The HooliganA Character Study
Book by W. S. Gilbert
The title role of the hooligan, Nat Solly, was played by James Welch, a music-hall favourite apparently more known for his comedy than for pathos. (Interestingly, however, he played the comic role of Lickcheese in the original production of Shaw's first play, Widowers' Houses, in 1892.) He seems to have been highly effective in this dark melodramatic role, and the play as a whole was something of a "shocker": Mrs. Alec Tweedie noted that "It was so gruesome that women had gone out fainting, and it turned my blood cold." An unexpected parting shot from the respectable old dramatist, Justice of the Peace for Middlesex, knighted in 1907 and living the life of a country gentleman at Harrow Weald: but then, Gilbert had always made a point of not doing the expected thing.
There is very little plot: the play is, as the subtitle tells us, "a character study". Nat Solly, a young East End hooligan, has been condemned to death for murdering his girlfriend. We see him as he wakes up on the morning of his execution, hysterical, self-pitying, self-justifying. Yet for all his ugly whining, there is sympathy for him too: we are made to see how intolerable his predicament is. He pleads for leniency on account of his weak heart, and because he didn't mean to kill her, only to "cut" her to teach her a lesson. A step is heard outside the door. He thinks they are here to take him to execution, but it is the Governor arriving to tell him that his sentence has been commuted to penal servitude for life. Nat Solly, unable to bear the shock of this news, dies of a heart attack.