Friday, July 13, 2012

Consider Bernard Shaw's 'The Doctor's Dilemma' as a satire on the medical profession.

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Bernard Shaw- the playwright...

Ifor Evans the well-known critic introduces Bernard Shaw as the greatest figure in English drama in the 0th century. His major contribution, no doubt, is as a dramatist. He has to his credit more than fifty plays touching distinct aspects of life and society. But Shaws greatness as a dramatist derives primarily from the fact that he had no major 1th C. British models on whom to base himself or to draw themes from; or in other words, his forays into the largely unexplored modern dramatic domain were indeed pioneering efforts.

In his time Romanticism was in full flower and the great Victorian novelists--Dickens, Thackeray and the Brontes--held sway in society. It was fortuitous that Ibsen at the time was evolving his realistic dramatic art in Norway. Rather than being a sentimental world of Romantic melodrama, his stage presented flesh and blood human beings. As Richard Weatherford has rightly observed, ...Romantic sentimentalism left audiences crying but never really touched...; there was no empathy. That Shaw chose to emulate the great master is no accident, but an outcome of his own feelings that the world on stage should resemble the real world off stage.

His work as a dramatist was ...the statement and criticism of contemporary social evils, be it something as old as the oldest profession ( Mrs Warrens Profession), slum landlordism ( Widowers Houses), the romantic concept of war ( Arms and the Man) or the rottenness of the medical profession (The Doctors Dilemma). His claim that he made people think was by and large true. He dealt mainly in ideas and that is something that perhaps limits the universal appeal of his plays.

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Human feelings and failings --as opposed to mere ideas --are the stuff of immortality. But Shaw was not concerned with these, a weakness which he himself had admitted to. Rather, he chose to be a vocal and a zealous missionary for social reform. Also, in characterisation, he is interested in moulding them only as vehicles of his ideas. Dramatic action ensues essentially from a clash of ideas.

...and the play (The Doctors Dilemma)


Shaws social criticism was most of the time so effective that many of the social problems he chose to address are no longer problems-- a case in point is The Doctors Dilemma itself. No doubt, it is a scathing attack on the medical profession - a profession that is more of a conspircy ! Though the play has elements of domestic comedy and farce, Shaw has chosen to label it a tragedy. The theme is not simple but the assessment is helped by Shaws own comment that the tragedy lies in the theme of a man of genius who is not a man of honour also. There is also the greater tragedy of the doctors romantic misadventure and his ultimate rejection and fall.

The long first Act is taken up with the parade of a representative cross section of the contemporary British medical profession. A profession that has, as Sir Patrick Cullen puts it succinctly, degraded into a conspiracy of quacks and charlatans. It was Shaws extraordinary theory that they had a pecuniary interest in ill health that had triggered health care reforms in England. The arrogant self confidence and the foolish ignorance of the bombastic Bloomfield Bonington, the singleminded profiteering of the surgeon Cutler Walpole and the cure guarantee of the affluent Schutzmacher...all serve to shock the audience with the realism of the portrayal. But Shaw has been careful to include types such as the sane and sober Sir Patrick (no doubt modelled on himself, Irish and witty in a dry manner, wise and balanced, in short, the ideal physician and man) and the poor but honest Blenkinsop as realistic foils. The able Sir Colenso, an upright disciple of Sir Patrick, naturally occupies centrestage. He is a complex persona, blown asunder by the tragic flaw and the error in judgement in his character.

The dilemma of the doctor suggested in the title is at best a strange entity. On the surface the dilemma that Dr Ridgeon faces is that of trying to decide between a man of genius who is at the same time a profligate and an incorrigible rascal, and a poor, but honest man who is also an old friend and collegue of his. When by the end of the second Act it becomes amply clear that Dubedat the artist, despite his extraordinary genius, is absolutely unscrupulous where money and women are concerned, the dilemma rears its ugly head in the mind of Dr Ridgeon--he expresses it in so many words to his mentor Sir Patrick who offers words of wisdom.

