In a letter to Professor George R. Noyes of UC Berkeley, Vladimir Nabokov declared, “[I] am prepared to fight to the last drop of my ink … the deliberate moralizing which to me kills every vestige of art in a work however skillfully written.” I tend to agree with Nabokov, though Bill W. and Dr. Bob, a play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, presents an interesting case. The authors, Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, come across as sincere if overzealous moralizers who believe that A.A. will liberate the world’s drunks from their disease, and the play works less as a work of theater and more as a two and a half hour advertisement for the miracles of rehabilitation: the program is littered with advice on starting twelve step programs, while the theater bar is stocked with Coca Cola and coffee. “They locked up the liquor,” a patron joked at intermission.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob is ostensibly about Bill Wilson (Patrick Boll) and Dr. Bob Smith (an appropriately jowly Timothy Crowe), who spend quite a bit of time telling us that drinking has ruined their lives and marriages—in a moment of long awaited sobriety, Dr. Bob admits to himself and to his wife, Anne (Deborah Hedwall), that he has never been much of a father to their children. But these children, forsaken for the bottle, never appear onstage, and Dr. Bob’s drunken behavior is limited to late night secret drinking accompanied by rather tame singing and mumbling. The man is a surgeon and, despite a great buildup about shaky hands, manages to coast through his darker years without killing any of his patients. Bill, meanwhile, is seen attempting to cheat on his wife. Compared to the truly heroic struggles of an Ernest Hemingway or a Raymond Carver, this play has the quaint ring of Cole Porter’s severely unsalacious “Let’s Misbehave.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, forcefully succinct, wrote, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” There is none of this sorrow, none of this rage, and especially none of this honesty in Bill W. and Dr. Bob; Mr. Shem and Ms. Surrey’s subjects are famous for popularizing the belief that drunkenness is a disease—and indeed, we might well assume after seeing the play that the two caught alcoholism from staying out for too long in the rain.
How, then, are we meant to judge this work? As drama, it is virtually non-existent. It isn’t so much the socially minded art that Nabokov detested, since art doesn’t even seem to be part of the equation. Both narrative and truth are sacrificed in favor of publicity. But even as propaganda, it fares little better. At the beginning of the play, Bill introduces himself and—according to the program—those who have attended meetings are the ones in the audience enthusiastically responding, “Hi, Bill!” As far as the Gospel According to Bill and Bob goes, Mr. Shem and Ms. Surrey seem only to be preaching to those choir members sitting in the first row.