Sunday, August 5, 2012

I was intrigued by the premise of Bernard Shaw’s play, that of suffering at the hands of doctors, and the ethics of medical care. Currently running at the Lyttelton Theatre, Shaw insisted that the play was a tragedy, yet critics see it as a farce, a satire on the medical profession. When I saw the play, the audience appeared to agree with the critics, and I was surrounded by laughter. I was not so sure, and have now concluded, having re-read the play and particularly Shaw’s own preface, that the piece is indeed a tragic indictment of the medical profession.

The plays centres on Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett), a Harley street doctor and his medical colleagues. The moral dilemma Ridgeon has to consider is the choice between saving the life of an artist and ‘scoundrel’ Louis Dubedat (Tom Burke) and that of a poor doctor Dr Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson). The decision is complicated by his infatuation with Dubedat’s wife, Jennifer (Genevieve O’Reilly).

Thus, the play raises the question of, and to some extent explores, the value of human life, and specifically how the medical profession, at least of that era (one hopes that doctors are less god-like in their pronouncements and decisions today), adjudicates on the worthwhileness of an individual.

It is the era of consumption, when TB almost invariably carried a death sentence. It was also the era of experimentation, which raises many moral and ethical questions. Ridgeon states, as he expounds on his successful quest for a TB innoculation cure:

‘Well, it’s always the patient who has to take the chance when an experiment is necessary.’ (p.97)

A statement that may well be a truism, yet the consequences and downsides of such a ‘truth’ remain unquestioned by those who pronounce.

A colleague, Sir Patrick Cullen (David Calder) is the lone voice of conscience:

‘Well, sometimes a man knows best; and sometimes he knows worst. You’d much better cure them both.’ (p.137)

Yet Ridgeon ignores Cullen’s advice. ‘Mr. Saviour of Lives’, as Cullen sarcastically calls Ridgeon, saves one life and allows the other to die. The premise for the choice is unrealistic, Ridgeon claiming that he only has enough medicine for one more patient. Yet this fact matters little. The point that Shaw wants to convey, is how society, and most particularly the medical profession, decides on whose life is worth saving.

Ridgeon dismisses the artist’s life with:

‘It is easier to replace a dead man than a good picture.’ (p.137)

Dubebat is deemed a ‘rotten blackguard artist’ by the doctors. Blenkinsop, on the other hand, is an ‘honest decent’ sort, and one of their own. Dubebat sarcastically states:

‘Now, I’m only an immoral artist….But you are all moral men…’ (p.147)

In the final scene of the play, Dubedat’s widow encounters Ridgeon, her husband’s ‘murderer’. Ridgeon concedes:

‘Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive

Officiously to keep alive.

I suppose – yes: I killed him.’ (p.185)

He does not seem unduly concerned by this admission:

‘I am a doctor: I have nothing to fear.’ (p.186)

Dubedat’s widow accuses Ridgeon of what he is:

‘You do think you are a little god.’ (p.186)

Ridgeon’s god-like actions ultimately backfire, as the widow choses to marry someone else. ┬áThe play concludes with the doctor’s realisation:

‘Then I have committed a purely disinterested murder!’ (p.188)

Shaw is very clear on his views of the medical profession, whom he denounces openly in the preface to the play:

‘I must reply that the medical profession has not a high character; it has an infamous character.’ (preface, p.10)

He dismisses doctors as without honor or conscience (preface, p.11). He also calls for public control of the profession, and the play presents as an indictment of private medicine, and prescient of the birth of the NHS.

Shaw clearly had his own personal agenda for creating this play. The content is sobering, and ultimately tragic.

One can but hope that contemporary medicine no longer includes god-like creatures amongst its practitioners…


Bernard Shaw. The Doctor’s Dilemma. London: Penguin Books, 1906.