But it is unfortunate that the decision Dr Ridgeon finally makes is not the outcome of his moral conviction or one influenced by his attempt to hold the scales of justice impartially between a confirmed scoundrel and an honest soul. Rather his decison to choose the good man Blenkinsop and leave the rascally genius in the hands of Dr Death (the dangerously incompetent B B ) is triggered by his infatuation for Jennifer, the artists arrestingly beautiful wife. At that moment of decision there is no dilemma in his mind, but he too descends to the level of another clever conspirator. The introduction of the femme fatale destroys the dramatic resolution of the dilemma.

This particular turn of events throws up another subtle dilemma-- this time before the audience--in a way complicating the theme and the plot. The doctors, including Dr Ridgeon, are critical of the lack of morality in Dubedat. His unconscionable villainy endears him to none-- though Shaw his creator gives him quite a few arguments to defend his almost criminal misadventures. But the moment Dr Ridgeon decides to destroy Dubedat and make Jennifer his own, he sidesteps into the shoes of the villain himself.

Dubedat the iconoclast scorns of the narrow morality as defined by the doctors. And shockingly in the end Dr Ridgeon assumes a more immoral aspect in comparison. As a doctor wedded to ethical considerations, he ought to have swept Jennifer out of his mind and resolved his moral dilemma disinterestedly. But his clever strategem to kill off the one impediment to his winning the ladys affections proves to be his tragic undoing --somthing that evokes no symapthy whatsoever. Dubedat the villain dies the death of a hero, becoming enshrined ever more strongly in the heart of Jennifer, while the hero of the unfolding action dons the villains garb. The role reversal offers a new problem for the audience indeed. Perhaps this fall of the noble healer is the greatest tragedy.

Shaw obviously speaks through Sir Patrick when he says ... it matters very little how a man dies. What matters is how he lives. But ironically, though he had lived as a villain, Dubedat dies happy that he had lived according to his ideals. Ridgeon, though in the beginning rewarded for his lifes achievements, perhaps dies a thousand deaths as his villainy earns him nothing but the scorn and rejection of Jennifer.

On The Doctors Dilemma

Satire essentially searches out the faults of men and institutions in order to hold them upto ridicule and thus lead to the amendment of vices by correction (Dryden). Satire takes recourse to exaggeration as a means of achieving its end. While a humorist laughs with the others, a satirist laughs at others, often bitterly and harshly.

Viewed from this perspective, most of the plays of Shaw were sharply satirical. In order to state and criticise (Ifor Evans) contemporary social evils, he attacked the cherished institutions of the period and the minds of his audience. Laughter is merely the sugar coating over the bitter pill of satire. (Cazamian) The vein of satire running through the Doctors Dilemma is unmistakably sharp and bitterly effective.

The entire medical profession is, so to speak, dissected under a microscope by Bernard Shaw. The rottenness of the profession is mercilessly revealed. Reality is liberally laced with plausible exaggeration in plot and character. In the end Shaw succeeds in establishng that the medical profession is nothing but a conspiracy who exploit the ill health of their patients to make a good living. What the public beleived to be a brotherhood of benefactors has deteriorated into a band of profiteers, charlatans and quacks who promote each other shamelessly.

The entire first act is given over to parading before us most of the despicable examples of the rotten British medical system. The affluent Dr Schutzmacher who calls first to congratulate Dr Colenso Ridgeon had amassed his fortunes on the strength of just two words--Cure Guaranteed! He was careful not to meddle with his patients, but to advise them Parrishs Chemical Food (phosphate supplements) in every case. And the cure worked in nine out of ten cases, earning him money and fame.

The bombastic Sir Bloomfield Bonington radiates enormous self-satisfaction, and despite his absolute ignorance and bungling nature, occupies the enviable position of the Royal Physician. His condescending manner, his pretence of knowing everything and his wild theory of utilizing any medicine for any illness masks his murderous ignorance raised to ridiculous heights. His light and airy nonsense is a source of amusement for all.

