Fin de siècle Vienna was, in the words of Jewish satirist Karl Kraus, a “research laboratory for world destruction.” Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler agreed; his play, “Professor Bernhardi,” was one of the first plays in German to confront the rising tide of anti-Semitism in early 20th-century Central Europe. Translated by C.J. Weinberger, “Professor Bernhardi” opened in Midtown this week at the TBG Theatre as part of a series of works that were “banned and burned” at some point in their history. It runs in repertory through the end of February with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera.”
The son of a Hungarian-Jewish laryngologist, Schnitzler received his own medical degree in 1885 from the University of Vienna, but then left the medical profession to begin writing. His plays, novels and short stories typically focus on explicit sexual themes. His best-known play, “La Ronde,” (Hands Around) shows a daisy chain of characters both before and after intercourse; it was adapted most recently by English playwright David Hare, who renamed it “The Blue Room.” And Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” (Dream Novella) was the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.
Directed by Lenny Liebowitz, “Professor Bernhardi” begins with a crackerjack scene in which the physician of the title (Sam Tsoutsouvas), who is head of a prestigious medical institute, forbids a priest (Markus Potter) from entering the sickroom of a female patient who has contracted sepsis from an abortion, but who — because of a camphor injection — is blissfully unaware of her impending demise.
The doctor’s professional rivals use the incident to discredit him, and he becomes caught in a morass of both academic and national politics, from which there appears to be no escape. The play climaxes in a suspenseful scene between the doctor and the priest, as the priest’s own deep-seated negative feelings toward Jews come to light. The play, along with Schnitzler’s other works, was banned in Central Europe and later Nazis burned copies of the play.
Liebowitz, who is also the artistic director of Off-Broadway’s Marvell Repertory Theatre, told The Jewish Week that he was drawn to “Professor Bernhardi” because of its “incendiary life and inflammatory history.” He views the play as Schnitzler’s masterpiece, calling it a “thriller, disquisition on medical ethics, study of causality versus free will and a meditation on individualism versus the public good.”
Schnitzler’s son, Heinrich, directed the first English-language production of the play in London in 1936. Heinrich’s son, Peter, a noted painter and filmmaker, was born seven years after his grandfather passed away. But he told The Jewish Week that his grandfather was a “great fan of Ibsen — we still have a calling card from him that was in my grandfather’s collection.” Like Ibsen, Schnitzler “doesn’t overdramatize anything. He shows how much tension and deceit lie just beneath the surface.”
“Professor Bernhardi” runs through Feb. 29 at the TBG Theater, 312 W. 36th St. For tickets, $25, call OvationTix at 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.ovationtix.com.