James Bridie Essay - Critical Essays

Osborne Henry Mavor


At the heart of much of James Bridie’s drama lies the conflict between science and religion. He explored this conflict in a variety of dramatic genres, including comedies, mystery plays and morality plays that have interesting resemblances to those of the medieval period, and problem dramas that suggest the influence of Henrik Ibsen. In all three general groupings, one can detect a stylistic hallmark: the use of medical language, characters who are members of the medical profession or who have something to do with a member of that profession, or situations in which science is involved in either a major or minor way. In Bridie’s plays, however, as in his life, science takes second place to the moral problems of his characters, even when its virtues or vices are the basis for those problems. In a general sense, then, all his dramas, including the most entertaining Shavian comedies, are morality plays.

Although Bridie’s religious views were “so liberal minded, so humanitarian as to be unfixed,” according to Bannister, they were, nevertheless, the driving force in his own life and in the characters of his plays. A moral fervor and rational humanism characterize his earliest performed play, The Sunlight Sonata, a comedy about seven characters affected by the traditional Seven Deadly Sins. Similarly, The Baikie Charivari is a Faustian confrontation between man and the Devil, containing seven potential evils in the form of visitors who would teach Bridie’s “Faust.” Indeed, Bridie’s thesis resembles Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s: the necessity of never saying to the moment, “Stay, thou art fair.”

Bridie’s mystery plays, dramatizations of Bible stories, constitute an important part of his uvre. In the tradition of the medieval mystery play, in which Bible stories were dramatized for “plain people,” Bridie modernizes the dilemmas in which biblical characters find themselves. In fact, he wrote three versions of the Jonah story: Jonah and the Whale, The Sign of the Prophet Jonah (1942), and Jonah 3. Bridie’s stories were drawn not only from the Bible but also from the Apocrypha and from contemporary religious events and figures.

Some of Bridie’s plays have evoked comparisons with Shaw and Ibsen. Clever turns of phrase, witty dialogue, puns, and outrageous situations involving societal “outlaws” (such as the father and daughter in Meeting at Night who conduct a mail-order confidence racket) have earned for Bridie the label the “Scottish Shaw.” Bannister records a comment that Shaw is supposed to have made to Bridie: “If there had been no me there would have been no you.” The two dramatists are dissimilar, however, in a major way, for with the exception of Daphne Laureola, Bridie’s characterizations of women lack the strength and conviction of Shaw’s. Among influences on Bridie, perhaps that of Ibsen is the strongest. It can be seen in his adaptations of Ibsen’s plays but more subtly in the satiric thrusts at status-quo science and religion in plays such as A Sleeping Clergyman, The Switchback, and The Anatomist.

A Sleeping Clergyman

In his autobiography, Bridie claimed that A Sleeping Clergyman “was the nearest thing to a masterpiece I shall probably ever write.” Completed at the end of 1932, before he had decided to give up medicine in order to devote himself to the theater, the play was produced in London in 1933. He had worked on the play off and on for two years, with earlier productions in Birmingham and Malvern. He stated that the play was an attempt to combine two themes with which he had dealt earlier: the scientist as dictator in The Anatomist and as lost sheep in the wilderness in The Switchback, and the relation of human beings to God in Tobias and the Angel and Jonah and the Whale.

The play is in two acts, the first preceded by a prologue and the second by a “chorus.” In these two introductory portions, the framework for the story is established. At a respectable men’s club in Glasgow, Dr. Cooper, a specialist in diseases of women, and Dr. Coutts, a neurologist, are relaxing with a drink. Nearby, a “huge, whitebearded” clergyman sleeps. Coutts has just returned from the funeral service of ninety-seven-year-old Dr. William Marshall, a former visiting physician at the Royal Infirmary of Glasgow. Coutts, whose father had been a friend of Marshall, represented the faculty at the funeral. The conversation then turns to another funeral attendee, Sir Charles Cameron, a noted bacteriologist. Interest in Cameron, a relative of the deceased, is aroused as the matter of his illegitimate birth is mentioned by Coutts. With a brief reference to Cameron’s grandfather, a dissipated medical student, the prologue ends, and the narration shifts to a dramatization of events in the lives of three generations of Camerons. In flashback style, the drama consists of two acts, with four scenes in each act. The action moves swiftly through more than sixty years, from 1867 to 1872, 1885, 1886, 1907, 1916, and finally to the 1930’s, in a fascinating tale in which genius eventually conquers the predilection to dissipation that the latest Cameron had inherited from his grandfather.

In act 1, the first Cameron is a young medical researcher, dying of tuberculosis but, above everything else, bent on finishing the medical research project in which he is currently engaged. The efforts of Dr. Will Marshall and his sister, Harriet, to convince Cameron to spend some time with them at their shore residence are futile. After visiting Cameron in his untidy room, Will leaves, having loaned Cameron three pounds. Later, Harriet arrives to inform Cameron that she is pregnant. He agrees to her proposal of marriage, but it is later revealed, in a conversation between two relatives on the day of a birthday party for little Wilhelmina (daughter of Harriet and Cameron), that the marriage had never taken place.

The story of the second generation of Camerons is dramatized in scene 3 of act 1. Wilhelmina, now a young woman, shows the effects of heredity as she asks her Uncle Will for a cigar she wishes to try. The incident evokes the scene in Ibsen’s Gengangere (pb. 1881; Ghosts, 1885) in which Oswald, an artist returning from Paris to his hometown in Norway, smokes a pipe and then recalls being sick as a child after his father had given him a pipe to smoke. Ibsen’s play is about an inherited syphilitic condition; Bridie’s is about inherited genius and its accompanying Bohemian lifestyle.

Wilhelmina, reared by her Uncle Will, follows in the footsteps of her mother and father in her disregard of stifling, conventional conduct. During a lovers’ quarrel over her decision to marry another man, a man of her own class—even though she is pregnant by her lover, a lower-class employee of her uncle—she poisons the latter. In covering up her act, her uncle asks Dr. Coutts (father of Coutts of the prologue) to carry out the investigation of the death. In the ensuing trial, Wilhelmina is found innocent, and then, in a reversal of her earlier intentions, refuses to marry Sutherland even though he proposed. Act 1 ends on this note. Without regard for the puritanical...

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