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Dr Angelus


About Dr Angelus

The play is a thriller, or rather burlesque of a thriller, and is based on the famous case of Dr. E. W. Pritchard, of Glasgow, who poisoned his wife and mother-in-law, and was the last man to have a public hanging on Glasgow Green on 28th July 1865. The point that intrigued the playwright was that at Pritchard's trial another doctor alleged that he knew Pritchard was poisoning his relatives, but had not informed the police because it would have been unprofessional.

Deviating somewhat from the original circumstances of the Dr. Pritchard case, James Bridie felt that something could be said for a young and inexperienced doctor adopting the attitude of not informing the police because it would have been unprofessional and it is upon this conception that the author has written this intriguing and exciting play which he has set in the Glasgow surgery of Dr. Angelus in the year 1919.

Alastair is at his most unctiously avuncular in the role of the astonishing Dr. Angelus. George Cole is in the not unfamiliar role of a young and inexperienced partner, and Jane Aird is seen as the frightened wife. Much of the fun is provided by Betty Marsden as a forward and suspicious young patient, and Molly Urquhart as a pert and obstinate domestic who proves to be too fond of both the doctor and his whisky bottle.

James Bridie has invested the play with his customary wit, many sly digs at the medical profession and a fine construction, which carries the action on without a break. This production of the play was presented by Alec L. Rea and E. P. Clift.


  • Genre: Drama

  • Playwright: Alec L. Rea and E. P. Clift.

Act One

Leave me in the shadows of this place of sorrow
Dr. Johnson returns late to a dark Glasgow surgery at the end of an extremely long and arduous working day ("Twenty-seven visits and two surgeries of about three hours each", recalls Johnson). The surgery is slightly sinister: "A number of heavy curios show that Dr. Angelus has travelled a bit. The Solomon Islands, India, china and East Africa are all represented, usually by something rather repulsive. Enlarged photographs are mostly of a tall, not ill-looking man in various tropical costumes. In one of them, he has killed a hippopotamus."

He is greeted by the seemingly benevolent and rather pious Dr. Angelus ("We must do what we can for suffering humanity"). In their brief conversation Angelus (the name is heavily laden with irony) relates to Johnson: "Spiritual values are very real and living things to me.." but, startlingly in the context of the play, quickly follows this statement by saying of one of his patients, on whom he has failed to call: "She is a stupid old bitch, but she has a very kind heart."

Johnson is informed that Dr. Angelus' mother-in-law is in rapidly declining health due to a gastric condition. Johnson suggests that Angelus should seek a second opinion only to be told that Angelus has a poor opinion of his fellow Glaswegian physicians. With apparent grace Angelus accedes to the younger doctor's suggestion and says he would be glad of Johnson's opinion.

The doorbell rings and it is a patient. In a revealing moment, Angelus asks Johnson to see the patient as the "unhappy domestic situation upstairs would distract my mind". Not only will Angelus not see the patient but he then asks Johnson to ring the bell to summon the maid to answer the door. It seems that in spite of his fine words he is reluctant to do anything at all.

There is some rather surprising interplay between Angelus and the maid, Jeanie, at this stage. As she goes to answer the door, he smacks her bottom playfully and she giggles and, as he is leaving the room himself, he surreptitiously unties the maid's apron. The patient enters the surgery. It is a Mrs Corcoran, a married and slightly flirtatious middle-aged woman. She informs Dr. Johnson that she has come about her recurring depression and back problem (the symptoms do appear to be psychosomatic and perhaps have more to do with her unhappy marriage). She is impulsive and has no hesitation in quickly removing her blouse for examination. Her impulsiveness also allows her to share with Johnson the fact that she can't bear Angelus and that he has been involved in some "shady share-broking business" with her husband. She also states that Angelus is a "quack" with a funny reputation. During this examination Dr. Johnson behaves in a very courteous and proper manner towards Mrs Corcoran but refuses to discuss matters concerning his partner.

In an engaging way, Mrs Corcoran begins to succeed in bringing Johnson out of his rather straight-laced shell and, in an engaging and youthfully pompous way, he explains his pursuit of medicine as a somewhat religious calling and meaningfully (for the rest of the play) recites some of the Hippocratic Oath (see Memorable Quotes column) This oath, recited by heart, does help shed light on a number of issues within the play: To none will (Johnson) give a deadly drug (although, as we are soon to learn, Angelus will). This goes some way to explain the heavy guilt that Johnson displays later in the play. It also explains his aloof behaviour from the seductive (yet strangely innocent) arts of Mrs Corcoran. And finally, goes some way to explain, what Bridie found so interesting in the original case i.e. why Dr. Pritchard's assistant may have refused to give evidence on trial (a refusal to divulge whatsoever I shall see or hear . . . . whether in my practice or not in my practice). Mrs Corcoran asks Johnson if he believes they could be friends and he agrees that they can, whilst retaining doubts that this may not be very professional.

In a moment of farce, whilst Mrs Johnson is putting on her blouse, Johnson stoops to retrieve her brooch from the floor. Deprived of warmth in her marriage, and appreciating his small act of kindness, she suddenly throws her arms around his neck. Inevitably perhaps, Mrs Angelus interrupts what is at once both an embarrassing yet somewhat touching situation. To add to the awfulness of the situation Mrs Angelus has come down to ask Johnson to telephone Sir Gregory Butt (an eminent local physician) because Angelus' mother-in-law's condition is deteriorating rapidly.

