The Doctor’s Dilemma:
A play for these times
COVID-19 revives the problem of limited medical resources raised in the 1906 Shaw play
By Byron Toben
Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.
– G. Bernard Shaw
While there have been many plays or films about persons with serious illnesses, there have been few about novel diseases or limited resources to cure. Angels in America, dealing with AIDS comes to mind. Viewers are invited to remind me of others that they know of.
The one that I do know of and appreciate is the 1906 granddaddy of this topic, namely G. Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma. This fine play is timely again today with the advent of the novel virus COVID-19 whose rapid spread threatens to overwhelm our hospitals as we wait for possible treatment to be discovered or devised. Doctors or other staff may be forced to “play God” in allocating beds or ventilators, etc. in limited supply. Should they favour first come, first served or defer to the younger or the most seriously afflicted?
In Shaw’s play, the disease was tuberculosis (serious even today, but a real killer back then).
The protagonist, Sir Colenso Ridgeon, had come across a curative procedure but had only enough to cure eleven people of which he had ten committed. A beautiful woman, Jennifer Dubedat, crashes his office, pleading that he treat her husband Louis Dubedat, a genius painter but despicable person. Sir Ridgeon falls in love with her and is tempted to accede but to do so would require him to reject an ailing doctor who had little fortune as he had dedicated his practice to serving the poor.
‘Doctors or other staff may be forced to “play God” in allocating beds or ventilators, etc. in limited supply. Should they favour first come, first served or defer to the younger or the most seriously afflicted?’
Thus the dilemma… great art from bad person vs. humble activities from good person. This brings to mind the playing of Nazi sympathizer Wagner’s heralded music despite his political bent.
When we ever can use our venues again, I think the play would do well at the Dawson Theatre or the National Theatre School. If no one takes it on, I might arrange a staged reading of it myself.
In the meantime, viewers might find the 1958 film version (with Leslie Caron and Dirk Bogarde) on Netflix or another film streaming service.
Canadian content: the 1941 New York debut of the play, produced and starring Katherine Cornell featured Canadian Raymond Massey, fresh from his movie role as Abraham Lincoln, as Ridgeon. (Yes, he was the brother of Governor-General Vincent Massey.)
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.