Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
John Bull’s Other Island is a satirical comedy about national character. The fact that George Bernard Shaw’s characters, as in so many of his plays, are not merely incessant talkers but indeed inveterate speech-makers helps elucidate Shaw’s themes.
In his sixty-page “Preface for Politicians,” Shaw sketches his view of the English and Irish characters. In contradiction to the received national mythology, he argues for the sentimentality of the English as against the more fastidious imaginativeness of the Irish, who combine a greater sense of the real with a debilitating sense of futility. This analysis is animated in the play, which presents the Union of England and Ireland as a marriage between the kindly, if brutally efficient, English husband and his sensitive Irish mate—in which role Doyle serves as much as Nora.
The presentation is evenhanded and unsentimental; Matt Haffigan, for example, is an unpleasant specimen, for all of his sufferings. Nevertheless—in contradiction to the critical charge that Shaw is incapable of portraying human pain—the play’s sympathy extends even to Haffigan’s Glaswegian relative, who sheds tears of joy at the thought of how much drink can be bought with a five-pound note. Furthermore, Father Keegan represents an undigested lump of suffering in the play: Only the defrocked priest, with his despairing sense of this world as a living hell, operates entirely outside its comic economy.