SEMMELWEIS - At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, through November 11.
"Semmelweiss" is the sort of social problem play that makes its audience feel righteous and smug.
It's not that one feels virtuous after having sat through nearly three hours of unrelieved yelling, populated by limp actors in gray body paint playing corpses and actresses in voluminous rags portraying the agonies of childbirth - rather than having spent a pleasant evening. But by the strange use of time perspective, the audience is encouraged to feel superior to the protagonists of the play who represent the learned opinion of the mid-19 century.
How could the pigheaded Viennese medical academicians have failed to accept immediately what we now know as a matter of course - the discovery, by the Hungarian Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweiss, that raging epidemics of fatal "childbed fever" were caused by the failure of obstericians to cleanse their hands?
We, living in an age of respect for science, would never dream of ignoring clear health dangers after having been enlightened by our scientists. That's why nobody smokes any more, or dyes hair - right?
Because the history of Dr. Semmelweiss has been made into a clear-cut case of the passionate individual opposed by the conservative establishment new play by Howard Sackler, author of "The Great White Hope," is not really a play.It is a tableau of a Great Moment in Medicine, followed by a great many - there are 19 scenes - Dreadful Moments in Medicine.
The Great Moment is that Semmelweiss> after having been tortured over the discrepency in fatalities between two obstetrical sections of the same hospital, one administered by doctors and the other by midwives, realizes that the doctors are infecting their patients because of their contact with cadavers. The Dreadful Moments are his repeated failures to convince the medical faculty of this, chiefly because of his impatient> abrasive personality. He ends his life, as the historical Semmelweiss did, in insanity.
But consider, as the playwright did not, the point of view of the medical faculty! At first, Semmelweiss' discovery is made by a brilliant intuitive leap. When he explains his theory of cadaver-to-patient infection, the doctors are, in fact, ordered to cleanse their hands. They grumble among themselves, which seems to be one of the few methods of self-expression permitted in the authoritarian hospital but generally they do it.Statistics change for one month. Then they slide back. Semmelweiss now explains this in terms of patient-to-patient infection. The doctors must wash not only after dissecting, but between patients! Those whom he is insulting constantly along the way begin to fall off. He then withdraws from the problem, but is entired back into it by another believer, and begins laboratory tests to prove his contention. He then goes crazy because it is not accepted.
But suppose he had spent the original time not in insulting his colleagues, but in doing those laboratory tests and amassing scientific proof? The one-month test was interesting but not statistically significant by itself. Semmelweiss, in this play, is shown to be a scientist driven mad by the necessity for due procedure.
History aside, a more vital dramatic conflict was necessary to make this into a play. Cleansing the hands is an innocuous procedure, and it seems unpardonable pride in the doctors to refuse to do it. But what of potentially beneficial procedures that involve risk? Suppose the cure was one that involved dangerous side effects and there was a genuine moral conflict in experimentation on patients?
Or suppose we were shown an example of the passionate doctor with a cureall that did not turn out, as Semmelweiss' hunch did, to be correct? Medical history is full of examples of the nut who claims to be able to save humanity with his unproved procedure - not the least of which are the recent battles over supposed cures for cancer. Would caution not then seem advisable on the part of the doctors in charge?
Yet the only comparable example here is in the character of Semmelweiss' colleague who has invented the stethoscope but has mustered the patience and perseverance to that he gained his point through social charm and an influential marriage, but the fact remains that he accomplished it. The pompous faculty is shown to be not immune to change, only reluctant to accept the wild ravings and scanty evidence of a madman who nevertheless turned out to be right.
Semmelweiss himself, in the play, calls his discovery the luck of a mediocrity. A fairly matched dramatic conflict could have been made from the delays involved in the kind of scientific method we still require, by contrasting it with the speed with which victims were dying.
It might leave an audience with troublesome and pertiment questions> such as how much proof we now require to change our lives in such trivial ways as stopping smoking or dyeing hair. Instead, the audience is left merely feeling superior and enlightened in comparison to a bunch of academicians of the last century.
Edwin Sherin's direction has supported this moraly pretentious atmosphere with writhings and grotesqueries. John Wulp has supplied ponderous scenery, mostly enormous gray walls, which the poor tortured actors must keep pushing about for the frequent scene changes. Marc Weiss has lit it dimly. Ann Roth's costumes succeed drably in making all the bearded doctors look indistinguishable, so that all represent the establishment in identical ways and it doesn't matter if you can't tell one from another.
And several talented actors are similarly battered down into producing only one note. Colin Blakely, a Royal Shakespeare and National Theatre Company actor whose sweet portrait of a cantankerous country doctor can be seen here in the film of "All Things Bright and Beautiful," strikes only one note as Semmelweiss. His top-of-the-lungs raving begins with the opening scene, so that his eventual madness is hardly a change. And the brief efforts of Patricia Routledge at feistiness, David Schramm at irony and Maureen Silliman at a canary-like note of cheer are quickly overshadowed.