aint [sic] real. That woman will make you do what you never intended. Thats [sic] the rainbow woman. Thats [sic] the woman that brought me to this.

And the story of the late kid who shewed up Blanco Posnet is revealed. (To be continued.)

OG

[1] Quoted in Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1956), 591.

(Credit:  Vassia Atanassova / Wikimedia Commons)

(Credit: Vassia Atanassova / Wikimedia Commons)

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