- John Bull’s Other Eden
John Bull’s Other Island, Shaw’s great Irish play, occupies a pivotal position in Irish literary history. It has served both as a model for individual works and as a starting point for general developments, and it has equally embodied reactions against preceding processes. The present survey will attempt to place the play at the center of a movement both forward and backward in time through the history of Irish literature, without approaching it all too systematically and pedantically.
Like all great works of literature, John Bull’s Other Island functions simultaneously on several levels of meaning. On one level, it mirrors in various ways the specific social and cultural situation of Ireland at the time when it was written and performed. Dated, with ironical overprecision, to “twenty minutes to five o’clock on a summer afternoon in 1904,” it hints at a variety of aspects of the social and economic conditions at the turn of the century1. The play is set at a moment in time between the downfall of Parnell in 1890 and the third Home Rule Bill of 1912, when, under the Conservative Balfour, there seemed to be little hope of Irish self-government. What is more, in 1904, in the lull between the abortive Fenian rebellion of 1867 and the Easter Rising of 1916, there was no prospect of a forcible separation of Ireland from Britain. The skepticism in all political matters that can be sensed throughout the play seems to be due, above all, to the fall of Parnell and his subsequent death. Those political affairs that are being discussed in the play concern the situation in England more than specifically Irish matters: the efforts of the Tariff Reform League, the electioneering for Westminster, and Broadbent’s general enthusiasm for the Liberal Party and Liberal principles. Where Ireland is concerned, the play looks back on events of the past: the disestablishment and partial disendowment of the Church of Ireland, the repressive role of Dublin Castle, memories of evictions when the rent could not be paid, the sorrows of emigration, and the various Coercion Acts of the nineteenth century. The only political activity that, in the play, seems to directly affect the present [End Page 175] situation in Ireland is the change in the land-owning conditions, beginning with the Irish Land Act of 1870 and culminating in the Irish Land Purchase Act of 1903, immediately before the action of the play, but even here, the play centers more on vague fears of the return of the tithes system and of takeovers by English syndicates than on native activities to improve the country. The reactions of the people of Rosscullen to this bleak picture range from loud-mouthed but totally ineffective patriotism to resigned acceptance of the status quo.
At the same time (and this is one of Shaw’s great achievements), the play also reflects, on a much larger scale, the general conflicts and confrontations that dominated the history of Ireland over a period of several centuries. It is this combination of the specific and the general that challenged, and enabled, other playwrights to model their own works on the pattern that Shaw had created. The most obvious example, and the play that comes closest to John Bull’s Other Island, is Louis D’Alton’s This Other Eden of 1953, although here the action takes place nearly half a century later. It is the surprising similarity between Shaw’s and D’Alton’s plays that justifies a somewhat extended discussion of This Other Eden. That D’Alton was well aware of the relationship between the two plays, and planned his own work to be seen as a calculated reaction to the earlier one, is clear not only from the—obviously intended—analogies in the structure and the dramatis personae but also from the fact that This Other Eden is supposed to be set in another specific moment in time, the year 1947, when independent Ireland, like semi-colonial Ireland in Shaw’s work forty years before, seemed to be at the nadir of its historical development. Even the title, although literally a quotation from...