The Doctor's Dilemma
A September 11 New York Times op-ed titled "Is Newer Better? Not Always" rails against our high-cost medical system, which encourages waste and allows patients to spend crazy amounts of money on doctors, hospitals and medical manufacturers for tests, treatments and surgeries they don't need. The op-ed is yet another installment in our loud public discourse on healthcare, but Americans might be discouraged to find out just how far behind the curve we are during George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, a 1906 comedy about the horrors of the British medical practice now running at Main Street Theater.
The play focuses on a newly knighted doctor named Colenso Ridgeon (Joel Sandel) and his medical cohorts—most of whom are bumbling boobs, in Shaw's estimation. Almost all practice for money rather than for the common good, and their greed feeds their collective stupidity, which we learn about when they show up to congratulate Ridgeon on his newly acquired knighthood.
Sweeping through the door is Mr. Cutler Walpole (Seán Patrick Judge), a surgeon who believes "95 percent of the human race suffer from chronic blood-poisoning, and die of it." He's also quite adept at cutting out the "nuciform sac," which he declares is often "full of decaying matter — undigested food and waste products." Of course, there is no such thing as a nuciform sac, but that doesn't stop him from chloroforming his patients, then making money off his totally useless operations. Silly as this might sound, it's not so far off from the sort of useless surgeries the Times op-ed column accuses modern-day doctors of performing for big bucks. Another finely dressed fool is Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (Alan Hall), a doctor who's handed out medicines "ever since they first came out," even though he doesn't have time to learn about them.
Only Ridgeon himself has true scientific knowledge – he's come up with what appears to be an actual cure for T.B. But he only has room for a select few patients, which is where the conflict starts. Into Ridgeon's life comes a lovely young woman named Jennifer Dubedat (Beth Hopp), who's looking for a doctor to cure her husband's consumption. Ridgeon doesn't have room for more patients — this problem has a familiar ring — but the young woman is charming and her husband is deeply talented, as evidenced by his artistic sketches. She argues that a man of such talent shouldn't be allowed to die, and Ridgeon wonders if she might be right. The good doctor invites the Dubedats to dinner with all the doctors so that they can discuss the husband's case.
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The grand dinner only ends up complicating Ridgeon's decision about whether or not he can treat the artist. In the first place, Ridgeon learns that while Dubedat might be "a genuine source of pretty and pleasant and good things," he is also an unrepentant liar and a cheat, which the doctors discover once they share stories after the couple leaves.
Even more difficult is the fact that over dinner, Ridgeon also learns that another old friend, Dr. Blenkinsop (David Wald), is also sick with T.B. Blenkinsop is the only doctor who doesn't practice for money, since he works among the poor. Without money, Blenkinsop hasn't been able to afford the scientific training that has taught Ridgeon how to cure T.B. Thus Ridgeon must choose between treating his doctor friend, an "honest, decent man," and the talented artist who is also a "rotten blackguard" — between good people and agreeable pictures.
Put in these terms, the question seems outlandish, but Shaw was a believer in socialized medicine. And he believed that medicine for profit created both ridiculous treatments and terrible choices that sound an awful lot like "death panels." The politics of the play make Main Street's production feel weirdly contemporary, even with Rebecca Greene Udden's lovely period costumes. Under Mark Adams's lively direction, Shaw's storyline comes together and the actors embrace their characters' arrogant foolishness with great gusto.
Though it would be lovely to think of the questions Shaw poses as both historical and histrionic, they still haven't been answered a century after Shaw wrote them down.
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