- John Bull's Other Island:Taking the Bull to Ireland
In the midst of composing John Bull's Other Island, Bernard Shaw remarked enthusiastically in a letter to Ada Rehan about his nonpartisan play: "This is the first time I have tried my hand on Ireland; and of course, being an Irishman, I get a quality into the play that is quite unlike anything in any other plays. It is not particularly complimentary to either the English or the Irish; but it is fascinating."1 Written in 1904 under the working title "Rule Britannia," John Bull's Other Island is Shaw's only full-length play to be set largely in Ireland, despite the fact that Shaw was born in Dublin and lived there for the first twenty years of his life. Indeed, G. K. Chesterton declared that all Shaw's blood and origin may be found in this play.2
There is continued debate as to the history surrounding Shaw's uncompromising play. Michael Holroyd, for example, adheres to Shaw's own claim in the preface that it was W. B. Yeats who invited him to write the play as "a patriotic contribution to the repertory of the Irish Literary Theatre."3 But as A. M. Gibbs points out, even though Shaw wrote to Yeats on 23 June 1904 that "I have it quite seriously in my head to write an Irish play," an earlier letter from Yeats to Lady Gregory, dated 12 March 1900, reveals that the idea of "a play on the contrast between Irish and English character" had been forming in Shaw's mind well before 1904.4 Michael J. Sidnell further contends that Yeats did indeed invite Shaw to write a play, but that it was in 1901 and that it was Yeats's intention that Shaw "stir things up still further" at a time when the Irish Revival was in full swing.5 Whichever the case, the fate of Ireland and of the Irish remained paramount in Shaw's mind even as he distanced himself from the belated aesthetic and cultural aspirations of the Celtic Renaissance. In fact, the revitalized sense of Irish "reality" that Shaw ultimately presented in John Bull's Other Island [End Page 133] was "frightfully modern—no banshees or leprechauns,"6 one that new the Abbey Theatre summarily, though diplomatically, rejected.
Shaw was impressed by the theatrical productions of the early modern Irish dramatic movement and was determined to contribute one of his plays to their burgeoning repertory. In watching Irish plays in performance at the Court Theatre, he spotted a niche he felt compelled to fill. The result was John Bull's Other Island, a realistic drama that betrays to devastating effect the twilight reveries of the Celtic Revival by exposing the brutal realities of Irish rural poverty and exploitation. According to Declan Kiberd, Shaw strategically "used England as a laboratory in which he could redefine what it meant to be Irish,"7 and in the case of John Bull's Other Island it is clear that part of Shaw's motivation in writing his "frightfully modern" play can be traced to a concept that was revolutionizing town planning in England at the turn of the nineteenth century in the form of the Garden City Movement. An attendant phenomenon that was likewise transforming the Irish landscape at the time and that is also germane to understanding Shaw's drama is the Wyndham Land Act (1903), passed by the British Conservative government one year prior to the writing of the play. By encouraging landlords to sell entire estates, the act allowed Irish farmers to purchase land they had previously rented from British landlords. The new legislation superseded all previous acts with regard to its generous terms, both for landlord and farmer, and allowed almost two hundred thousand farmers to own their own land, paying less than they had for rent.8 Although land ownership had been central to the Irish psyche well before the Tudor Plantations, centuries of colonialism and landlordism had contributed to one of the nation's greatest fears: dispossession. From his days as a clerk in a land agency, Shaw, the transplanted Irishman, was...