The Doctor's Dilemma
by George Bernard Shaw
The Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, June 2000
The problem I've always had with the whole idea of the Shaw Festival is that Shaw really didn't write plays. What he did was to put a whole bunch of brilliant essayists, many of whom sound rather a lot like George Bernard Shaw, on a stage and set them at each other. This often makes for brilliant, amusing, engaging debate about important ideas, but, well, the parts we associate with going to the theatre -- character, emotion, personal engagement, awareness of and involvement in the social process of exchanging important and moving stories -- the presence of those things is pretty much a matter of chance.
So when I had a chance to see The Doctor's Dilemma at the Shaw Festival I checked with some friends to see whether they thought it the sort of thing I might find worth the excursion. Yes, I was told, it was a really interesting production.
And, indeed, it is. Shaw needs interesting productions; if he gets them you can find yourself pretty deeply engaged by the characters, even though they're really just a series of masks for Shaw to ventriloquize his brilliant and challenging ideas through. In this case, there were a couple of things which made the production more engaging than it might have been otherwise.
One was the practical stagecraft which brilliantly reminded us that this is a stage, that the story's being told to us by the company, who stand behind and through it. This isn't trivial: if you're not constantly reminded, in a sort of Brechtian way, that this is a story, your mind starts to treat it as a simulacrum of reality, rather like a movie (or rather like the way, probably, Shaw's original productions treated it). At the Festival, the production began with the curtain going up on a stark b are, grey stage, rectangularly laid out with faceless grey walls and four substantial square pillars, two freestanding and two close to the back wall. The lighting splashed a pattern of fractal images across the whole thing, the music came up, and a stiffly and elegantly choreographed team of players, in formal attire and death masks, danced the doctor's study / laboratory into existence in the center of the stage. This convention, brilliantly designed by Jane Johansen, operated for the rest of the production, regularly bringing us back into the rhetorical world of the story being told us by the company. It was brilliant, and funny, and powerfully functional.
The play itself has all the typical Shaw virtues and vices. A brilliant essay on the self-importance, self-delusion, folly and incompetence of the medical profession (it also takes some pretty energetic swipes at the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the middle class, the pretensions of artistes, and the helpless blindness of love along the way), the play relies on characters whose motives for straightforward decisions like whether to go offstage or not are really utterly nonexistent. Where do these people go w hen they go offstage, you ask yourself? And most of the time, the answer is, “Off stage, dummy.” Why did they go? “Because Mr. Shaw didn't need them any more.”
The story, such as it is, is this. Dr. (soon to be “Sir”) Colenso Ridgeon has just discovered a cure for tuberculosis. As colleagues arrive one by one to congratulate him, we learn that there is a woman waiting to see him, and we find that although he says he cannot take on any more patients, she is there to persuade him to take on just one more, her husband, a brilliant artist. Among the doctors there is much discussion of the moral issues of how you would decide who to save if you had to make a choice. Each of the visiting doctors, during these conversations, adds to our picture of the medical profession (needless to say it's hardly flattering), and establishes some cardboard "characteristics": Sir Patrick (Bernard Behrens) is retired and thus the voice of reality -- cynical, sardonic, worldly. Cutler Walpole (Lorne Kennedy) is a surgeon, who diagnoses everything as "blood poisoning" and proposes to operate. Dr. Blenkinsop (Guy Bannerman) is a poor, incompetent -- but honest about it -- general practitioner, whose patients are mostly too poor to pay him. Sir Ralph (Jim Mezon) is a doctor to the aristocracy who treats every illness with medicines designed to "stimulate the phagocytes" (and pretty much any medicine will do). Dr. Schutzmacher (Neil Barclay) seems to be there because, as a Jew, he allows Shaw to get off some good ones at the expense of middle class English anti-Semitism.
In this production, the doctors act as a kind of Marx Brothers of medicine, occasionally arriving onstage as part of the entr'actes, trooping on, getting off some good lines, and then being shuffled out of the way. All of them, I thought, were fine, focused, clear performances.
What happens is, of course, that the the hapless Colenso is persuaded by the brilliance of the artist's work, and the charm of his beautiful wife, Jennifer (Severn Thompson), to agree to take on the case. But, through an implausibly arranged dinner where the artist (Mike Shara) and his wife are to meet Colenso's colleagues, and a later visit to the studio, it turns out the artist is a charming scoundrel, an unscrupulous bounder, and the innocent Jennifer is just one more victim of his charm. At the same time, it turns out that the decent Blenkinsop also has TB, and Colenso has to make the choice of whom to save. He turns the artist's case over to Sir Ralph, who (as we'd expect) hastens the death along. Eventually we get one of the funniest deaths in the history of the turn of the century stage as Dubedat dies spouting sanctimonious clichés about the sacred mission of the artist, making sure, regularly, that the pathetic, grovelling journalist (Jeff Meadows) who is misreporting everything he says is close enough not to miss a word.
It all ends with the de rigeur debriefing, where Colenso, meeting Jennifer at the posthumous exhibition she's arranged, confesses that he allowed Dubedat to die because he loved Jennifer, and tries to get her to see that had he lived she'd have learned what a swine he was and been unhappy, so that the death was a gift. She, of course, continues in her belief that the lost Dubedat was a king among men, a martyr whose brilliant career was cut short by a dastardly betrayal and whose legacy she is to bear like a chalice through the world.
The production was carried by some wonderful performances. Severn Thompson's Jennifer and Mike Shara's Dubedat stood out for me, as one might expect: solid, lively, engaging, young and beautiful, and of course with lots of startling and unpredictable speeches, perhaps the best of which is the one in which Dubedat, defending his morality to the panel of disapproving doctors, declares himself "a disciple of Bernard Shaw: I don't believe in morality." Jim Mezon's Sir Ralph was wonderfully pompous and self-inflating, perhaps especially in his expatiation on the splendour of Dubedat's death, composed of scraps of Shakespeare held up by sheer declamatory fervor.
As with other successful productions of Shaw I've seen (I remember particularly the Neptune Major Barbara, with its huge tumbling blocks of scenery), it was enough to make you forget that Shaw, as a dramatist, was a sort of Tom Stoppard without the stagecraft, and revel in the sheer joy of juggling ideas and language.