The eminent surgeon Cutler Walpole, the toast of all fashionable ladies of London, and his theory of the nuciform sac and blood poisoning and its surgical cure speak volumes about the profiteering practitioners. Thanks largely to his efforts (and before him, his fathers), such pointless surgery had become a fashion statement and surgeons like him were considerably enriched by the folly of their patients.

The only characters exhibiting some commonsense are Sir Patrick, the grand old man of medicine, respected all round for his wisdom and level-headedness, the poor, but honest Dr Blenkinsop who has no pretensions to learning and, of course, Dr Colenso Ridgeon, the disciple of Sir Patrick, and a doctor and researcher wedded to his science. Shaw has utilised Blenkinsop as a foil to the other characters. He has chosen to makes Dr Ridgeon good in order to lend piquancy to his ultimate tragic fall. As for Sir Patrick, he is, in more ways than one, Shaws mouthpiece and a voice of sanity, thus offering standards against which others are often judged.

Shaws satiric weapon falls mercilessly on all the others, in the process revealing their individual weaknesses and selfish motives. The brilliant dialogue is an excellent vehicle for Shaws purpose. Soon the audience is able to distinguish each of them as types common in the contemporary medical profession. The derision of the playgoer is aroused to a large degree by the adroit handling of situations and characters by Shaw. However, the greatest satiric stroke is reserved for none other than Sir Colenso.

Sir Colenso, the doctor of eminence chosen for the honour of a Knighthood for his achievements, soon is trasformed into a mean and conspiring healer. By contrast, he had earlier occupied a higher moral level than the commercial practitioners. But now as the tragic flaw in his character leads him inexorably closer and closer to personal tragedy, his personality undergoes a marked change. The public is only too well aware of the man of medicine who is open to the charms of some of his patients. As principles or rather, the lack of them go, this kind is one of the most despicable.

The twin necessities of satire and tragedy combine to reduce Sir Colenso into a conniving villain, heartlessly betraying the trust Jennifer reposes in him when he decides to murder Dubedat. But it has to be noted that towards the tragic end, it is the tragic fall rather than the satiric digs that occupy the playgoers attention. Although the tragic end sets us thinking about doctors and ethics and morality, it cannot be denied that Shaws chief purpose in writing the play was to satirically highlight the plight of contemporay healthcare, and thus effect some far-raching reforms in the field of medicine. To that end he moulded characters like B.B., Walpole and other easily recognizable types, applied the exaggerations of satire to hold them to public ridicule and thus achieved his end.

A reading of the Doctors Dilemma as a typical Shawian play cannot ignore the strong undercurrent of satire. Satire was Shaws chief weapon when he took on a series of social evils beginning with the oldest profession (Mrs. Warrens Profession) or the romantic notions of love and war (Arms and the Man) or other such themes. That the play was a success as a satire on the medical profession is borne out by the fact that the play triggered reforms in the English medical field during Shaws lifetime itself.

As an entertaining satire, the Doctors Dilemma occupies a unique place on the English stage. But it culminates in tragedy when the noble Dr Colenso, in the beginning so very different from his commercial cousins, embarks on a jouney of ruthless, diabolical villainy impelled on by his tragic flaw. Shaw himself was a social non-conformist who wanted to put a bit of his own mind into the making of Dubedat, the self -proclaimed disciple of Shaw. His repudiation of conventional morality and hypocrisy raise him to noble heights not only in the mind of Jennifer, but in the estimation of the self-critical playgoer too. This topsy-turvy treatment of man and morals is so typical of the Shawian style that created ripples in contemporary thought.

No doubt, the twin weapons of satire and tragedy find their marks as the play draws to a close, leaving the audience in a state of mind when they are open to reassess men and morals and medical ethics in an entirely new light. This perhaps is the magic of the Shawian touch.

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