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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Pascale

Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma: A Tragedy and Exploring the Ethics of the Medical Profession

The British modernist writers were reacting against the social constraints of the Victorian age. The modernist period began with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and lasted throughout the twentieth century through to the post-World War II period. George Bernard Shaw is one of the first British literary modernist writers, and his plays are a departure from the Victorian era plays that set the stage for modernist themes in the twentieth-century theater. The modernist period brought social upheaval and questioned the traditional values of Victorian England. Change, urbanization, new ideas, and technology were ever-present. In The Doctor’s Dilemma, George Bernard Shaw explores the social and political changes with a satire that illustrates how outdated the Victorian social codes and morals that dictated the behavior of the medical profession were, particularly in light of the new scientific breakthroughs advancing at the time.

George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma was first performed on the stage in 1906 at The Royal Court Theatre in London. The play is a satire on the medical profession and how doctors often confuse and manipulate patients with unproven medical theories that have no basis in science. In The Doctor’s Dilemma, Shaw explores the medical ethics theme, in terms of how doctors make their name, and money and how they play god with their patients. Shaw writes the play, “We’re not a profession, we’re a conspiracy.”(Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma, p. 39, Act 1). Doctor Colenso Ridgeon is the main protagonist who is presented with choosing who will be saved with his breakthrough treatment for tuberculosis. He has no more room in his caseload and must choose between saving Louis Dubedat or Dr.Blenkinsop, a doctor who treats working-class people with little money.

Dr.Blenkinsop does not charge much for medical services, so he must survive on low wages compared to other doctors in the play. As the play unfolds, it is revealed that Dr. Blenkinsop also has tuberculosis, as does Louis Dubedat, Jennifer Dubedat’s husband. In contrast, Louis Dubedat is an accomplished artist who is charming and sociable. However, Dubedat is a morally questionable character and a shocking truth is revealed. He is married to two women at once and attempts to borrow money from all doctors including Dr.Blenkinsop who is poverty-stricken. Complicating the situation, Dr.Ridgeon falls in love with Jennifer Dubedat, and imagines that he will marry her when her husband dies.

Further complicating the dilemma of the play, is the aspect of the medical profession charging people for their services and how that creates a conflict between the patient and the doctor. As Shaw writes in, The Doctor’s Dilemma this line is spoken by the character Dr. Bloomfield Bonington, referred to as B.B., “In medical practice, a man may die when, scientifically speaking, he ought to have lived. I have actually known a man to die of a disease from which he was, scientifically speaking, immune. But that does not affect the fundamental truth of science.” (Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma, p.70, Act III).

In this quote, Shaw is exploring the paradox of medicine, which can be broken in the following example. A doctor is at the service of a patient and is the patient’s serviced employee. Yet the doctor has major authority over the patient. Additionally, there is no strict objective formula for healing as compared to other scientific discoveries that can be replicated. For example, when constructing a light bulb, if you follow the procedures when manufacturing a light bulb, the same outcome will always happen. Shaw explores the unpredictability of the human body and the nature of convincing a patient to follow a certain regimen for healing, even if it is untrue or unproven. The class system in England reinforced the authority of the doctor’s word.

The play’s underlying theme is the paradox of unregulated and unproven medical science versus bedside manner. Dr. Walpole who guarantees 100% cure is so well off and patients are so encouraged by his demeanor, even if he is untruthful in his practice. In this instance Shaw is satirizing the quackery of the medical profession as seen in this quote;

“WALPOLE. No, I don’t. I don’t like any man who hasn’t a circulation. I tell you this: in an intelligently governed country people wouldn’t be allowed to go about with nuciform sacs, making themselves centers of infection. The operation ought to be compulsory: It’s ten times more important than vaccinations” (Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma p.24, Act I).

A doctor in the play, Walpole, invented a body part that does not exist. Walpole suggests everyone should have it removed in an obvious ploy to make more business for himself.

Additionally, the other doctors placate him and do not confront him for inventing a body part, as he does the same for them. Shaw is satirizing the old-style British gentlemen’s club that existed in England. Shaw had a huge amount of distrust of the medical profession. In fact, in this play, there are multiple doctors in the play who discuss their unproven medical theories to yet claim to be people in service of science. Moreover, there is the issue with Dr.Ridgeon who discovers a cure for tuberculosis, however, he has limited resources. Thereby Dr.Ridgeon must play god and decide who lives and who dies. The whole idea of some people being more worthy of their life being saved than others, mainly due to their class, position, and income is explored throughout the drama. That is the dilemma. Who is worth saving and who should be allowed to die?

