Critical Context

George Bernard Shaw wrote, as he said, to change the world: “’For art’s sake’ alone I would not face the toil of a single sentence.” He took full advantage of the opportunity that publishing the play offered (in 1907) for holding forth on the nasty contemporary complexities of Ireland under English rule. His preface was written to teach the English reader not only about Ireland but also about other aspects of English imperialism, such as mindless militarism and misrule in Egypt. The play itself was written for an Irish audience “at the request of Mr. William Butler Yeats, as a patriotic contribution to the repertory of the Irish Literary Theatre.” “Mr. Yeats,” he added, “got rather more than he bargained for.” Not only was staging the play beyond the resources of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, but also the play was “uncongenial” to the spirit of the neo-Gaelic movement. Staged instead in London, John Bull’s Other Island was a commercial hit. The English audience responded well to Shaw’s criticism of Ireland while conveniently ignoring the play’s equally scorching criticisms of the English. One reviewer, Shaw noted, even “dwelt with much feeling on the pathos of Doyle’s failure as an engineer (a circumstance not mentioned nor suggested in my play).”

There is unquestionably much of Shaw himself in the play: Doyle gives voice to the playwright’s socialist, internationalist political views. John Bull’s Other Island provides fascinating psychological material for those critics who want to pursue the outsider or exile theory of Shaw as the Irish nobody who (like Doyle) turned himself into a somebody by joining the winning (English) side. The play also offers a working demonstration of the optimistic creed of “Creative Evolution” and the “Life Force” that Shaw built for himself out of the miseries of his early life: Despair is a greater danger than Broadbent’s bumptious efficiency in the service of the grasping Syndicate, and Nora Reilly is better off as his wife.