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John Bull’s Other Island is ultimately a consideration of cultural identity and heritage. The main character, Larry Doyle, is an Irishman who is infatuated with British identity and culture. He finds appeal in the fast paced life that is money focused and he moves to London. There he meets Tom Broadbent, a charming and untrustworthy British businessman. The two own a firm together as civil engineers. The story highlights the biased views many British have of Ireland. Through the character of Broadbent, Ireland is positioned as a country full of poor farmers who have yet to learn the civilized ways of development. Broadbent moves their business back to Doyle’s hometown and looks forward to saving the poor farmers from themselves. While there, he grows to fall in love with the land and a young lady there (who is, in actuality, waiting for Doyle’s return). Doyle continues to have distaste for his homeland. He sees the farmers as useless and the land drab. He yearns for the city of London. Father Keegan is the town’s priest who confronts Doyle about his rejection of Irish identity. Keegan has an immediate distrust of Broadbent and makes clear that he does not have the town’s best intentions in mind. Despite Keegan’s distrust, the other town’s people take to Broadbent. He runs for office and starts to take control of the town. This in many ways is a cautionary tale about colonialism and self-hate. Doyle puts his town in harms way by befriending Broadbent, who is written as a greedy colonizer. Broadbent’s plans to turn the town into an amusement park are revealed. He aims to build a hotel and golf course. The story ends with Keegan encouraging Doyle to return to his Irish heritage and reject the British culture which is working to destroy them.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1134

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 guest. Bullying the overburdened Patsy and embarrassed by their poverty, the Doyles head homeward.

A little later, well fed and watered (he has sampled potcheen, the illicit moonshine of Irish lore), Broadbent strolls out for a cigar by the Round Tower. Here he surprises Nora, who had hoped to encounter Doyle in this romantic setting. She is proudly distant, but enchantment with everything Irish has induced in Broadbent a condition of extreme sentimentality: Within two minutes he proposes. She blames the potcheen and leads him home; he is mortified to think that he has disgraced himself.

Act 3 opens shortly after breakfast in the garden of the Doyle home. A new arrival at the gate is identified by Laurence Doyle, now safely arrived, as another Haffigan—Matt, an unprepossessing peasant whose wits have been extinguished by degrading toil. His tales of injustice and suffering predictably stir Broadbent’s sympathy. Meanwhile, the Englishman also worries about the night before; his confession elicits howls of laughter from Doyle for his “blithering sentimentality.”

Cornelius, Father Dempsey, Matt Haffigan, and Barney Doran (a redheaded miller with “an enormous capacity for derisive, obscene, blasphemous, or merely cruel and senseless fun”) now appear. They have come to sound out Doyle on the possibility of his standing for Parliament; they want a member with his own money, who will leave them alone. Doyle, however, has become a citizen of the world and knows that he is not for them. His talk of a minimum wage for the Patsy Farrells of Ireland, of turning the land over to those who can make it prosper, and of breaking the stranglehold of the Roman Catholic Church rapidly frightens them. Instead, it seems, the ideal candidate is Broadbent, who now takes a turn at speechifying. The locals then confer and decide that they could easily control him. Meanwhile, quite pleased with himself, Broadbent leaves to fetch his motorcar. He has seen a way to a quick bit of campaigning—he will give a ride home to the pig that Cornelius has just sold Matt.

Between acts 3 and 4, the comic catastrophe the audience has anticipated occurs: The terrified pig has gone hog-wild in the motorcar, which in turn has run out of control through the streets on market day. Molly Ryan’s china stall has been smashed and an old lady injured. All of this the audience learns from Doran, who tells the tale with relish to his cronies, Keegan, and the family in Cornelius’s parlor. The Irish sense of humor has been thoroughly tickled by the preposterous Englishman. When Broadbent enters, however, full of the seriousness of Molly’s losses, the old lady’s injuries, the unfortunate pig’s demise, and other consequences that might have ensued, the audience—like Doyle and the family—is led to question whether his version of the story is the better one. Even Keegan now tells him he will win the seat, although he is, unconsciously, a hypocrite in the service of Mammon (the syndicate).

The party breaks up. Doyle and Nora are left alone for the first time. An awkward interview leaves Nora in tears. Broadbent, returning, cannot stand seeing her unhappy; he takes her in his arms for comfort and clumsily but determinedly wins her promise to marry him. He is elated: What better wife could a politician have? He persuades her to come on a walk, and genteel Nora finds that she now must degrade herself in her own eyes by shaking hands with all and sundry. However, as Doyle makes her see, she has made the best match she can; Broadbent will make her happy, healthy, and useful. At the play’s end, he is planning to do much the same for all Rosscullen by turning poor farmers into disciplined workers for the Syndicate and building a hotel and golf course near the Round Tower, which will become a tourist attraction. Not even a final encounter with the mysterious and spiritual Keegan dampens his faith in his power to do good, or Irish Doyle’s faith in his Englishness, which has “made a man” of Doyle too.

Dramatic Devices

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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 of comedy include the cronies’ willing acceptance of Broadbent as their parliamentary candidate after the episode with Matt’s pig. The play’s breathless pacing adds to the comic effect.

One of the most important sources of the play’s comedy is its dialogue, which exploits the absurdities of the characters’ positions. The well-meaning Broadbent, for example, declares with “intense earnestness”: “Never despair, Larry. There are great possibilities for Ireland. Home Rule will work wonders under English guidance.” His very indulgence is insulting and his blind seriousness grandly comic: “It will be quite delightful to drive with a pig in the car: I shall feel quite like an Irishman.”

In Laurence Doyle’s despairing assessment of the Irish national character Shaw provides a philosophical basis for the Irish sense of hilarity at the center of disaster:Oh, the dreaming! the dreaming! the torturing, heartscalding, never satisfying dreaming, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming! . . . And all the time you laugh, laugh, laugh! eternal derision, eternal envy, eternal folly, eternal fouling and staining and degrading, until, when you come at last to a country where men take a question seriously and give a serious answer to it, you deride them for having no sense of humor, and plume yourself on your own worthlessness. . . .

Keegan has the last word on the comic spirit that inspires the play, but which the play also disturbingly questions: “Every dream is a prophecy: every jest is an earnest in the womb of Time.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 187

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.


Critical Essays