An unwelcome plug for socialized medicine with a Shaw Festival play

Shaw Festival programs usually include a few lines about the play from its director. In fact — and this is entirely off the subject — we commend the Shaw for continuing to give us classy-looking programs with well-written, thoughtful essays about the plays (in contrast to Stratford Festival programs, whose meager content is delivered on cheap paper).

But the paragraphs from Morris Panych, the director of Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Shaw Festival this season, weren’t in the usual vein. Mr. Panych (whose show we enthusiastically recommend, see this post) seems to think that Shaw’s play helps make a case for government-run medical services.  His remarks hardly mention the play, discussing mostly the supposed glories of the Canadian public health system.  We don’t see it.

In the Shaw Festival

First, the play itself hardly supports a case for socialized medicine. The problem in the play is how to allocate scarce medical resources: whether Sir Colenso should give a slot in his tuberculosis clinic to (a) a brilliant young artist or (b) a selfless, lovable old medical school friend. Frankly, though, Shaw’s premise — that Sir Colenso had to make a choice and that one of these two men had to die — doesn’t seem very plausible, however useful it might have been to Shaw as a plot device. If Sir Colenso could take on one additional t.b. patient (at first he claimed he couldn’t even do that), why not two? The point applies more broadly: health care isn’t a zero-sum game; the supply of medical services isn’t fixed and limited.

How often do choices like this really happen other than at the difficult extremities of medical practice (one thinks of kidney transplants and the battlefield triage decisions in Gone with the Wind)? The play’s “dilemma” is a straw man. Surely bona fide zero-sum treatment choices like Sir Colenso’s are rare. There’s no reason why they should drive policy-making.

Shaw Festival director (and playwright) Morris Panych. Being a talented dramatist and a director doesn't give one the right to push one's views about socialized medicine on theater patrons.

At any rate, how could any nationalized health care system have resolved Sir Colenso’s “dilemma” any better than he did? Mr. Panych says that “doctors should face no dilemmas” — that “society” should make such decisions. But “society” is an elusive personage. What Mr. Panych really means is that who-shall-live-and-who-shall-die decisions like Sir Colenso’s should be taken away from doctors (and their patients) and given to bureaucrats at government health agencies. Personally, we think doctors represent “society” better than bureaucrats, and we can’t imagine why anyone would think that the latter would be better at resolving difficult moral dilemmas than the former. People don’t acquire Solomonic wisdom by becoming tenured civil servants — generally it’s the opposite.

If Shaw meant The Doctor’s Dilemma as an indictment of private medicine, he failed. It’s just a hilarious send-up of flawed men who happen to be doctors. What comedy doesn’t rely on the follies, vanities, pretensions, and eccentricities of our fellow men? Doctors are as likely to be hyper-idealistic, glory-seeking, greedy, and foolish as the rest of us. But the fact that we have to get medical care from imperfect people hardly suggests that it should be managed by other imperfect people who happen to be government bureaucrats.

Why, to those on the political left, do flaws in human nature always serve as a pretext for taking decisions away from ordinary people and turning them over to unaccountable bureaucracies? We like to think well of people, and we’d like to think that folks on the left really believe people will be better off with socialized medicine. But we can’t. We suspect instead that they’re driven by elitist irritation at the idea that ordinary people should be “allowed” to make such important decisions for themselves — and that they’re addicted to telling other people what they can and can’t do.

Dr. Donald Berwick

Unfortunately, our own President seems to fall into that camp, as he’s just appointed a fellow to run Medicaid and Medicare who believes fervently in the rationing of medical services. Americans in general aren’t ready to let health-care bureaucrats decide when a person is too old and feeble to justify spending money on, but Dr. Donald Berwick is more than ready to do that, and lots besides. He worships the British system with romantic fervor and wants to replicate it here as quickly as possible.

Our fellow Americans should know that there’s no point in writing to our senators to suggest that they disapprove of the nomination of Dr. Donald Berwick for this job, because our President has evaded Senate consideration of Dr. Berwick by making a recess appointment (here’s one of the many news stories); he distrusts not only the wisdom and judgment of his fellow Americans, but also that of the men and women they have elected to the United States Senate. The President simply can’t resist telling people what they have to accept.

