Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
In "Semmelweiss" Howard Sackler is examining, tissue by tissue, layer by layer, the insights and impulses, barriers and traps which lead a man from perceptions through frustions into madness. This new drama, his first since the awards-winning "The Great White Hope" of a decade ago, will be at the Eisenhower through Nov. 11.
At the start "Semmelweiss" is almost proudly portentous, but as the details are added a strong, engrossing drama is achieved.
As in his previous play, inspired by heavyweight Jack Johnson, Sackler turns to an actual mid-19th-century man, Viennese doctor Ignaz Philipp Semmelweiss, who perceived that it was his fellow doctors who were passing along the germs which caused child bed fever, a universal scourge.
In three acts and 19 scenes, running just under three hours, the drama initially suggests the string of films about medical discoveries Paul Muni starred in for the Warner Brothers with Greer Garson as his comparable figure at MGM. But Sackler intends going deeper than the Pasteur and Mme. Curie histories.
He is viewing the man clinically, rather in the style Brecht used to present Galileo and less warmly than Robert Bolt achieved for Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons." But the design of the plays is similar, each scene revealing a facet of character, that of Semmelweiss or of those who would nurture or impede him. His theme then becomes, not the how's of TV medical dramas but the why's of human nature.
And the human nature of Dr. Semmelweiss is irrascible. Seeing both the problem and the resolution clearly, he is both unable to explain his observations to his peers and to maintain his patience with their slowness or reluctance or grasp. Semmelweiss would not be an easy colleague.
Each scene resolutely examines an aspect of the Semmelweiss descent to madness. In the dissection room we watch doctors and residents examine a corpse. They go immediately to the hospital's obstetrical division. This is divided into two areas, one ministered by doctors, the other by midwives who have had no contact with dead bodies. In both the morgue and the statistics, the child bed fever has accounted for more deaths in Ward I than in Ward 2, the midwives' section.
Aware that through hindsight we recognize what Vienna's, leading doctors could not see, Sackler places his accent on Semmelweiss' personality. We glimpse the personal happiness a fresh start gives him with his bride and his housekeeper-sister. A colleague's persistence rekindles their pressures and accept his renewed efforts. Respectful colleagues attempt to preach patience and genuinely help him. But, frustrated with powerful disbelievers who represent the establishment of the period, Semmelweiss cracks.
The play's strength lies in the gathering of detail, the crescendo of scenes and in the language Sackler gives his characters.
The hospital director, splendidly voiced by William Roerick, has words which are measured, controlled, paced. The most human of his colleagues, Dr. Hebra, an inventive but also a patient fellow and capitally acted by Peter Blaxill, speaks excitedly but with clarity of thought, direct, even exuberant. Semmelweiss has lines of jagged force, spit out, shouting out.
It is exceptional to come upon, after too long a gap, such considered use of words and what they imply about character. Here is a dramatist not writing one-liners but considered, characterful expression. This quality has an increasing effect, beat or rhythm, on the play.
Designer John Wulp uses two triangular pylons to effect the change of scenes, players turning them as a scene ends. Were Sackler writing for film, the scenes would fade in and fade out, and probably slowly. At first one wishes the changes were more quickly made but in time one comes to realize that the time is to be used for audience reflection. What seems a dangerous style is ultimately effective.
Tempered as they are by the Brechtian tone, one accepts the performances without questioning them, without it occuring that this or that detail might be different. There is a planned inevitability about them, from Colin Blakely in the exhausting title part, through Lee Richardson's and Stefan Gierasch's disbelievers and on to Patricia Routledge's selfless sister, Barton Heyman's faithful colleague, Maureen Silliman's charming wife and Lizabeth Pritchett's Head Midwife.Edwin Sherin's direction triumphs in its invisibility.