Northlight Theatre

The White Plague, by Czech playwright Karel Capek, was written more than 50 years ago. Capek was a minor figure in Expressionist theater (compared to Ernst Toller or Georg Kaiser) and is remembered primarily for his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). You don’t see Expressionist theater much anymore, and no doubt you’ve never seen The White Plague, since this is its American premiere. But you’ve seen things like it on the Twilight Zone, especially an episode called “The Obsolete Man,” or in films like Brazil and The Shape of Things to Come. The formula for The White Plague–a science fiction premise supporting a didactic allegory–seems to endure. But the play itself is dated and not just a little cornball.

The premise for the play is that a fatal, pandemic disease resembling leprosy threatens to wipe out everyone over the age of 45. Dr. Galen, an idealistic GP from the slums, discovers the cure, but he keeps the formula secret and will treat only the poor until world leaders sign a universal peace treaty. Meanwhile, every effort is made to co-opt Dr. Galen–including threats, bribery, and ethical sophistry–but to no avail. And as the rich and powerful start coming down with the “white plague,” Galen uses his “utopian blackmail” for the cause of pacifism. Yes, it’s a classic case of the moral responsibility of the individual, or, to bastardize Ibsen, Enema of the People.

Typical of Expressionist drama, Galen’s story unfolds episodically, as he confronts adversaries that are types rather than individuals. First there’s Dr. Sigelius, who wants to claim Galen’s cure for his own fame and fortune. Then come Baron Krug, the arms manufacturer, and finally the Marshal, a military dictator. A nuclear family and assorted lepers represent the masses. Along the way, Capek cranks out social and political commentary with that characteristically Czech penchant for exhaustive satire. Some of the major topics covered are medical ethics (“We don’t serve humanity; we serve science”), the arms race (“How can any country sign a peace treaty after the millions we’ve spent on arms?”), and political expediency (“God wants me to make peace. You say it, Annette. I want to hear how it sounds”).

Actually, there are so many themes crammed into The White Plague that it becomes a full-service play for coffee table liberals. And these themes are handled so simplistically that the play fairly invites poor thinking.

You could argue, for instance, that this drama is given uncanny resonance by the current AIDS crisis. The father of the nuclear family suggests that plague victims be quarantined in camps, which recalls the LaRouche initiative. But the same reference to camps could just as easily correlate with the Holocaust, or the Palestinian refugees. And the white plague could also stand for sickle-cell anemia, or, more appropriately, Epstein-Barr virus. The point is, The White Plague will only seem to be about AIDS if you live in a state of AIDS paranoia. Which makes The White Plague a sort of billboard inviting you to place your message here. Which, in turn, makes this play especially flexible as a propaganda vehicle.

Try to imagine a production in Czechoslovakia, given the current Soviet-backed regime. It would play up the struggle between the poor and the rich, the bloodthirsty mythomania of the Marshal, the self-destructive greed of Baron Krug. The plague would be a symbol for revolution, since it kills everyone over 45. But wait a minute, it would be more politic to gloss over the subject of revolution in an Eastern bloc country and stress Dr. Galen’s selfless servitude to the masses. No problem. Put that sucker on the season ticket. Maybe even make it a season opener.

Meanwhile back in Evanston, the American premiere is the very opposite of an exploitation job. It’s practically a blank slate, guarding itself against specific interpretations. The casting is color blind (a welcome relief) and the costumes are period (late 30s). Michael Henry Heim’s translation is smooth and unslanted toward contemporary issues. The symbolism of the plague is left ambiguous, as illustrated by mannequins wrapped completely in muslin bandages and distributed about the stage and audience. If anything, they look like mummies. The staging reflects a mixed bag of styles from the Expressionist splinter movements of the 30s. Whether this eclecticism was intentional or negligent, I don’t know.

I finally decided that the production was a work of neoromanticism, not only because I like a good ten-dollar word, but because the basic struggle here is between the young and the old. Old people make the wars, young people die in them. Old people have the money and jobs, and the young people don’t. Old people are motivated by obsessions, and youth by emotions and ideals. This is the bottom line of revolution, and the very alphabet of liberalese. Sure, I think it’s even-handed of director Gwen Arner to use this common denominator, but the result tends to be bland and sophomoric.

The majority of the acting is undoubtedly bland, although not annoying. The cast appear to be straddling the representational and the presentational, uncertain whether they’re human beings or abstractions, caught in two-dimensional limbo. The only purely sophomoric performance is given by Bruce Young (as the Marshal). Young’s idea of a despot comes off as a bad James Earl Jones impression, which would be funny if it weren’t so dopey when the Marshal relents, “A dictator. You can’t imagine how lonely it is.” The best acting is by Gary Houston, who manages to breathe some life and humor into a number of small roles.

What I don’t understand is Gwen Arner’s no-comment direction. Is it indecisiveness on her part, or is it meant to provoke the audience to make their own decisions and, as I mentioned earlier, place their message here? Personally, I was unprovoked. You couldn’t tell me from the mannequin two seats over. So, by the end of the play, when the Christ-like Dr. Galen is murdered by a mob of warmongers, all I’m left with is an oversimplified morality play about a man martyred for his ideals. It’s naive, it’s sappy, but there’s no escaping the fact that Capek wrote it that way, and this is what dates the play.

Although at times I felt like I was earning postgraduate credit in theater history, I have to hand it to Northlight for mounting this belated premiere. I’ll take an original Expressionist play over yet another Road Warrior adaptation of Shakespeare any day. The real challenge, though, is not to simply reproduce the original, but to bring it to life. May the next attempt not be so mummified.

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