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Mr. Gillie (1950)
Warning: The full synopsis contains "spoilers" which describe key plot points. If you don't want to know the plot and outcome of this film then please don't read any further.


The play begins with a prologue which consists of a dialogue between a heavenly Procurator and Judge (an attorney or local prosecutor in Scotland) discussing a candidate for immortality. By slyly poking fun at himself as the sponsor of Mr. Gillie as a candidate, the playwright introduces one of the central themes of the play which is how we determine success in life:

Judge: Who is his sponsor?
Procurator: Bridie.
Judge (writing): Spell it, please.
Procurator: B-R-I-D-I-E.
Judge: Odd name. Proceed.
Procurator: Dramatic author. Writer of one or two West End successes.
Judge: West End?
Procurator: Of London your Honour.
Judge: What is success, Mr Procurator ?

It immediately becomes evident in the Prologue that Mr Gillie, a headmaster and teacher at the local school, has been killed by a furniture van and his contribution to life is about to be weighed in the balance.

Act One

Mr Gillie - Tom & Nelly announce they are going to London

The act begins with Mr. Gillie and Tom Donnelly seated in Mr. Gillie's study with Mr. Gillie trying to broaden Tom's knowledge of literature by reading from Thomas Carlyle. However, it appears that Tom has been asleep. Tom easily beats Mr. Gillie in a game of chess and then hurriedly departs in order to meet Nelly Watson waiting at the end of the road "dolled up to the nines". Mrs. Gillie remarks: "I don't know what her father's thinking of. A doctor's daughter's a cut above Tom, even a doctor like Watson." Mr Gillie soon has further company in the shape of Doctor Watson, Nelly's father. Doctor Watson proceeds to help himself to Mr. Gillie's whisky.

Doctor Watson expresses his concern that his daughter may be attracted to Tom (see Memorable Quotes column). Mr. Gillie states the situation as he sees it: He knows what he's after and he's going out to get. She knows what she wants too; but she's content to waste her life playing unpaid drudge to a drunken old trash the like you." Doctor Watson tells Mr. Gillie that he is a poor teacher and reminds him of two past pupils who like Tom, were supposedly about to do great things in life. The first was to be a minister but is now selling Communist pamphlets and the second was to be a great singer but is now singing in the chapel choir at Wormwood Scrubs. On Doctor Watson's rather fractious departure, Mrs. Gillie asks what her husband sees in him, to be told by Gillie: "Och, there's a trace of some kind of architecture among the ruins."

Mrs. Gillie accuses her husband of putting "ideas into young folks heads" (see Memorable Quotes column) but is reminded that's what he's paid for. Mrs. Gillie believes that her husband is wasting his time by becoming wrapped up in his pupils lives in order to better them when all they end up doing is letting him down. Mr Gillie acknowledges that they have let him down but that "There's no way of telling a weak character till it's up against life".

Nelly and Tom now call at the Gillie's house and whilst Tom is in the kitchen with Mrs. Gillie, Nelly takes the opportunity to discuss her situation with Mr. Gillie. Mr. Gillie believes that the pair should grab life by the throat, get married and go to London. "And in five years you'll be playing violin concertos at the Albert Hall and Tom will be making his bow at the Haymarket, with the audience tearing the stuffing out of their seats."

When Tom and Mrs. Gillie enter, Nelly stuns the Gillies by announcing that she and Tom are already married. The couple then show a certain weakness of character by asking if Mr. Gillie could break the news to Nelly's father. This news is quickly followed by the fact that the couple are, in fact, heading to London that very night. Doctor Watson then re-enters the house. Whilst rowing, Mr. Gillie breaks the news of his daughter's marriage to Tom. The proceedings are then interrupted by the entry of Mr. Gibb, the local parson and Chairman of the Education Committee. Mr. Gibb is informed of the current situation and, in light of his position, presumes to examine Mr. Gillie's role in the couples relationship, (although as Mr. Gillie points out, there is nothing illegal in what they have done). Mr. Gillie is practically accused of being a conspirator in this affair but insists upon the couples right to follow their dream and compares this to the artist who must seek out the Grail (see Memorable Quotes column).

Gillie believes that as a schoolteacher for the past twenty years he has merely been "a turnkey in a children's prison". He has failed as an artist himself but is determined that he should try to set some of his pupils free to follow any artistic inclinations they may have. Mr. Gibb informs Gillie that the Education committee are selling the school building but that they are prepared to give him a subordinate position as a temporary teacher at an alternative school. Gillie offers his resignation but is asked by Gibb (a "humane killer") to give the matter further consideration. Mr. Gillie moves away to commence writing a new novel.


The dialogue between the heavenly Procurator and Judge discussing Mr Gillie as a candidate for immortality recommences. The Procurator sees Mr. Gillie as an "incorrigible interferer in other people's business". He believes that Gillie is more than prepared to give advice but is unwilling to listen to advice; the Judge, however, believes that this is in the nature of his profession. The Judge certainly appears to be in favour of Mr. Gillie but remains unconvinced about his true value to humanity.

The Judge believes that "To labour in one's vocation is not enough. One must do something, must one not? One must produce something. One must create something." The procurator believes that Gillie has made a dog's breakfast from the material that was to his hand. However, the Judge believes: "If it was a satisfactory breakfast and a deserving dog, there may be something to be said for Gillie."