Fortunately, the tide of history is against Mr. Panych (and our President), whether they realize it or not. By coincidence, a few days after we saw this superb play at the Shaw, the British government announced that it intended to reorganize the National Health Service and to shift control of England’s annual health budget from the centralized bureaucracy to local general practitioners. According to the New York Times, the new plan would give the bulk of the budgeted moneys to the doctors and let them decide how to spend the money for services their patients need from hospitals and other providers. We wish the Brits luck and hope our President pays attention.

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The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Shaw Festival

Sir Colenzo (Patrick Galligan) goes all squishy over Jennifer Dubedat (Krista Colosimo), his new patient's wife

 (July 2010) We expected the Shaw Festival’s production of The Women would show off the ensemble playing of the company’s women, but it didn’t (see this post). Fortunately, another Shaw show shows off the virtuosity of the men instead: Bernard Shaw’s witty The Doctor’s Dilemma. It couldn’t be done any better.

The “dilemma” of this 1906 comedy is whether medical scientist Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Patrick Galligan) should use his new cure for tuberculosis (a) to save the life of a brilliant young artist (Jonathan Gould) or (b) or to save the life of an impoverished old friend from medical school (Ric Reid) who serves the poor. He has the resources to save only one. 

Michael Ball as Sir Patrick Cullen, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington holds forth on stimulating the phagocytes to Sir Patrick Cullen (Michael Ball) and Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Patrick Galligan)

Posing the question like this makes The Doctor’s Dilemma sound like the sort of consciousness-raising drama that Emsworth avoids like the plague. Fortunately, it’s all fodder for irreverent humor in wickedly funny scenes involving a priceless menagerie of Sir Colenso’s medical friends.

There is Walpole (Patrick McManus), a surgeon who thinks anyone who is sick suffers from a form of blood poisoning that only his trademark surgery will cure; Schutzmacher (Jonathan Widdifield), who has gotten rich advertising “cure guaranteed”; Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (the superb Thom Marriott), a fashionable doctor obsessed with his own voice and with “stimulating the phagocytes” (it cracked us up every time he said it), and Sir Patrick Cullen (the wonderful Michael Ball, still our favorite Shaw Festival actor), an old-school physician who is philosophical about all the patients he has unintentionally “killed”. 

In fact, as interpreted by director Morris Panych — and we think he got it right — the play is very nearly a black comedy. As Sir Colenso himself says:

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.

Sir Colenso is besotted with the artist’s wife (Krista Colosimo), who is a good deal younger than he; he could please her by curing her husband, or, morbidly, he could give himself a chance by letting her become a widow. And however fine an artist Louis Dubedat may be, the doctors discover that he’s a spectacularly selfish blackguard who never would be missed.  As Oscar Wilde wrote about the death of Little Nell, one would have a heart of stone to witness the stage death of Louis Dubedat without laughing. 

Louis Dubedat (Jonathan Gould) entertains as he dies in the arms of his wife

The cast are all first-rate (we should also mention Catherine McGregor in a fine comic turn as Sir Colenso’s housemaid Emmy). Even newcomer Jonathan Gould, as Dubedat, rises to the level of the Shaw veterans. We think much of the fun in this show is due to snappy direction from Morris Panych, who caught the play’s comic essence, kept the dialogue crackling, and has an unerring sense for good sight gags. 

Dubetat's art studio. The set designer ignored Shaw's instructions for the set entirely, but his design works.

Emsworth is usually skeptical of unconventional, non-period set designs for Victorian plays. But we must have been in an unusually open-minded frame of mind last weekend; we were thoroughly amused by the clever, colorful sets designed by Ken MacDonald. 

When we first started visiting the Shaw Festival, its productions of Shaw’s plays tended to be on the stodgy side and weren’t usually the best shows on a season’s playbill.  But for at least the last seven years, at least one of Shaw’s plays has been done so well as to fall into the “shouldn’t be missed” category. This is one of them.

Director Morris Panych, who wrote an op-ed piece praising socialized medicine that someone inexplicably chose to publish in the Shaw Festival program, seems to think that The Doctor’s Dilemma makes a case for governmental control of medical services, which was a bad idea in 1906 and is still a bad idea in 2010. Good idea or bad, there’s no excuse for presumptuously inflicting your politics on the people who patronize your play.  We think we’ll have a little more about this in a later post. Here is that post.

Emsworth’s take on the Shaw Festival’s 2010 production of the Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus is at this post. The classic American comedy Harvey is also in repertory at the Shaw Festival this year; see this post. So is Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Cherry Orchard; see this post. Thoughts on The Women are at this post. We praise a very worthy An Ideal Husband at this post. The Shaw Festival’s lunchtime presentation, J. M. Barrie’s one-act play Half an Hour, is considered at this post.

