George Bernard Shaw was moved to write his The Doctor’s Dilemma in order explore fully the paradox of how a man can be a genius but still lack honor. It is this tragic circumstance of the individual that moved to Shaw to view the play as a comedy about tragedy. The dilemma the doctor faces is whether an expensive and potentially devastating treatment for tuberculosis that nevertheless shows great potential be used to save the life a great artist but lousy man or a great man but middling physician? Which is more important to the world: character or talent?
A romantic subplot is created by Shaw for the purpose of making the decision even more of a dilemma for the doctor by having him fall in love with the wife if the talented, dishonorable artist. For the purposes of dramatic tension, this decision lends the doctor’s decision another layer of possibility, but what the story is really about that maintains relevance to audiences today is the process by which decision are made as to who gets medical treatment and who does not. For Shaw, the moral juncture turns not on compassionate or need, but a subjective judgement of the quality of mercy. Should mercy be strained on a heart that does deserve it or a brain that does not deserve it.
The same type of dilemmas are faced daily in the ever increasingly complexity of health care and usually it is boiled down to a matter of economics. The morality upon which Shaw’s Sir Colenso Ridgeon finds problematic has been transformed from the physician to the system and the system is by definition an economic entity. Nevertheless, the larger questions posed by Shaw are entirely applicable to 21st century healthcare. Shaw was moved to write this play on the occasion of criticism of always writing about superhuman and larger than life figures who never have to deal with death. The critique suggested that this reliance upon immortality should prove to be Shaw’s weakness as a playwright. The ironic conclusion is that even when Shaw took up the challenge to make his characters more human, his ideas were still applied to a higher realm and that is why his plays are still being performed more than a century later while those whose characters lived and died among more tangible and immediate concerns have been reduced to academic study on the page, but with form given by actors on a stage.