The doorbell announces the arrival of Sir Gregory. However, once again, Jeanie is tardy in her response and receives a telling-off from Angelus. She cheekily responds: Jeanie: Keep your hair on. At this stage, Angelus responds with an engaging speech on baldness which I believe may either have been specially written by Bridie with Alastair in mind or inserted by Alastair himself (see Memorable Quotes column).

Angelus relates the condition and deterioration of his mother-in-law to Sir Gregory and leads him away to see the patient. Jeanie enters looking for Dr. Angelus and faints due to, what we soon discover, overindulging in whisky. In her drunken condition she reveals to Johnson that Angelus does not like his wife. She also reveals that there was an awful fire (in which a servant died) in the Angelus' previous house and that "They say there was a big insurance money to pay". Jeanie exits the room and Sir Gregory enters.

Sir Gregory is somewhat surprised at Angelus' behaviour at the death of his mother-in-law which he describes as "like David howling for Absalom". There is a great exchange between the two men which reveals Johnson's admiration for Angelus and also the perceptiveness of Butt. Johnson strongly defends Angelus and in the process greatly offends Sir Gregory who storms out. However, on leaving, he astutely offers Johnson some advice: "By Heaven, sir, you don't deserve it; but a wave of compassion for you overcomes me. I'll give you a bit of advice. He'll ask you sign the death certificate. Don't do it."

After Sir Gregory departs Angelus enters and, after describing his mother-in-law's death due to a condition other than that he originally diagnosed to Johnson, he immediately asks Johnson to sign the death certificate. A little hesitant, Johnson believes he should first see the body. Dr. Angelus appears to be overcome with grief after the unexpected death of his mother-in-law. His youthful partner holds him in great esteem, both as a clever doctor and man of upright, religious principles. As yet no hint of suspicion has crossed his mind. Due to Angelus' persuasive arguments and clever use of language, Johnson accedes to Dr. Angelus' over-eager request that he should sign the death certificate, although somewhat troubled. As he begins to write, Angelus cleverly introduces further emotional blackmail, by raising Johnson's seeming earlier indiscretion of which he has been informed by his wife.

Act Two

Angelus & Mrs Angelus Toxicology
Commences two weeks later. Mrs Angelus is consulting a book on toxicology and surveying the dust in the consulting room. Whilst Mrs Angelus has been ill it seems that Jeanie has been extremely slack in her domestic duties. The two women engage in a vociferous argument only to be interrupted by Dr. Angelus. He uses his considerable power of words and intellectual bullying to persuade his wife that she is recovering and need not worry about her health (Dr. Angelus is now poisoning her with antimony as he did with her mother). He allays hers suspicions with a rare show of tenderness and sends her back to bed promising she will not require much more medicine (see Memorable Quotes column). Angelus then has an exchange with Jeanie in which we discover he has told her he will marry her.

Mrs Corcoran calls at the house to warn Dr. Johnson that he should disassociate himself from Dr. Angelus; her husband and friends at the bridge club know of the insurance policy and believe he is a scoundrel (see Memorable Quotes column). On her departure there is an exchange between Dr. Angelus and Dr. Johnson in which Dr. Angelus displays a false warmth and generosity; he plies Johnson with drink (although he has decalred himself to be tea-total) in order to allay his suspicions and imparts his unasked-for advice on life. Johnson departs, his fears allayed and somewhat the worse for drink; he tells Angelus that he will look after Mrs. Angelus during the night.

Johnson, however, falls asleep and has a dream in which the portrait on the wall becomes Sir Gregory Butt in the guise of a barrister accusing him of wilful neglect in allowing Angelus' mother-in-law to die and signing the death-certificate; he is also accused of an adulterous relationship with a "black-hearted harlot" (Mrs. Corcoran) and colluding in what appears to be the impending murder of Mrs. Angelus. He finally wakes up and we, the audience, know that his has really been the revelations from his sub-conscious mind.

Act Three

Signing of death-certificate
Dr Johnson awakes to the black new that Mrs Angelus had died during the night and Angelus now wants him to sign this death-certificate also. This is the focal pointof the play and there is a beautiful exchange where Angelus' emotional bullying and clinical use of words persuades Johnson to sign again. Almost immediately, Johnson's suspicions force him to seek advice from Sir Gregory Butt as to whether this has really been poisoning; Butt suspects it has but wants no involvement. Johnson finally blows up against Angelus and tells him he is going to the police. Angelus overwhelms Johnson in a struggle but then dresses his wounds and begins on what is almost like a cosy liitle chat and discusses why a man may "hypothetically" murder his wife (see Memorable Quotes column).

Due possibly to the efforts of Mrs Corcoran the police now arrive at the house. Jeanie makes reference to "the way I am" at this point indicating she is pregnant. A point the Inspector later confirms. Johnson offers himself up willingly to the Inspector Macivor as an accessory to murder. However, the Inspector is a knowing man and will not allow Johnson to implicate himself. He restricts Johnson to merely answering yes or no to questions that he asks. Dr. Angelus is arrested. It now becomes clear that he is insane; he pleads to his dead wife: "They're trying to kill me, Margaret. You wouldn't let them kill me, would you? Help me! Help me! Come down from Heaven, Margaret! Bring some angels with you! They're killing me, I tell you. They're going to choke me with a rope. They're going to murder an innocent man". Johnson still tries to implicate himself as an accessory but the Inspector will have none of it and states: "We'd all have been the fine, clever and courageous ones if we had seen every situation from its beginning to its end. You've taken a kind of tumble to your self respect, but that's no harm, no harm at all. You did your best and it wasna very good and that's a fair epitaph for most of us".