20) Karel Čapek’s ‘The White Disease’: a pandemic of fascism
Between the two world wars, Karel Čapek was the Czech nation’s leading novelist, playwright, newspaper columnist, travel writer and critic. His most popular work during his lifetime both at home and abroad was his science fiction play ‘R.U.R.’ from 1920, which introduced the word “robot” into the English language. Čapek’s penultimate play, ‘The White Disease’ (Bílá nemoc), first performed in January 1937, was a dark satirical send-up of fascism and opportunism, set against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic. The antimilitary utopian play was as prescient then as it is topical today, in the time of coronavirus.
“The theme of the play is this. A terrible malady, a kind of white leprosy, has attacked humanity. The only medical man in the world to find a remedy for the disease [Dr. Galén] has a profound hatred for warfare. He refuses to part with the secret of his discovery unless the nations of the world agree to perpetual peace.
“A dictator, a general, has built up an enormous army, and it cannot be left idle. War is about to be declared. As the general falls victim to the terrible plague, he accepts the doctor’s conditions for a cure. The war is to be immediately terminated.”
– Radio Prague’s Oswald Bamborough in a broadcast from 1937, some weeks after The White Disease premiered at the National Theatre, less than a year before the Munich Agreement ceded Czechoslovakia’s border region to Nazi Germany in the Allies’ failed attempt to appease Hitler, and less than two years before Karel Čapek died of pneumonia on Christmas Day of 1938.
Eight decades later, although war is not threatening to engulf the world, with the ongoing battle to contain the coronavirus, the moralistic aspect of Čapek’s play ‘The White Disease’ resonates all the more: as in his dark drama, a highly contagious disease that originated in China will kill millions if a cure is not found and hubris champions over common humanity.
Zdeněk Vacek is director of the Karel Čapek Memorial, a museum housed in the author’s summer residence south of Prague, where ‘The White Disease’ was written. It was Čapek’s first play in some fifteen years, and Vacek says that Čapek chose leprosy as an embodiment of the moral rot eating away at European democracies and humanist ideals.
“Karel Čapek writes directly that the play is about decline and decay, about where the ‘white race’ is heading. Because Europe really smelled of gunpowder at the time. War was looming. And he says, for God’s sake, civilized countries, civilized cultures are starting to treat each other in a completely crazy way! Where is the humanity. Where is democracy? Where is civilization?
“Čapek and his contemporaries had, of course, experienced a significant pandemic, the Spanish Flu. But here he is working on a more abstract level of a new disease coming from China that kills people over the age of forty.
“The ‘White Disease’, which takes a form of leprosy, is incurable. Classical science is completely in the dark, and basically doctors only know how to alleviate the pain and suppress the foul odour victims emit.
“And then appears the main protagonist, Dr Galén, the only one who can treat it. He questions what he has the right – or not – to ask of the powerful people in this world.”
In ‘The White Disease’, the first sign of infection is a white spot on the skin. Within weeks, the victim will die. Dr Galén discovers a cure but refuses to reveal what’s in his miracle serum unless the state’s fascist leader, the ‘Marshal’, ends preparations for a vainglorious war.
Until then, Dr Galén will only treat the poor – not the rich or powerful, who have the sway to stop the looming conflict. Meanwhile, some unscrupulous doctors supply bogus cures to the wealthy and politically connected. And young people see an opportunity to fill positions held by their dying elders.
Leprosy as symbol of moral, societal decay
“In various comments, Čapek emphasized that of course he could have chosen another disease, such as cancer, but that leprosy is so symbolic – of decay and disintegration. Those infected with the disease repulse everyone around them. So, they isolate them, hide them away so as not to see them or feel their presence; they isolate them in concentration camps.
“What’s more, we must realize that Čapek was the son of a doctor and that left a big mark on him. His father was, you could say, a spa doctor, but he was also a doctor for the poor, for miners and the like. So, all of this played a big role and perhaps was behind why he chose that motif.”
“The big question, of course, is whether Dr. Galén, a man who took the solemn Hippocratic Oath, at all has the right to withhold treatment. Many doctors later attacked Čapek for the play, saying it was a disgrace, an insult to their profession, and that, in fact, one would never act like Dr Galén.