Act II

Mr. Gillie taunts Tom

Begins in Mr. Gillie's study some six months later. Doctor Watson and Mr. Gillie are playing cards. It transpires that neither of them have had any communication from Nelly or Tom since their departure for London. Mr. Gillie has been told he can stay on in the house so long as he can pay the rent but the school has been closed down the previous day. Tom and Nelly pull up in a powerful motor car and enter, rather over-dressed, mixing embarrassment with arrogance. It transpire that Tom, rather than trying to pursue his writing career, has inveigled himself into the company of certain powerful men and has ostensibly been taken on as a film critic for a newspaper but is also "in on a good many other things". It would appear that both Tom and Nelly, whilst remaining together, have relationships with other partners, something "provincials" like the Gillie's would not understand.

Doctor Watson, seeing that they couple have gained a certain position and wealth in London is keen to make-up his argument with Tom. The Gillies and Doctor Watson are all invited to dinner at Tom and Nelly's expense. Nelly goes to meet some friends whilst Tom remains to discuss matters with Mr. Gillie.

Tom talks of his connections with people who have their hooks on "the dogs and slot machines and television and real estate and road houses and night clubs". He offers to introduce them to Mr. Gillie, whose sarcastic response, about having blown down the walls of Jericho, to this offer goes completely unnoticed by Tom (see Memorable Quotes column). When Tom discusses the failures of Mr. Gillie's novel and even offers to rectify its shortcomings, Mr. Gillie can no longer restrain his disappointment and anger: "Good God, boy" Do you think I gave you the key to the treasure house and taught you the mysteries to give the the chance of becoming an infernal spiv?". The heated discussion is interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Gibb. Who has come with the unpleasant duty of informing Mr. Gillie that he is being served notice on his house the following morning. We then learn that Gillie has not taken the demoted position of teacher at an alternative school. Tom continues the discussion and decries all artists as failure who could not make it in the "real world". This forces Mr. Gillie to defend artists and the youth he is trying to encourage into entering artistic endeavors (see Memorable Quotes column).

The Doctor and Nelly return to the Gillie household. Nelly has invited some friends to the dinner and states that Mary may have to give up her drawing lessons because she can no longer find the time due to her work commitments. Mr. Gillie, unsurprisingly, rouses and is determined that he can help another young aspiring artist.


As revealed in the Prologue it is now restated that Mr. Gillie is killed by a furniture van several weeks later. The Procurator believes that whatever influence Mr. Gillie has exercised has been dissipated into absurdity and that he should be consigned to limbo without further ado. The Judge, however, is more sympathetic and believes that Mr. Gillie tried valiantly to set people free to follow their dreams (see Memorable Quotes column).

In appreciation of Mr. Gillie's valiant, although ultimately fruitless efforts, the Judge awards him a place in heaven in a vacant seat between Abraham Lincoln and John Wesley.


Judge : What is success, Mr Procurator ?
Procurator : I beg your Honour's pardon?
Judge: What is success . . . . I'm afraid my new dentures made the succession of sibilants slightly unintelligible.

Judge: How did he die?
Procurator: He was knocked over by a furniture van.
Judge: A furniture van? Procurator: A pantechnicon. It was removing his furniture to an auction room.
Judge: He was in the process of being . . . how does one express it . . . sold up?
Procurator: Yes, you Honour.
Judge: And the vehicle knocked him down. Rather heaping Pelion upon Ossa, was it not ?

(In Greek mythology, two giants who warred against the Olympian gods. Their names were Otus and Ephialtes, and they were sons of Aloeus' wife by Poseidon. They tried to reach heaven to overthrow the gods by piling Mt. Ossa on Mt. Olympus and Mt. Pelion on Mt. Ossa. Some said they were killed by Apollo, others said they killed each other while shooting at a hind sent by Apollo. For their wickedness they were condemned to eternal torture in Tartarus. Thus the phrase "to pile Pelion on Ossa" typically means to attempt an enormous but fruitless task; but in the sense that Bridie is using it appears to simply mean heaping one large indignity on top of another.

Mr. Gillie Theatre Programme 1950

Dr Watson : It in my mind we have a good many geniuses and too damn few good coal-howkers, these days.

Mr. Gillie : Och, there's a trace of some kind of architecture among the ruins.

Mrs. Gillie : It's nice for you when the geese are all swans, but it's not so nice for the geese when they find they aren't.

Mr. Gillie : The human soul is not like anything else and anything we do about it isn't like anything else.

Mr. Gillie : Did you ever know an artist who was any good who wasn't prepared to burn down his house and go out like a man after his Grail?

Mr. Gillie : Well. you seem to have blown down Jericho at the first toot.

Mr. Gillie : Your scientists and philosophers can hunt up clues, like detectives in a novel - picking up a cigar ash here and a footprint there and making deductions. But the artists are listening. Listening to the very Mind of God. The little Chelsea boys sniffing down their noses at their typewriters. The little Chelsea girls making clean canvas frowsy with paint. They're listening. You don't see them in the back room with the vicarious murderers. You don't see them sitting cheek by jowl with our Trumans and our Bevins and our Vyshinskis muddling us into destruction. They listen. And sometimes they hear a thing or two.

Judge : I find that this man devoted his life to opening cages and letting prisoners fly free. It was not his fault if the cat got the prisoners in the end. . . . I find most good men occupied in designing and strengthening cages. I do not like cages. I think that the few minutes between the door of the cage and the jaws of the cat make life worth living.