An idea for a play: a nation faces, on the one hand, a global war against an enemy superpower and, on the other, a mysterious, fatal, and weirdly selective epidemic. The two principal characters are the nation’s leader–a beloved old man renewing national pride through an expensive military buildup–and a doctor who has discovered a cure for the raging epidemic but will release it only if the nations of the world sign a mutual total-disarmament treaty.

If this were a new play, we might scoff at it as a blatantly obvious allegory of AIDS, the nuclear arms race and Star Wars, and the conservative Reagan Revolution. But Karel Capek’s The White Plague was first produced in 1937.

Although 51 years separate White Plague’s debut in Prague, Czechoslovakia, from its U.S. premiere this week at Northlight Theatre, “It’s an old play that’s really a new play,” says Russell Vandenbroucke, Northlight’s artistic director. “Its time is here.”

Capek is the Czech playwright and novelist best known today for his visionary drama R.U.R. (which gave the world the word “robot”). White Plague (Bila Nemoc in Czech) was meant to be an allegory of the nationalistic fervor and reactionary mentality sweeping Europe in general and Czechoslovakia in particular. His “white plague”–a leprosylike disease whose first symptoms are white spots on the skin–only affects people of 45 and older. If the old men who rule the world were directly threatened by the death that their wars inflict on the young, Capek seems to argue, they might find a way to end war instead of creating it.

“In Czechoslovakia it’s done as a classic,” says Michael Henry Heim, an associate professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Los Angeles and the person Vandenbroucke commissioned to translate Capek’s satiric fable. “It’s Capek, and everything by Capek is done. Here, I think, it has to be done because it has so much to tell us. There are so many themes that reverberate through to us now.”

Each generation finds its own meaning in such a play–which makes the fact that it’s never been done before in America all the more surprising. It was presented in London a year after its premiere in Prague in a British adaptation called Power and Glory. The translators then treated both the Marshal and Dr. Galen as fanatics–one a warmonger, the other a radical pacifist–and saw the drama as a parable critical of extremism in any form, an argument for appeasement. Soon after the British premiere, Heim observes, the allied powers (headed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) met with Adolf Hitler and ceded to Germany the Czech Sudetenland. It was at this point that Chamberlain proclaimed “peace in our time.” Soon after that, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia–something Capek had dreaded, though he did not live to see it.

“In a sense, our production commemorates the 50th anniversary of Capek’s death, and of the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia,” says Heim. “Capek is really a man who died of a broken heart. He got pneumonia and didn’t try to cure it. Three months later the Nazis rolled in.”

Vandenbroucke first encountered The White Plague in 1981 in its 1938 British version, which he calls “archaic and stiff.” Cognizant of the difficulties of translation, he is proud that Heim’s new script has been selected by the Theatre Communications Group as one of 12 plays to be included in its 1987-88 “Plays in Process” series. This means that the Capek-Heim White Plague will be distributed internationally to producers and directors, virtually assuring its further production.

A translation that was both faithful to the source and playable by modern actors was not difficult, Heim says, because Capek’s own language “is very lively, literate but not literary.”

“A lot of people think that “the right word’ is the most important thing in translating,” Heim adds. “What’s really important is the whole configuration of the sentence, and beyond that of the paragraph, or in drama the speech. You’re trying to make the whole sentence or phrase sound more or less the way it does in the original language.”

He points to the bitingly ironic opening line of his script: “It’s the plague, all right,” says a lower-class plague victim. Heim pulls out his 1938 first edition of Bila Nemoc and reads from the original Czech: ‘Mor je to, mor.’ Literally, it says, ‘Plague is that, plague.’ The whole thing is only four syllables, so I don’t want it to be too much longer. But in English you need the word ‘the’; the Czech doesn’t have that word. So you’re trying to find a way to keep the rhythm and get the idea across. This is one way of doing it–not repeating the word ‘plague’ but putting the ‘all right’ in.”

Heim also works with the actors to fine-tune his translation: “I listen carefully to the mistakes they make, and I find very often that their mistakes are my gain. They say something in a natural way, and then I can write it into the translation.” Heim adds that he looks at the original to make sure it allows that combination of words.

Regardless of how this production fares, Vandenbroucke and Heim have definitely served contemporary theater by unearthing and restoring this neglected classic. “It’s not a play simply about disease,” Vandenbroucke emphasizes. “It’s about war and peace, the individual and society, the family, generational conflicts. . . .”

“And medical ethics,” adds Heim. “Who gets treated, why, when, who chooses, what is public medicine, what is private medicine, what is research used for?”

Indeed, it is in the interplay between the disease and its political implications that White Plague most strikingly evokes today’s AIDS crisis. Listening to different characters respond to the plague, it’s impossible not to hear the debate over AIDS: “It’s divine retribution.” “There’s got to be a reason for it.” “What kind of God takes His anger out on the poor?” “Medical science is baffled.” “Lock the lepers up . . . keep them away from the rest of us.”

Then of course there’s the central conflict between the national health and the national defense–the all-too-human madness of a nation and its leader who prefer to spend money on new arms rather than on public health. When the Marshal proclaims the value of war (“Only a war can turn people into a people and so many men into heroes”), it’s impossible not to think of Reagan handing out medals to the survivors of the Grenada invasion while his own health specialists lobbied in vain for increased AIDS research funds. And the attempt by a politically connected scientist to steal credit for Dr. Galen’s cure recalls the federally sponsored researcher Robert Gallo’s effort to claim recognition for having isolated the AIDS-causing virus after French doctors had already succeeded in doing that.

Even the title shows a spooky foresight: The New York Times recently carried an article about the alarming rise of tuberculosis, resulting from AIDS, among the underclass. Back before a cure was discovered, the Times noted, TB was nicknamed “the white plague.”

“It’s almost too much,” Vandenbroucke says. “It’s scary–that’s the only word I can think of. . . . You can’t escape the relevancies . . . which says something about the prescience of Capek and his fertile imagination, his ability to reach into the future.”

The White Plague runs through March 13 at Northlight Theatre, 2300 Green Bay Road in Evanston. Postperformance discussions are set for March 1, 2, 3, 8, and 10. For more information, call 869-7278.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.