We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season

One_Touch_of_Venus poster w Mary Martin

The poster for the original stage production of One Touch of Venus, the only musical on the 2010 playbill

We enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out what’s really going on at the Shaw Festival from the official clues. To our eyes, the 2010 schedule of plays shows that the Shaw is shifting direction, possibly because of the glum report that Shaw Festival theaters were only 63.5 percent full in 2009, down from 70 percent in 2008.

But we still like the 2010 lineup. We’ll begin with the shows we’re most looking forward to and end with a couple we may skip.

1. The Women (Clare Boothe Luce). Emsworth takes credit for this one. A year ago, reviewing the dreadful Hollywood version of The Women, we broadly hinted that this play was way overdue at the Shaw Festival (last seen in 1985, when Nora McClellan played the much-abused Mary Haines).  To the Shaw Festival: Thanks for taking requests! 

Clare Boothe Luce

Clare Boothe Luce, a successful playwright during the 1930s, a Republican congresswoman in the 1940s

The Women is on our short list of the finest plays of the twentieth century, a tale of ruthless, catty, insecure society women behaving in beastly ways to one another, a play liable to make you quirm in discomfort and laugh at the same time.  (The Office is not an altogether original concept.) When it’s over you’ll realize you never actually saw any men on stage. By our count, this is the fourth play with an all-female cast that Jackie Maxwell has programmed since she’s been in charge — not a bad idea, since just at this point in its history, the female contingent of the Shaw company is remarkably strong. Deborah Hay, Mary Haney, Kelli Fox, and Sharry Flett will be among The Women. Ms. Hay will play Sylvia Fowler, the treacherous friend of Mary Haines, to be played by Jenny Young.

2. Harvey (Mary Chase).  If classic American comedies are what people will pay money to see (as was the case with Born Yesterday in the season just past; see Emsworth’s review of that excellent show), why not put on two? This play won the Pulitzer in 1945, and the 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart is among Emsworth’s five favorite films.

Dowd with Harvey

Elwood Dowd (James Stewart) admires a portrait of himself and Harvey in the 1950 movie

Harvey is, of course, the sentimental, half-magical story of the ever-pleasant, alcoholic, eccentric Elwood Dowd and his socially inconvenient friend Harvey, an invisible six-and-a-half foot rabbit.  Joseph Ziegler will direct; he’s one of the Shaw’s best. Peter Krantz will play Elwood Dowd and Mary Haney his distracted sister Veta.

3. One Touch of Venus (Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, S. J. Perelman). The Shaw Festival is evidently ceding the field of expensive big production musical plays to the Stratford Festival. In 2007 Nash postage stampand 2008, the Shaw put on two of the finest musicals we’ve ever seen (Mack and Mabel and Wonderful Town), but they evidently weren’t as popular as they needed to be. The Shaw’s 2009 musical, Sunday in the Park with George, was, as we sorrowfully reported, a crashing bore (see this post).

So the Shaw is trying to re-create past glories. Back in 2005, the Shaw pulled Kurt Weill’s edgy musical Happy End out of utter obscurity; it did so well that they brought it back in 2006.  In 2010, it’ll be One Touch of Venus, a not-quite-so-obscure Kurt Weill musical about what happens when a barber from the New York suburbs brings a priceless statue of Venus to life (they fall in love). The songs include “Speak Low,” which we know mostly from Barbra Streisand’s “Back to Broadway” album a few years ago. Robin Evan Willis will play the goddess; Deborah Hay also appears.

J M Barrie

James M. Barrie

4. Half an Hour (James M. Barrie) We are extraordinarily partial to both the novels and the plays of J. M. Barrie (see this Emsworth review of a recent Barrie biography) and think he belongs in the top tier of English writers.  This poignant one-act play — we’ve only read it, never seen it — is superb drama, as a mistreated young wife flees to a lover. Expect an emotional roller-coaster and a shocking plot twist. But don’t expect Half an Hour to be anything like Peter Pan — it’s more in the vein of Noël Coward’s Still Life, which the Shaw presented in 2009 (see Emsworth’s delighted review). The talented and extremely attractive Diana Donnelly will play Lady Lillian.

This will be the “Lunchtime” offering at the Shaw this year.  These hour-long $30 shows are a great bargain, though we wonder how Half an Hour will take up the full hour of the show. Might there be another short one-act Barrie play? Coincidentally, Peter Pan is on the playbill at the Stratford Festival for 2010.

