Lecture 53: The Judgment of Dr. Johnson

I hate to admit that George Bernard Shaw was right about anything even though it is almost impossible that anyone can be wrong about everything. But I must openly declare that Shaw was certainly right when he urged Chesterton to write more plays. He recognized Chesterton’s gift for plotting, for dramatic impulse, for show-stopping wit, and most of all, for sparkling dialogue. The key to great dialogue is giving both sides of an argument a fair shake. As a philosophical adversary to Chesterton, he knew – perhaps painfully – that Chesterton understood his opponents’ perspectives better than they understood it themselves. But as Chesterton’s friend, he also knew that plays were money-makers and fame-makers, and Chesterton deserved more of both.

Shaw goaded Chesterton into writing the play Magic, which was quite successful. But what remains a mystery is that it was not even more successful. And it is a greater mystery that Chesterton did not write more plays. But the greatest mystery is that the plays he did write were not smash hits and standard pieces in today’s theatrical repertoire. Case in point: The Judgement of Dr. Johnson. It has it all. Witty dialogue, high drama and historical characters of great interest. It even has the added interest of the main character being the literary figure to whom Chesterton himself is most compared: Dr. Samuel Johnson. Why was it not a huge success? Was it not a huge success still? I have no answer.

I’ve been told that this play reads better than it plays. But the people who told me that have never actually seen a production of it. I don’t know anyone who has. I don’t know when it was last staged. I don’t know why it is not staged all the time. But we’ve been over this.

Interestingly enough, Chesterton himself once puzzled over the mystery of why Dr. Johnson had never been brought to the stage. He was obviously an entertaining figure, and as Boswell’s classic book on Johnson brings out, there was great comedy in his clash with other characters. And there would be even more comedy in the contradictions in his own character. “It is,” said Chesterton, “a contradiction not at all uncommon in men of fertile and forcible minds. I mean a strenuous and sincere belief in convention, combined with a huge natural inaptitude for observing it. Somebody might make a really entertaining stage-scene out of the inconsistency, while preserving a perfect unity in the character of Johnson.” And so Chesterton decided took it upon himself to remedy the problem.

The reasons that Chesterton and Dr. Johnson are often compared are pretty obvious. They were both great men of their time, both large, both quotable and both uncannily right in their judgments. What Chesterton said of Dr. Johnson is also true of himself: he “judged all things with a gigantic and detached good sense.”

Judgment, as it turns out, is the theme of this play. How is the great man going to handle a very delicate situation regarding an American couple who are apparently spies? What is more serious for Dr. Johnson, who considers private life more important than public life, is that Mr. and Mrs. Swift seem to be rebels not only against the state but against the family.

It does not occur to most people that Dr. Johnson was alive during the American Revolution. He seems to be from farther back than that. It is also interesting to consider that Chesterton is writing about figures that precede him by just over a century. It is almost as if we were to write a play about Chesterton. Well, not quite.

Dr. Johnson’s adversary in this drama is John Wilkes, who combines Wildean wit with Whistlerian whim a century before those cynics came along. The historical Wilkes got himself elected to and expelled from Parliament not once but thrice, and was in and out of several other offices as well, including Lord Mayor of London. He was a member of the notorious and aptly named Hell Fire Club. He is a charming bad guy who gets some great lines. (“The flames of hell are only painted on the gates to frighten away the fools.”)

Edmund Burke also makes an appearance, and Chesterton, who usually criticizes Burke in his prose, treats him very well in his play.

It is nearly impossible to discern which lines are Chesterton’s own inventions to blend in with Dr. Johnson’s originals. The same holds true for the other characters such as Boswell, Burke, and the rake John Wilkes.

One of the closing questions posed by Mr. Swift is why would Dr. Johnson side with the crooked King George III against the honorable gentlemen revolutionaries of America? Dr. Johnson responds by conceding that though kings are only men, the American must not forget that citizens are also only men. Those who get elected are only men. Suppose they are bad men. Suppose the politicians are more hated than the monarchies…

Chesterton’s subtlest but strongest dramatic effect is to have Dr. Johnson serve as the conscience of Mrs. Swift. Before she is about to make a rather bad decision, she hesitates, and says that she can’t help wondering what Dr. Johnson would think. When wisdom is personified, it has a greater impact. It is not merely an abstract rule posted on the wall or on the brain; it is one soul speaking to another soul.

This book is currently out of print.

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