Karel Capek's The White Plague still relevant 70 years after first production

02-02-2007

When Karel Capek's play Bila Nemoc or The White Plague first came out in 1937, it was seen as a warning against the dangers of fascism, which was sweeping through Europe at that time. It turned out to be a very prophetic play, as German Nazi forces overran Czechoslovakia the following year, paving the way for a conflict that rocked the world.

The White Plague, which was first produced 70 years ago this week, is known for its satirical portrayal of a bloodthirsty dictator known as the marshal. This demagogic character uses public hysteria over an epidemic to strengthen his grip on power, while only a humble but brilliant doctor stands in his way.

The marshal is strongly reminiscent of Hitler, a figure whose shadow loomed large over Europe when the play was first staged. Unfortunately, The White Plague turned out to be a sadly prescient drama: Just one year after it was first produced, Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia and the play's author Karel Capek was to suffer greatly for his democratic views.

Michal Docekal is artistic director of the National Theatre in Prague.

"It was very much a political play. Everyone could read the character of the marshal as Hitler and the character of Dr. Galen as the democratic resistance to totalitarianism, particularly the Nazis. This was a very brave attitude to have at the time and Capek more or less played for it with his life."

Karel Capek died in 1938 at just 48 years of age. Although the official cause of his death was influenza, many believe Capek would not have succumbed to the illness if he had not been under massive strain due to being persecuted by Czechioslovakia's Nazi occupiers for his democratic views, as expounded by works like The White Plague.

Although The White Plague has a place in the pantheon of Czech literature for the stand it took against fascism and Hugo Haas's film version is still regularly screened today, Michal Docekal says there have been very few successful revivals of the play since it was first produced.

"It's a problem, not only with this play but with all Capek's dramas. There was one outstanding production in the National Theatre, which was premiered in 1980. It was done by the great stage director Miroslav Machacek. But as he was not beloved by the regime in those days it was very quickly taken off the repertoire."

Despite this, Michal Docekal thinks that it is a text that is ripe for reinvention and simply needs an imaginative director to reinterpret its relevance for a modern audience:

"I think it depends on the approach of the director. The main meaning of the play could be moved from the fight against totalitarianism to the issue of disease or a pandemic and how in such a situation scientists could have a major influence over the whole world."

02-02-2007