Play Doctor, Doctor Death: Shaw, Ibsen, and Modern Tragedy

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The Doctor's Dilemma was not a great popular or critical success when it was originally produced in 1906, but the play is one of Bernard Shaw's most perplexing, intriguing works and deserves a more prominent place in the Shavian canon. Indeed, in his controversial book on Shaw, Colin Wilson goes so far as to declare that The Doctor's Dilemma "is the culmination of Shaw's career as a playwright." (1) The absurdity of this opinion aside (among the play's successors, after all, were Pygmalion [1913], Heartbreak House [1919], and Saint Joan [1923]), Wilson's praise for the play is veiled criticism of the philosophical preoccupation that he felt seriously diminished the strength of Shaw's later dramatic writing. Wilson reads The Doctor's Dilemma as a return to the nineteenth-century, well-made-play structure that Shaw had effectively adapted earlier; he does not consider the play a serious attempt to write a tragedy, or even an attempt to write a play of importance. Instead, Wilson praises The Doctor's Dilemma as the last hurrah of the "playful" Shaw before the playwright became hopelessly mired in the politics and drama of "creative evolution." I want to argue here, by contrast, that The Doctor's Dilemma is much more interesting than Wilson contends. It is not simply an oddity or a throwback to nineteenth-century dramatic forms, but a serious attempt by Shaw to confront the traditional criteria for "greatness" in a play without compromising his own modern aesthetic determination of what a play should be.

One of those traditional criteria for greatness is that a dramatic work should aspire to tragedy, which The Doctor's Dilemma does do. Indeed, of all his major plays this is the only one that Shaw specifically--and somewhat provocatively--labeled a tragedy. (2) To date, however, critics have not yet fully considered the complex relationship between the formal, classically tragic aspects of The Doctor's Dilemma and the play as an example of the new drama that Shaw espoused. (3) And it is precisely this complex relationship between "old" and "new" that renders The Doctor's Dilemma problematic and has so often caused the play--its plot, its dramatic structure, Shaw's artistic intent--to be misunderstood.

Shaw came to write The Doctor's Dilemma partly in response to a challenge from his friend and colleague, William Archer. Shaw had criticized Ibsen's use of death in his plays in a column written to honor the Norwegian dramatist a few days after his death. (4) Here is part of Archer's response to Shaw's comments in his own column in the Tribune: "Shaw eschews those profounder revelations of character which come only in crises of tragic circumstance ... it is not the glory but the limitation of Mr. Shaw's theatre that it is peopled by immortals." (5) A few weeks later, Shaw answered in the third person through the letters column, announcing that "Mr. Shaw" was writing a new play that "is the outcome of the article in which Mr. William Archer penned a remarkable dithyramb to Death, and denied that Mr. Shaw could claim the highest rank as a dramatist until he had faced the King of Terrors on the stage." (6) There can be little doubt that Archer had struck a nerve in his "offensive" defense of Henrik Ibsen's tragic drama, and Shaw could not duck the challenge to his abilities as a complete and serious artist. From its inception, therefore, The Doctor's Dilemma was linked directly to Shaw's intellectual relationship with the work of Ibsen.

Because of the direct relationship of The Doctor's Dilemma to Ibsen's drama, Shaw's Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) is particularly relevant in this context, for it provides the most extensive commentary on the nature of drama that Shaw wrote outside of his plays themselves. (It must be said, however, that many of the opinions presented in this work are contradicted by Shaw's other critical writings, particularly his theater reviews, and that he wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism before he had had the learning experience of completing a single play. …