“The Doctor’s Dilemma” is a 20th-century play by George Bernard Shaw. First staged in 1906, this “problem play” involves a doctor wondering who he should give lifesaving medical treatment to. The doctor knows that treating some people means killing others. This is a problem play because it involves characters with conflicting moral standpoints debating social and ethical dilemmas on stage. It’s one of Shaw’s most controversial and popular plays. Shaw was a popular 20th-century playwright and political activist. He wrote more than 60 plays over his lifetime, and he received the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature.
“The Doctor’s Dilemma” takes place in June 1903. The protagonist is Dr. Ridgeon. He’s a renowned physician. He’s such a popular doctor that he’s closed his surgery to new patients because he can’t look after them all. He’s supported by Redpenny, a young and enthusiastic trainee doctor, who takes his position very seriously. Redpenny is as much a gatekeeper as an assistant.
Dr. Ridgeon recently discovered a possible cure for tuberculosis, and he’s selecting patients for his trials. Tuberculosis spreads quickly and it’s often lethal, and so this treatment might save thousands of lives. The problem is that Dr. Ridgeon can’t treat everyone. He must decide who deserves the tuberculosis treatment, and he doesn’t know how to pick anyone. This dilemma forms the play’s moral conflict.
When the play opens, Dr. Ridgeon’s telling everyone he meets about his accomplishments. He’s knighted now and wants everyone to call him Sir. Redpenny indulges him because he knows that working for Dr. Ridgeon makes him the most envied man in London right now. However, Emmy, the office cleaner, thinks the title is ridiculous, and she worries that Dr. Ridgeon’s too full of his own importance.
Another physician, Dr. Cullen, arrives at the surgery. He doesn’t think the cure is very effective. He’s worried that Dr. Ridgeon hasn’t tested it properly, and that he’s giving sufferers false hope. Dr. Ridgeon thinks that Dr. Cullen is paranoid, and he can’t take him seriously. Dr. Cullen points out that Dr. Ridgeon’s experiments failed before, and he’s hurt many people, but Dr. Ridgeon can’t remember these patients. They don’t seem to matter to him anymore.
Again, Dr. Ridgeon says that he does remember these patients. The vaccination failed once, but that doesn’t mean it’ll fail this time. Dr. Cullen worries that he’s playing a dangerous game with people’s lives, but Dr. Ridgeon won’t hear him. He believes that curing tuberculosis is worth the risk. Dr. Cullen disagrees, but he isn’t here to cause a fight. Instead, he wishes Dr. Ridgeon well and lets him get on with his day.
Before Dr. Ridgeon can return to his patients, Emmy enters his office. A woman called Jennifer wants Dr. Ridgeon to see her husband, Louis. He’s a very talented artist and he suffers from tuberculosis. If he survives, he’ll earn lots of money and make worthy contributions to society. Dr. Ridgeon says that he’s welcome to present his paintings at an upcoming conference, and he’ll decide if the man’s worthy or not.
At the conference, Dr. Ridgeon plans on making his final selection decisions. He’s got ten spaces to fill, and he’s unsure who to give the last one to. Louis impresses Dr. Ridgeon at the conference. Louis somehow manages to borrow money from all the doctors in attendance, and it’s unclear whether he’ll ever pay them back.
Meanwhile, a woman called Minnie Tinwell appears. She claims that she’s Louis’s real wife, and she produces marriage documents to prove it. Dr. Ridgeon doesn’t know if he should help Louis now, because he’s a dishonorable man. In the meantime, another doctor asks to be part of Dr. Ridgeon’s trial. He helps poor people who can’t afford to pay for treatment. If he dies, there’s no one left to help these people.
Dr. Ridgeon now faces a dilemma—help the artist or the doctor. He goes to see Louis at home, and Jennifer’s there. Dr. Ridgeon fancies Jennifer, and he’d marry her if he could. If Louis dies, he can marry Jennifer without ever bringing up Minnie and the possible fraud. He doesn’t know what to do, and he’s got nowhere to turn.
Finally, Dr. Ridgeon devises a plan. He’ll save the doctor, and he’ll tell Louis that this other doctor can cure his tuberculosis. Louis and Jennifer believe him, and Louis goes to the other doctor. However, this man obviously can’t cure Louis, and Louis falls gravely ill. Dr. Ridgeon wonders if he was right to deceive Louis, but he believes that Louis deserved the deceit.
Before Louis dies, he tells Jennifer to remarry. He wants her to be happy. Dr. Ridgeon assumes that Jennifer will choose him, but she’s got no intention of marrying him. Jennifer’s horrified at the thought of marrying an older man. Dr. Ridgeon tells her that he only deceived Louis so they could be together, which horrifies her even more. Dr. Ridgeon’s left alone, wondering what he could have done differently. The other doctor is now happily serving the poor once again.