Germ Warfare

Imagine a time when a doctor might refuse, out of plain arrogance or class entitlement, to wash his hands after conducting an autopsy. Imagine that doctor then using those hands to help a woman deliver a baby. Such practices, unthinkable now, occurred every day in 1840s Vienna and resulted in an uncontrollable epidemic of puerperal fever, an easily preventable bacterial infection that killed thousands of mothers, many desperately poor, while in labor. This all took place more than a decade before Louis Pasteur succeeded in convincing Europe of the germ theory of disease. Ben Trawick-Smith’s new play, What Happens to Women Here, part of Stone Soup Theatre’s Diagnosing the Present series, focuses on the efforts of one doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis (Morgan Nichols) who, years before Pasteur, realized but could not convince his colleagues of the contagiousness and simple prevention of puerperal fever. Distraught, he eventually descended into madness. Though the play is based on actual historical figures, Mr. Trawick-Smith has written the play as a work of fiction.

The play is set in two obstetrical divisions of a hospital; doctors run the first and midwives the second. The latter division has a much lower mortality rate. The midwives, Semmelweis observes, routinely wash their hands between procedures. The doctors, from a higher class than those they serve, conduct autopsies on the dead patients and then feel insulted if someone suggests they should wash their hands. Doctors, we are informed, do not get dirty.

The "science play" is a difficult sub-genre because its plot must usually conform to a larger scientific theory or story. Carl Djerassi’s plays about advances in reproductive science are perfect examples of this often precarious accommodation. What Happens to Women Here is only partially successful, as it tries to juggle a science plot along with a love story of sorts.

This parallel plot line follows Tobias and Theresa, a very young couple from different socio-economic classes. Theresa becomes pregnant and winds up at the doctors’ clinic. Eventually, the lives of Theresa and Semmelweis intersect in a predictable way. I’m not convinced that this plot line is entirely necessary to this 100-minute play, though exchanges between Theresa and her close friend, Carli (Jennifer Boehm), are helpful to illustrate that era’s sexual mores and myths.

While its scenes follow each other quickly, the production is sometimes workmanlike and didactic, recalling Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, the classic play about a nearly hysterical doctor who tries to warn his community about microbes at the local baths. What Happens to Women Here also wants to warn us of the dangers of willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence. Yet, it leaves some questions unexplained.

We never fully learn, for example, what motivates Semmelweis’ supervising physician, Johann Klein (Eric Rice) to discontinue the recommendation of Semmelweis that all doctors wash their hands, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. Klein has indulged the upstart Semmelweis twice regarding two of his ineffective theories. Semmelweis had posited one theory that priests ringing last rite bells cause the women deadly stress. Though such theories prove naïve, that history doesn’t explain why Klein clamps down on the only theory that proves helpful.

The play waveringly suggests that the autocratic Klein actually wants these women, who are young, poor and often prostitutes—dead. He somewhat improbably confides to Semmelweis that he had once fallen in love with one of his patients, who then died, so now he doesn’t seem to care about the women anymore. In any case, he declares, the hospital’s actual charges are the babies, not their mothers.

Mr. Nichols sometimes goes too far over the top in his eye-bulging portrayal of the increasingly mad Semmelweis, yet he captures the young doctor’s frustration in the face of maddening bureaucratic inertia. Ellen DiStasi is notable for her portrayal of a mature and no-nonsense midwife, suspicious of the haughty doctors and their practices. Jonathan Cottle’s set design is serviceable and uses the small space well, employing an office on a “second floor” where we see the “behind the scenes” intrigue. Jessica Lustig’s period costumes are imaginative and convincing.

What Happens to Women Here, if not "entertaining," offers a glimpse into a world where pregnancy once meant likely death. As a historical lesson, it succeeds, though it will probably be of interest mainly to those (and I am one) who are fascinated by those small historical steps that, in retrospect, are really giant leaps.

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