Revisited in the time of Covid, the tragic saga of Hungarian physician Ignác Semmelweis has now been dramatised in English and is currently being staged at the revered Bristol Old Vic in the UK. Mark Rylance not only stars as Semmelweis, it was the Oscar-winning actor who first hit upon the idea, then co-wrote it with acclaimed playwright Stephen Brown. Shortly before press night, the dramatist spoke with We Love Budapest about staging Semmelweis.

It's hours before the world’s press descends upon the Bristol Old Vic, the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world, and playwright Stephen Brown is understandably nervous.

Generously carving half-an-hour from his busy schedule to speak with We Love Budapest, he hints at the task that had stood before him, co-writer and lead actor Mark Rylance, and award-winning director Tom Morris, in dramatising a Hungarian legend:

Semmelweis is such a complex character, in many ways a flawed genius. To do justice to his story, we also had to simplify it. We hope that we’ve captured the essence”.

Dr Semmelweis highlights the bravery and downfall of a pioneering Hungarian physician unrecognised in his lifetime. While the subject of this new play is somewhat niche, the timing of a drama whose unseen force is bacteria seems unwittingly appropriate.

Its protagonist, Ignác Semmelweis, was an early pioneer in germ theory, his championing of cleanliness recently recently celebrated in video here in Hungary at the start of lockdown.

His insistence on hygiene having been sternly rebuffed by the top doctors of Vienna where he worked, the Budapest-born physician was thrown into lunatic asylum. There he died in 1865. Few attended his burial.

150 years after the fact, Semmelweis remains the classic tragic hero,” Stephen begins. “And like all classic tragic heroes, he makes mistakes, he messes up. He knew he was on the edge of a major discovery, what he called cadaverous particles, but it wasn’t until a few years later that germ theory was proved by Louis Pasteur.”

By then, Semmelweis had been bound in a straitjacket and subjected to what was effectively torture. Ironically, he died of sepsis from a gangrenous wound inflicted by the asylum guards, the very disease he had helped countless mothers avoid while giving birth at Vienna General Hospital.

Those who succumbed, in maternity wards overseen by obstetricians wrist-deep in bacteria after carrying out autopsy examinations, died in the same hideous agony as Semmelweis. The simple act of washing their hands between duties may have saved them.

From Céline to the stage

Mark first came to me with the original idea in 2015,” says Stephen. “He had read a biography of Semmelweis by the French writer Céline a while back and had been giving it a lot of thought.”

Having successfully dramatised the recent memoir of UK diplomat Rory Stewart, a top coalition official in war-torn Iraq, Stephen is not averse to tackling tricky subject matter.

Nor, for that matter, is Mark Rylance.

A lot of actors I meet feel compelled by the character they wish to play,” says Stephen. Perhaps with 2015 movie Bridge of Spies in mind, in which Rylance gave an Oscar-winning performance as Soviet agent Rudolf Abel, Stephen suggests: “Mark is always drawn to outsiders and dissident figures. Those who speak up but struggle to gain acceptance. I think he felt a profound connection with Semmelweis”.

A team was duly convened, Stephen, Mark Rylance and his wife Claire van Kampen, herself a director, composer and playwright, and theatre director Tom Morris. Artistic Director of the revived Bristol Old Vic, best known for staging the award-winning War Horse on Broadway and in London’s West End, Morris had worked with Stephen before, on a masterly production of King Lear in 2016.

The four spent five days together in workshop mode.

We start the play after Semmelweis has left Vienna, “ says Stephen. “He’s stepped away from the battle, so to speak, and he’s returned to Budapest where friends and old colleagues gather round him. It was then that he took up the fight again and went to work at the Szent Rókus Hospital.”

Much like in Vienna, where death rate among mothers from puerperal fever had dropped to near zero on his watch, Semmelweis practically eliminated the disease, previously rampant, at this modest hospital near Blaha Lujza tér.

Something in the air

He had a terrible sense of what was in the air. In those circumstances, hands become weapons.”

Vienna General Hospital was considered one of the best in Europe at the time. We take you inside the hospital, from the centrality of autopsies and pathologists to the lying-in wards, and convey something of that world.”

Much like the issues it deals with, Dr Semmelweis is not for the faint-hearted and carries a 12+ age recommendation. Running until 12 February, it’s sold out every night.

“It’s a very large-scale production,” explains Stephen, his play providing a showcase for ballet dancers to stalk the disconcerted Semmelweis as the ghosts of the dead mothers he failed to save.   

Anger and gulit

So much is speculative. There are no diaries, no personal letters to speak of. Towards the end of his life, the open letters Semmelweis wrote to the leading obstetricians in Europe were peppered with extraordinary anger, accusations – and guilt.”

He was quite fiery. The little stories you hear about him show that he could be impulsive, even volatile.”

For reference, Stephen turned to the Céline biography advocated by Rylance, The Doctors’ Plague by Sherwin B Nuland and a contemporary if unusual source: “I interviewed a whistleblower who had worked at a hospital with a dangerous doctor he had then tried to expose. He had been vilified and driven out of his profession".

"It ended his career and he was only partially exonerated. He was only in his fifties. He’s only now starting to deal with the trauma, ten years later. A man committed to the truth, no matter what

The price you pay

If you start to take on the grief, with so much at stake that can drive people crazy,” says Stephen, making parallels with 19th-century Vienna. “He paid a terrible price.”

His play inspired by a biography a decade or more ago, and conceived pre-pandemic, Stephen is very aware of its “extra resonance in contemporary life,” as he puts it.

As a friend said to me recently, the pandemic has made health itself much more present and discussed in everybody’s lives. We are now suddenly aware of our own frailty.”

Placing Dr Semmelweis in its historical and cultural context, Stephen observes: “As a Hungarian in German-speaking Vienna, perhaps Semmelweis always felt he was an outsider, that he didn’t have the same status as those around him”.

Today, the house where Ignác Semmelweis grew up in the Tabán area of Buda, overlooking the Danube, is a museum dedicated to medical history.

Budapest’s main medical university is named after him, as well as several major hospitals around Hungary, and the nation’s most prestigious medical awardStatues stand to him around Europe.

And, of course, hygiene is of the highest priority at health institutions around the world.

How do you persuade people to act when a new pathogen arrives?" Stephen concludes. "And Semmelweis didn’t have full access to the facts. There were gaps in his theory and in his knowledge that others could pick at." 

"He had worked out that something had to be there. He could smell it, he could infer its existence, but he couldn’t see it. He could only see this dreadful thing unfolding and it drove him to a lonely hell.”

Event information

Dr Semmelweis
Bristol Old Vic
King Street, Bristol
Until 12 February