5. An Ideal Husband (Oscar Wilde). Once again, the Shaw’s looking backwards; An Ideal Husband was such a hit in 1995 that the Shaw brought the production back for a second year. But we don’t weary of Wilde and applaud the Shaw Festival for keeping his plays in rotation. An Ideal Husband is the story of a woman who worships her husband, a hot-shot British politician, to be played by the silver-haired Patrick Galligan; she’s ill-prepared to learn from a morally challenged rival that her husband has a skeleton in his closet. (Insider trading, of all things, is a theme at the Shaw in 2010.)

6. Serious Money (Caryl Churchill). Candidly?  We’re skeptical of contemporary plays that we don’t know anything about, and ticket prices being what they are, we don’t often take chances. We’ve been burned too often with newer plays that aren’t any better than mediocre TV sitcoms.  Not to say that good plays haven’t been written in the last fifty years — we know all about Edward Albee, August Wilson, Neil Simon, and David Mamet — but we’re not good at sifting the wheat from the chaff.  So if the Shaw Festival is going to weed out the dreck of the post-modern era and bringing the good stuff to Niagara-on-the-Lake, we’re all for it.

We don’t know much about Caryl Churchill except that she’s a leftist with an interest in gender issues. That would ordinarily be a recipe for dreariness and drivel.  But Churchill is also said to be one of the finest living English playwrights, and Shaw Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell still has capital with us, so we’ll give Serious Money a shot. The play was written in 1987 and apparently has to do with shenanigans in the stock market.

This contemporary drama will be at the new, small Studio Theater space where The Entertainer was presented in 2009. (We liked both the space and the John Osborne play; see this Emsworth review). We are grateful to see that tickets for shows in the Studio Theater space are cheaper — only $49 — though we’re not quite sure why. Or perhaps we do — would we pay full price for a pig in a poke?

7. The Doctor’s Dilemma (George Bernard Shaw). What does it say about the status of Bernard Shaw at the Shaw Festival when no Shaw play is scheduled to be performed till mid-June, nearly three months after the season starts?  Ominously, a recent piece in one of the Toronto papers suggested that Shaw’s standing among playwrights of the modern era isn’t what it used to be. Is it possible that the Shaw Festival is beginning to feel weighed down by having to build its seasons around Shaw?

We hope not — the Shaw plays have been better than ever in recent years, including The Devil’s Disciple, which was one of the best things we saw anywhere in 2009 (see this post) and Mrs. Warren’s Profession (ditto in 2008; see this post).  The Doctor’s Dilemma deals with a doctor (Patrick Galligan) who has to choose between two patients who need the same life-saving treatment; he can treat only one.  Now that Obamacare has become law in the United States, of course, the theme has renewed relevance for us patrons from the United States.

8. The Cherry Orchard (Anton Chekhov). Ever since we saw a marvelous production of this play at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn last winter (see our review), The Cherry Orchard has rated as one of our very favorite plays. The cast will include Shaw all-stars Benedict Campbell and Jim Mezon. Sadly, the exquisite Goldie Semple, who had been scheduled to appear in this play, passed away last winter. We’re looking forward to seeing it close up in the Courthouse Theatre.

Age of Arousal scene

A scene from one of the earlier productions of The Age of Arousal (we borrowed the image from Linda Griffiths's website)

9. The Age of Arousal (Linda Griffiths). Two contemporary plays in one season? Things are definitely changing at the Shaw Festival. Written in 2007, this play is practically fresh off the press. Set in 1885, The Age of Arousal is about a London suffragette, Mary Barfoot, who opens a typewriting school to help young women become independent.

Linda Griffiths is an award-winning Canadian playwright and actress, but this is the first this American has heard of her. So many contemporary writers find Victorian mores an inviting target; we hope the play’s not just another version of “isn’t it awful how repressed they were before the sexual revolution?” Or, God forbid, a stage version of a bodice-ripper.

10. John Bull’s Other Island (George Bernard Shaw). We saw this play at the Shaw Festival in 1998 and again here in Rochester at GeVa Theater several years ago, and we just haven’t taken to it. So we figure to give it a miss in 2010, feeling we are not bound to like every Shaw play. It’s the story of a couple of men from London who go to Ireland and get mixed up with a Irish beauty and local politics. Benedict Campbell and Graeme Somerville will play Tom Broadbent and Larry Doyle.