We went to see James Bridie’s play, Dr Angelus, at Pitlochry last night. Bridie was one of the founders of the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, and was a doctor turned playwright. He wrote Dr Angelus in 1947 – the tale of a wicked doctor who murders his mother-in-law and wife to get their insurance money. His young partner is too naive to speak out his misgivings about their deaths, and his maid – whom he has made pregnant – is gullible enough to believe he will take her with him when he flees justice. He is caught; his partner is not prosecuted for complicity; the maid is left to her fate.
Bridie’s plays must be difficult to act well. The dialogue is interspersed with longish philosophical passages which mean that the other actors have to stand still and listen. It can become a bit wooden and jerky. But the text is fascinating, and assumes a familiarity with the Bible which must also be challenging to contemporary audiences (though maybe not for the generation which goes to Pitlochry).
What fascinates Bridie is evil and evil figures (as in his Mr Bolfry). What we have in Dr Angelus is an amoral, manipulative serial killer, certainly. But its date may give us another clue. One of Dr Angelus’ long soliloquies has him painting himself as an Ubermensch – one who is above normal moral standards, and who, as he says, must crush those who stand in his way as one would grind a black beetle into the ground. This is Nietzsche’s amoral heroism, which Bridie must have seen something of in WW2 fascism, and the trampling of the Nazis on whatever stood in their path to self-realisation as the super-race.
By contrast, the young doctor’s desire to give himself up to the police dramatically, devastated by the guilt of having signed the two death certificates for Dr Angelus, is dismissed by the police inspector as not worth bothering about. It was not really a craven refusal to stand up to evil, but simple human weakness in the face of manipulation and blackmail from Angelus. As the police inspector said, “You did your best, but – as for most of us – it wasn’t very good”.
At the end, I felt no sense of triumph that heroic evil had met judgement – because the contrast was with not with heroic good, but with ordinary human ways that somehow muddle through to some sort of resolution. But perhaps that is just how life is, and it saves us from vanity.