The White Disease

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The White Disease (Czech: Bílá nemoc) is a play written by Czech novelist Karel Čapek in 1937.[1] Written at a time of increasing threat from Nazi Germany to Czechoslovakia, it portrays a human response to a tense, prewar situation in an unnamed country that greatly resembles Germany with one extra, somewhat absurd addition: an uncurable white disease, a mysterious form of leprosy, is selectively killing off people older than 45. It was adapted as the film Skeleton on Horseback by Hugo Haas.


White disease is spreading in the country and elsewhere in Europe. It kills its victims usually within a span of a year. People all over the place are totally terrified. However, the government, led by a dictator Marshal, is busy preparing for a war of conquest and does not really care. They figure that the youth are not susceptible, and the youth are the traditional mainstay of the regime in any event. If the adults are going to die, too bad for them.

Doctor Galén (a reference to famous Roman doctor Galen) has discovered a cure for the disease. However, being politically minded and apparently quite disdainful of the Hippocratic Oath, he requires his prospective patients to bring income statements, and only cures the poor. He promises to cure everybody else as soon as the government stops preparations for war and explains that, by withholding the cure from the rich, he wants to force them to get the government to change its mind. The government, meanwhile, eager to maintain public order and tranquility, is sponsoring a ruse, allegedly a former student of Galén, who sells fake cures to the rich. These consist largely of removing cosmetic symptoms.

The war begins with the army invading a neighboring small nation, a thinly veiled reference to Czechoslovakia. Other European nations, including England, declare war in response to aggression. Suddenly, the Marshal falls ill himself and will soon die. He realizes that without his personal military genius the country will inevitably lose the war because he was always reticent about promoting capable commanders. He summons Galén and demands that he cure him. Galén replies that: "Of course, just stop the war first." The Marshal tries to convince him, then promises to reconsider it. Galén leaves the audience and is killed at a pro-war youth rally because he says that he will not shout in support of war. In the end Europe is plagued by both the war and the disease.


The first Czech performance of The White Disease was lauded by the Czech critics Jindřich Vodák, Josef Träger and Václav Černý; on the other hand, the right-wing politician Jiří Stříbrný, as well as the fascist Slovak Hlinka party, strongly criticised the play (the latter group described it as "harmful").[2] Max Brod predicted the play would be successful abroad, while Thomas Mann sent Čapek a letter praising The White Disease.[2] Čapek was later awarded the state prize for drama for the play.[2] The London production of The White Disease in 1937 was covered by the pacifist magazine Peace News.[3] The Hebrew version staged by Habima premiered in Tel Aviv on 28 September 1938, one day before the Munich Agreement which led to Germany's annexation of Czechoslovakia.[4]


The play was first translated into English by Paul Selver and Ralph Neale in 1938; Capek biographer Ivan Klíma calls the Selver/Neale translation "a seriously flawed adaptation".[5] Michael Henry Heim translated the play in 1988 for Crosscurrents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture.[5] Peter Majer and Cathy Porter translated The White Disease for Methuen Drama in 1999.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Banham, Martin (1995). The Cambridge guide to theatre. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 171. ISBN 0-521-43437-8. 
  2. ^ a b c Bradbrook, B.R., Karel Capek:In Pursuit of Truth Tolerance And Trust. Sussex Academic Press, 1998. ( pp. 69 -71)
  3. ^ "Karel Čapek's New Peace Play", Peace News, 27 February 1937, in Lewer, Nick, Physicians and the Peace Movement: Prescriptions for Hope. Routledge, 1992 ISBN 0714634387. (p. 57)
  4. ^ Habima Archive (Hebrew):
  5. ^ a b c Klíma, Ivan ,Karel Čapek:Life and Work. Catbird Press, 2002 ISBN 0945774532, (p. 261).