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James Bridie Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 2,995 words.)