“On the other hand, Karel Čapek himself felt that the situation was so extreme that millions of people’s lives were at stake, and that desperate times call for desperate measures. And someone like Dr Galén who has no power, no influence, would have no other way to change things except when fate provides this prodigious opportunity.
“With Čapek, it was always a question of how much, let’s say ‘God’ or a higher power has chosen to give a specific character an opportunity. So, when a given man can act, he may even have a duty to behave in such a way, and to endure all the attacks and finger-pointing.”
In response to critics, Čapek wrote a letter insisting that he did not have Czechoslovak doctors in mind when he wrote ‘The White Disease’, which ultimately was about curing not physical but societal ills, and a warning against the spread of totalitarianism, which passivity (or indeed pacifism) would not remedy. Karel Čapek Memorial director Zdeněk Vacek again:
“It was quite a provocative play, a powerful play, and moreover, from today’s perspective, the atmosphere in society was unimaginably tense. The fear of war was overwhelming. Also, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was still fresh in people’s minds. Remember, that pandemic claimed tens of thousands of lives in the Czech lands, and tens of millions worldwide.
“And ‘The White Disease’ was positively received by those who saw clear parallels with authoritarian regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and other dictators. At the same time, the play showed how many people will tolerate fascism, which secured them work, gave the nation a sense of purpose, optimism. And that resonated.
“Everyone felt that Čapek had portrayed it all quite convincingly, and that the small democracy portrayed was Czechoslovakia, under threat by its powerful neighbours. On the other hand, there were also many critics. A significant group of them were doctors, including quite influential ones.”
A film adaptation of ‘The White Disease’ was released at the end of 1937. While the characters and core elements of the story are the same, the ending is changed. In the play, to force the Marshal and the nation’s top arms-maker, Baron Krug, to cease hostilities, Dr Galén withholds his miraculous formula for the serum till the bitter end. Here again is Radio Prague’s Oswald Bamborough, who we heard from earlier in the programme, on the conclusion of the theatrical version (spoiler alert!).
“Unfortunately, as the doctor is on the way to the palace, armed with the ampules of serum intended for the general [the Marshal], he is lynched by the crowd for refusing to shout, ‘Long live the war’. The ampules are scattered and broken, and the crowd, pleased with its work, cries ‘Long live the general’. The general dies, but war is not prevented.”
It’s always darkest before the dawn
Both the original play and the film version, directed by and starring Hugo Haas as Dr. Galén, are darkly satirical of the lengths to which those in power will go to retain it, of the opportunism and profiteering that surface in a crisis.
The film version ends on a more obvious and somewhat more hopeful note, says Zdeněk Vacek, head of the Karel Čapek Memorial. But his “bleak” play, like much of Čapek’s post-Munich fiction, is a call to be touched by the better angels of our nature, to keep hope alive.
Bílá nemoc (The White Disease)
the film version (1937), directed by and starring Hugo Haas as Dr. Galén
“Well, it's quite surprising for Čapek because in his earlier works, he emphasized that he always wanted a positive motif. Some hope! Even in his world-famous play R.U.R. from 1920, Čapek wrote that perhaps the final hope is that when humanity dies, the robots become a new Adam and Eve in paradise. Without hope, I would rather hang.
“But in ‘The White Disease, there is a glimmer of hope, in fact. The daughter of the Marshal, the main antagonist, likes the nephew of the arms-maker Baron Krog. And in the face of the horror of leprosy directly affecting both of their families, she pushes the Marshal to make peace. For the family, the nation, all the lepers.
“So, if the Marshal felt he had a divine mission to wage war – to wage a victorious war and to elevate the nation to the level of his dreams – he could just as well understand it to be his divine mission to make peace. So, maybe that’s the hope.
“Also, the play itself may end bleakly, but shortly afterwards a film was made in which Karel Čapek played a significant role. In fact, he worked on the script and the director Hugo Haas, who plays Dr Galén, was a close friend. We know he went to Barrandov Studio during filming.
“Čapek never objected to Hugo Haas ending the White Disease film differently, that is with Dr. Galén sharing the serum’s formula to another doctor from a small, allied infested country. And, so, hope is kept alive and by a party that is on the right side of the war.”
Karel Čapek died in December 1938. His older brother, the famous painter Josef Čapek, perished in a Nazi death camp just weeks before the liberation of Europe.