The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Act one opens in the Westminster office-cum-bachelor rooms of Broadbent and Doyle, civil engineers. Tom Broadbent, very much the cheery, beef-fed John Bull, just back from a trip, instructs his valet, Hodson, to pack their bags for Ireland. He inquires whether anyone has called while he was away. Only an Irishman named Haffigan, replies Hodson, so disreputable that the punctilious valet showed him the door. However, Broadbent expresses an enthusiastic desire to see him. At that moment, fortuitously, Haffigan calls again.

Seedy, red-nosed, and possessed of a “rollicking stage brogue,” Haffigan rapidly downs half a pint of Broadbent’s whiskey, borrows five pounds, and arranges to accompany him to Rosscullen, Ireland, where Broadbent intends to develop an estate for the Land Development Syndicate. Convinced of the benefits of English efficiency, Broadbent is elated to think he will thereby also do some good for the downtrodden Irish. He wants Haffigan, as a typical Irishman (a role Haffigan is playing to the hilt), to promote the project among his countrymen.

Their tête-à-tête is interrupted by the arrival of Broadbent’s friend and partner. With Haffigan gone, Laurence Doyle exposes Broadbent’s folly in taking for the genuine article a Glasgow con artist with incipient delirium tremens—a folly entirely dependent on Broadbent’s subscribing to all the myths about the improvident, genial, and melancholy Irish-Celtic character. That character, says Doyle, is an invention of the English music hall. The real Irish character is bred by Ireland’s misty climate: The Irishman, says Doyle, himself in a “passionate dream,” is a hopeless dreamer whose dreams condemn him to perpetual squalor. Hence Doyle’s fear of returning; furthermore, Rosscullen is his birthplace, where Nora Reilly still waits for him. Broadbent nevertheless persuades him to come.

The scene changes to the open countryside of Rosscullen, at sunset: a lonely white road, heather, an ancient round tower in the distance, and an outcrop of granite in the foreground. On the granite, a man is conversing in mock seriousness with a grasshopper, causing terror in Patsy Farrell, who begs Father Keegan not to put a spell on him. Keegan can hardly shake him off, but the car arrives, and Patsy hurries off to carry the visitors’ bags, passing Nora Reilly, Keegan’s favorite. They talk; Nora is clearly preoccupied with the man who left her for the wide world eighteen years ago. Both leave before Broadbent enters, in company with the parish priest and Cornelius Doyle, Laurence Doyle’s father. Laurence Doyle, it seems, has been delayed in his journey. Cornelius’s sister comes down the hill to meet them and to arrange tea and accommodation (on the parlor sofa) for their...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

John Bull’s Other Island eschews the box set of the period, demanding some ambitious staging—the landscape of act 2 in particular. The play is interestingly structured around a spatial theme of penetration: The audience sees the Doyle house interior only in act 4. The other and much more striking dramatic device of the play is its language; the fake Irishman of act 1 allows Shaw an opportunity to dispense with stage conventions about the Irish character and also the Irish idiom. For Haffigan’s hackneyed “top of the morning” and “broth of a boy” and his fabricated brogue are substituted fine nuances (indicated in the published play by phonetic transcription) unsurpassed in the rest of Shaw’s work, not excepting Pygmalion (pb. 1912, pr. 1914).

John Bull’s Other Island is still a humorous play. The sources of its comedy include episodes of inspired zaniness, the motoring pig above all. The slapstick takes place offstage (though Patsy Farrell has some comical onstage business with a large salmon), but in any case the comic effect depends more on the stoking and fulfillment of audience expectations. There are also ironic turns of event; plot is not normally Shaw’s strong point, but John Bull’s Other Island is effectively constructed and makes ironic use of the clichés of theatrical plotting (the exile’s return, the girl who waits behind, and the like). Ironic twists that push the humor to new levels...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bertolini, John. The Playwriting Self of George Bernard Shaw. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Davis, Tracy. George Bernard Shaw and the Socialist Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Gibbs, A. M. “Bernard Shaw’s Other Island.” In Irish Culture and Nationalism 1750-1950, edited by Oliver MacDonagh, W. F. Mandle, and Pauric Travers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.

Grene, Nicholas. “John Bull’s Other Island: At Home and Abroad.” Shaw Review 23 (1980): 11-16.

Hassett, Joseph M. “Climate and Character in John Bull’s Other Island.” Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 2 (1982): 17-26.

Jenckes, Norma. “The Political Function of Shaw’s Destruction of Stage Irish Conventions in John Bull’s Other Island.” Essays in Theater 5 (May, 1987): 115-126.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. “The Shavian World of John Bull’s Other Island.” In George Bernard Shaw, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Meisel, Martin. “John Bull’s Other Island and Other Working Partnerships.” Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 7 (1987): 119-135.

Page, Malcolm, and Margery Morgan. File on Shaw. London: Methuen, 1989.

Sidnell, M. J. “John Bull’s Other Island: Yeats and Shaw.” Modern Drama 11 (1968): 245-251.