This play was first staged back in 1906 and centres around Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett ) a doctor who discovers a cure for tuberculosis. The dilemma the title refers to, is to whom the doctor should save when he only has a limited supply of this life saving drug. Should he save the young talented artist, Louis Dubedat (Tom Burke) who happens to be the husband of the prosperous woman he is in love with; or should he save the life of his poverty stricken friend and colleague Dr Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson).
I found reading the play to be a slow moving affair. Act 1 centres around Dr. Ridgeon's consulting-room. A myriad of doctor's arrive and depart, and the conversation is verbose and becomes increasingly difficult to remember who is who. We are informed that Sir Ridgeon can only treat ten patients. From fifty patients, he selects the ten that he believes to be the most worthy of receiving treatment. He is then approached by Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) who pleads with him to save the life of her husband. Ridgeon admits he could save one more person, but that person would have to be worth saving and be of a high moral character.
Ridgeon invites the young couple to dinner so that he and his colleagues can establish whether Dubedat is worthy of receiving treatment, yet no sooner have they decided that perhaps they should save him, they soon start to question his morality. If that didn't raise a query as to whether he should receive treatment, a colleague reveals that he himself is in dire need of treatment. Therefore the dilemma begins again, just who should receive this revolutionary new drug?
This play shows the difficulties that doctors in the early 1900's faced, and shows that a poor doctor would be tempted to treat a patient with costly but ineffective treatments. It points towards considering paying doctors a fixed salary, by the state, so that patients would all receive fair treatment, and there would not be this tiered society where those who could pay would be helped and those who could not pay be left to die. Essentially, what the play skims over is the development of our modern NHS!
Interestingly the play should resonate with a modern audience, because we find that now the NHS deals with the ethical dilemma's whether they should treat a patient who is obese, or who smokes. Those who cannot afford treatment are reliant on the NHS, and those who can afford to pay can get treatment more quickly in the private sector.
Unfortunately I found reading this play hard work. Whilst I do like George Bernard Shaw, I sometimes find his writing cumbersome to read; which is a shame, because I find he can be both witty and scurrilous writing about social reform. Shaw has contributed extensively to Anglo-Irish literature, and as a drama critic he was renowned for being provocative stirring up new ideas and broadening the depth of his readers knowledge. I was therefore disappointed that I could not engage with this play as much as I had hoped to.