EVERYBODY HAS a theory about what Napoleon did with his hand stuck inside his coat: more accurate accounts have it that he had a bad case of gout or rheumatism, that his hand was relatively useless. More morbid conjecturers claim that he had a bad case of the claw--his hand tightened up into a gruesome eagle-grip. But the wildest theory I've heard yet was that he had a thirty-eight inch cock. Of course this is mere speculation--nobody really knows for sure what compelled Napoleon to do all the things he did. But George Bernard Shaw had some ideas of his own about the "Corsican ogre" as he once called him, and they're all in a real good, though short production called The Man of Destiny.
Shaw wrote the play in 1895, saying that it was "hardly more than a bravura piece to display the virtuosity of the two principal performers." He actually had two performers in mind when he wrote it: Ellen Terry--considered one of the most popular actresses of the time--and Richard Mansfield, also a popular actor and the producer of Shaw's first play staged in America. After they turned him down he made an aborted attempt to sell the play to Henry Irving, who was something of a tyrannical manager-leading man at London's Lyceum Theater. Possibly Shaw had Irving in mind when he wrote about Napoleon in the stage directions:
He is imaginative without illusions, and creative without religion, loyalty, patriotism, or any of the common ideals. Not that he is incapable of these ideals: on the contrary he has swallowed them all in his boyhood, and now, having a keen dramatic faculty, is extremely clever at playing upon them by the arts of the actor and the stage manager.
BUT WHATEVER Shaw's motives, The Man of Destiny combines a lot of plain fun with an attack directed equally at self-willed, Nietzchian types and the principled English. It's about Napoleon right at the period of his life when his military ventures against Austria were winning him acclaim back home. The setting is a small Italian inn, and Bonaparte has just won the battle of Lodi. He's awaiting more information both from the field and from Paris and at the start, anyway, the play has potential for getting very serious. It is only when his courier walks on--an impudent, bumbling lieutenant--that the play develops into fun. The courier has been had by an enemy spy--a small boy--who, he claims, looks a lot like the "strange lady" (that's all she's ever called) staying at the inn. Napoleon can't seem to get it through the man's thick scalp that the dispatches are important. He can't even convince the loony lieutenant that he's important. That impasse and Napoleon's suspicion that the woman is the spy are the foundation of dramatic tension. As the play evolves, Napoleon's suspicion is confirmed and he and the woman play psychological games with each other--she playing the wily, flattering Cassius to his Caesar; he acting the child, the tyrant, and the lover to get back his dispatches and then, later to teach his crafty deceiver a few of the finer tricks of deceit.
It's hard to say who's the best performer in this tiny masterpiece because all four actors do such a superb job. Charles Weinstein as Giuseppe the uncommitted, conciliatory innkeeper plays the stereotypical, craven, religious Italian as completely as that kind of role allows. And Tom Champion plays a marvelous loon-tenant. He has this sense of uncanny timing, this air of naivete that works particularly well when he tells the strange lady to take off her dress so he can see if she really isn't that boy in disguise or when he casually draws a scenario for Napoleon showing how his horse had actually won the battle of Lodi.
The two major characters, the ones for whom Shaw wrote, are Mark Mosca and Bonnie Brewster here and they both live up to every expectation of Shaw's. The roles demand a lot of nuance from their actors--facial expressions and the slightest gestures must be just right--and both are admirable. Mosca has a certain half-smile that he can turn into a scowl as easily as a self-congratulatory smirk. Although his rages somehow seem more passionate than Napoleon probably was, the whole play seems to support that kind of style. After all, Shaw needed to build a rapport between Napoleon and the audience so he could get in his good lines about the English:
There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles; and cuts off his king's head on republican principles.
ALL OF THIS starts when Napoleon finds out that his temptress is part English and part Irish. The combination, he says, after having been thoroughly fooled, may be the only formula to defeat him on the battlefield--a foreboding of his defeat by the Irish-born General Wellington leading the English army at Waterloo.
Bonnie Brewster is a match for Mosca's bravado. The way the strange lady shifts the burden of guilt to Napoleon demands a sort of subtle feminine guile that just doesn't come through in Shaw's words, something impossible to describe really. That's one of the attractions of the play--it's almost as if Shaw were testing the acting abilities of his two favorite performers; whoever acted better would convince the audience that he or she had won in this battle of the minds.
Here, at least, as the lights fade and the mysterious lady and "le Petit Caporal" watch the dispatches burning in the dark, their faces glowing in the flickering flames, one wonders who has finally won, if Napoleon has conquered yet another woman, or if he has met his Fireloo.