In the case with Louis Dubedat is that he is an accomplished artist. Louis Dubedat is so charming that the fact he had little to no money, the Dr. Ridgeon still considers treating him because he is such a good artist. When it is revealed that Blenkinsop has tuberculosis also, Ridgeon is conflicted on the matter, as is seen in the following quote,

“RIDGEON. It’s not an easy case to judge, is it? Blenkinsop’s an honest decent man; but is he any use? Dubedat’s a rotten blackguard; but he’s a genuine source of pretty and pleasant and good things.” (Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma p.50, Act II)

Ridgeon and the other successful doctors look down on Dr. Blenkinsop. Mainly for his lack of economic success and who he chooses to heal. As the play unfolds, it becomes questionable who is morally worthy. Dr.Ridgeon refers Louis Dubedat to B.B., knowing full well that B.B. cannot perform the cure, and will in the end cause Louis Dubedat to die. So, who is morally just? The only honest characters in the play are Blenkinsop and Jennifer Dubedat. Blenkinsop is honest due to his actions of not asking or borrowing money for people and how he only does service on behave of the common good. He does not try to put on airs like his colleagues and is transparent about his income and status.

Jennifer Dubedat is the other honest character in the play. She is honest because she knew that her husband, Louis Dubedat, had a second wife, who he walked out on. Jennifer knew firsthand what her husband was really like and accepted him for it. What also makes Jennifer Dubedat honest is she admits that she is with him because he makes her happy. Additionally, she keeps her promise to her late husband, Louis Dubedat, by remarrying someone she loved after his death from tuberculosis. She could have married someone for money, such as Dr. Ridgeon, but chose instead to find someone who would make her happy in life, without thinking about the material aspect of what money brings.

The play upends Victorian codes of who is a gentleman. The tension revolves around the concept of Dr. Ridgeon who loves Jennifer, but she marries only for love. The doctors in the play seems to really love the status of their profession and the money that brings them. Jennifer Dubedat and Bleckinsop are the only two characters who do not fall into the trap of following what is “morally” in fashion or socially acceptable in pursuit of money, but rather they stay true to their own nature.

Shaw as a modernist satirizes the political and social systems that the medical profession exploited in Victorian and Edwardian England. Shaw was cynical towards how medical practice was operated as a business, and because of that spent six local politics. Although he writes:

“Please do not classify me as one who “doesn’t believe in doctors.” One of the our most pressing social needs in a national staff of doctors whom we believe in, and whose prosperity shall depend not on not on the nation’s sickness but on its health.” (Shaw, G.B. Shaw Festival Study Guide, p.4)

George Bernard Shaw looked to the future where a person of any income level or class, could get quality medical care.

In fact, Shaw’s arguments in The Doctor’s Dilemma are still relevant today. The themes the play puts forward are loaded and controversial because many counties that have a National Health Service are facing potential defunding of such services due to austerity and also facing mass privation of medical services that were once free or very affordable. George Bernard Shaw, even though he was critical of doctors and the medical profession, saw the great importance of them and the need for an equitable way for people to access quality health care. Shaw writes, “ must believe in what you have. When your child is ill or your wife dying, when you are confronted by “the spectacle of a fellow creature in pain or peril, what you want is comfort, reassurance, something to clutch at, were it but a straw. This the doctor brings you. You have a wildly urgent feeling that something must be done, and the doctor does something. Sometimes what he does kills the patient.” (Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Preface)

This is still all of our dilemmas and we are living through another period of great stress on society due to a pandemic that has not been seen for centuries. More great literature will be written on this current doctor’s dilemma.

Works Cited/Sources

Shaw, Bernard. The Doctor’s Dilemma: A Tragedy. London: Constable and Co, 1922. Print. Connections. The Shaw Festival Study Guide. 2010.

Holroyd, Michael. “Bernard Shaw and his Lethally Absurd Doctor’s Dilemma.” The Guardian, 07/13/2012. Web. Aug. 2020.

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