Sidney Kingsley’s Men In White is a vivid drama about doctors, their lives and their practice in a hospital in 1933, the year the play was first produced. It builds on a fascinating tension between the image of doctors as heroic and pure — “men in white” — and the fact that they’re as prone as the rest of us to mistaken notions, ethical quandaries, and yielding to temptations.
George Ferguson is the most promising of the young doctors at St. George’s Hospital. He’s so bright and idealistic he’s headed for research with the great Dr. Hochberg — a professional coup — and he’s so able an M.D. that he’s called on constantly …. to set a broken leg … catheterize a patient … administer a shot (in those days when the medical arsenal was thinner, these general surgeons did everything). He’s not only skilled, he’s ethical — seizing the instruments from the hands of an important M.D. who’s using the wrong method, and going on to save the patient’s life.
Will he cave in to the pressing demands for “fun” and a “full life” of his fiancée, Laura, when yet another medical emergency forces him to break a date with her — again? She’s bitterly disappointed and near to fed-up but, forthrightly and honestly, he conveys to her his sense of duty as well as his conflict, and suggests a date for the next night.
Thus he passes the first tests of his idealistic devotion to medicine and human betterment. But others come along, as they’re bound to, and he — like others of his colleagues — sometimes fails to do the right thing, or does the wrong one.
Through George Ferguson, his beautiful, fun-loving fiancée, Laura, and his medical and scientific mentor Dr. Hochberg, this play examines issues that are as important today as they were in 1933. The intense strains placed on physicians (and other professionals) in the course of arduous training and practice continue to put loving relationships to hard tests — although today the professionalism of women is more likely to figure among the personal conflicts.
The play was very bold for its time in staging a gruesome operation to try to save the life of a young woman victimized by an illegal abortion, dramatizing the significance of the struggle for legalized abortion, and reminding us of the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancies that still extract the highest costs from women throughout the world.
And the conflict between the intense demands of vocational and other idealism and the high purposes of a loving life is timeless.
It’s welcome that The Seeing Place Theater has given us the opportunity to see Men In White, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1934. Watching on opening night, however, I thought the play had been under-rehearsed. There were distracting line flubs, some of which led to factual anachronisms such as a doctor recommending “antibiotics,” not yet discovered in 1933 — quick thinking on a missed cue but it came out wrong — and language anachronisms like “the both of them” for “both of them,” along with other improvisational patches.
While these things can be smoothed out, there’s a mismatch, between the goals of this theater group and the style needed to produce this play effectively.
The “behavioral storytelling” approach described in the group’s statement includes the pauses, repetitions, and multi-tries of our everyday language: this creates a slow pace inconsistent with the mood of the text, and makes you feel you’re losing touch with the playwright. Movement, too, appears improvisational, evidently because, according to the statement, “There is very little blocked on stage … ” leading to diminished visual interest.
Men In White is of a crisp 1930’s genre that needs fast repartee and stage movement related to the action, and doesn’t lend itself to long pauses while actors seem to look into themselves (and on opening night, for all the world gave the impression they were trying to remember their lines).
I admire the creative idealism of this group, working toward depth through its “pro-actor philosophy” and method acting-like techniques, and I look forward to seeing how their ideas may animate in new ways other plays on their ambitious program.
Men In White plays at ATA’s Sargent Theater on West 54th Street in Manhattan through November 24th.
Other than pointing out the directors contradiction, where did I attack anyone besides correcting the criticism for “a discussion?” Like everyone here not involved in the show, I’m attacking the poor production. Theatre that build a rep on reviving old shows or even give cheap tickets bring new people to the theatre. Congrats to that! BUT if the work is crap, as it is here, people won’t return. Men in White just got buried for 80 more yrs. They have extra responsibility. Again, I’d have been kinder if they had billed it as a community theater production of the show,… Read more »
Yikes TP. It’s one thing not to like a production. It’s another thing to attack the group members personally. Remind me not to invite you to any of my theater company’s productions because if one of my actors gets a line wrong.
Chill out, brother! NYC theater companies should support each other – there is a difference between criticism (like this fair review) and being nasty.
I fwd your review to them days ago, but as the seeing place rips them off often, they won’t comment on it (at least online)! (They are about to republish MiW in vol 4 of the Group plays) i told them about the show, and though they could have stopped the production, they wisely let them hang themselves!) I will email your site to them again. Sure they’d love to have u review them. They’ve published 10 of the unpublished Group theater plays and great “first ever, professional” revivals. Don’t think they use those pretentious words as the work is… Read more »
You agree with AlliWatcher and in the next sentence say she is wrong about the carbolic acid?? No wonder it’s such a convoluted production. If Drs were bumping into each other, despite the small space, i’d get the hell out of that hospital! (Stupid me should have got the hell out of the show.) and if time appropriate work had been done, an improv wouldn’t have resulted in someone saying antibiotic. “Juliet’s not there? But, but… I texted her earlier”. I understand and appreciate hobby theatres, especially young kids, but I came as you mis-sold yourself as “professional”. I should… Read more »
First of all – Yvonne, as I said in our previous conversation, thank you for your insightful thoughts on our production. We’re looking forward to having you back at the theater for the rest of our season! Though I appreciate that our production can inspire such a heated discussion, I feel compelled to address some of the comments being left here, which are not an accurate representation of what we’re doing in our production of MEN IN WHITE. With regard to the final scene of Act II (the surgery scene) there is no mention of carbolic acid in the stage… Read more »
Point one — that must have taken ingenuity. I just learned about ReGroup through “Twitter” and hope ReGroup will keep me posted on their performances (otherwise than through Twitter which I don’t check regularly). I am really interested (even the name is clever).
Gotta love they are using your review, or a line of it to promote the show! Lame. And ‘carbolic acid’ is NOT mentioned in the script. Even lamer, Alliwatcher. As they tend not to use their scripts, maybe they should do their fact checking. (Bichloride, yes, but what do facts matter!)
As a proud donor, stick with ReGroup if you want to see these shows done correctly. Sorry i missed their reading of it last year.
Many thanks for sending in this good information. My impression is that the commentator was writing from a medical background,since most people don’t have the the script of “Men In White” at hand.
The hand cleaning in the final scene is done according to the script’s stage directions. The previous comment is incorrect. The script calls for the bowls of carbolic acid. It’s in the stage directions. The production does what the script explicitly specifies.
Before people comment, they should really check their facts.
Interesting about the carbolic acid goof … too much carelessness!
I was really looking forward to it, too, and was disappointed. Still, it gave me a chance to see through the flubs and theories to the play …. approximately. I didn’t have the script but I’m not amazed that “both of them” isn’t there either. Many many thanks for writing. Yvonne
Ha. The phrase “both of them” isn’t even in the script either. I was looking forward to this, but after seeing all the ‘falsities’ in their marketing materials, I wasn’t expecting much either. Another self-indulgent production posing as ‘art’.
Yours is an excellent analysis of this drama which very well portrays the conflicts which arise in those of us in the medical professions. The portrayal of the long work hours, incompetent staff physicians, the categorical imperative to save life and limb versus very human desire to play. Many of us found that work becomes play. That there is always the ability to meet medical demands and also that of a life partner. As you note the paradigm change, and that now at least 50% position of women. This brings other forms of the conflict but does not change the… Read more »