The Doctor is a new play that was “very freely adapted” from a work by 19th-century Viennese doctor/playwright Arthur Schnitzler.  The author, Robert Icke, is an English playwright and director who is especially known for his reworkings of classics.  

The doctor to whom the title refers is Ruth Wolff, the renowned and rather formidable director of a private medical institute.  We learn that we are in the present day, and Dr Wolff is Jewish.  At the play’s outset, the organization is attempting to secure funding for a new building, and a new head of pharmacology is about to be chosen.  One of Dr. Wolff’s patients, a 14-year-old girl, is in sepsis following a self-induced abortion.  Her health rapidly declines.  When it becomes clear the patient is not going to make it, her parents send a Catholic priest to the hospital.  Dr. Wolff prevents the priest from entering the room to administer the last rites.  

Dr. Wolff’s actions set off a chain of events.  Her confrontation with the priest goes viral on social media, resulting in a public relations nightmare for the hospital.  In her characteristically uncompromising way, when asked to smooth things over, the doctor responds: “I think the lack of my having done something makes that really quite difficult” (p.31).  She is labelled anti-Catholic and her car is painted with a swastika.  Her choice for head of pharmacology, also Jewish, is deliberately rejected by the board in favor of a Catholic.  The funding for the institute’s new building is suddenly in doubt as a formal inquiry is opened by the Minister for Health. Disgraced, Dr. Wolff is forced to resign.    


The author has thrown everything but the kitchen sink into The Doctor. He takes on multiple controversial themes.  To make points about identity he not only changes Schnitzler’s male doctor to a female, but also specifies that casting should be “dissonant” (e.g., a black character to be played by a white actor).  His idiosyncratic use of slash marks, brackets and asterisks makes it challenging to follow the text.  If the play was not already complicated enough, he specifies that “we shouldn’t know whether… [the final] scene moves forward in real time, or takes us back round to the beginning” (p.115). In short, The Doctor is not an easy read (or watch). However, the work’s relevance to medical ethics makes it decidedly worth being persistent.  

In today’s complex medical scenarios, where do the rights of patients and doctors begin and end? Is it really the case, as one of Dr. Wolff’s colleagues claims, that “No-one swears the Hippocratic Oath. Not any more.  It’s ancient, and it’s therefore in the bin…the thing that really counts is patient choice” (p.23).  And what, if anything, is the role of religion in medicine?  

Dr. Wolff’s reasoning for not allowing the priest to enter the patient’s room is multilayered.  It is true that, as Wolff points out, the patient was not able to consent, and despite the parents being Catholic, she did not indicate her religion. Given the patient’s admission for a self-induced abortion the sudden appearance of a priest in her final moments might indeed have proved deeply disturbing. The situation also gives Wolff the opportunity to express her disdain for the Catholic church.  She is certainly disgusted, when the girl dies, by the needless, preventable death: “If they’d let her have a civilised abortion in a medical setting, she’d be eating ice-cream and surfing the internet” (p.17). In addition, this is simply Dr. Wolff’s hospital, and she is used to doing what she wants to do.  While some of Wolffs’s colleagues defend her: “She is a DOCTOR.  That is all that counts.  That is the single qualification and it’s handed out by teaching hospitals, not by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming into the internet” (p.74), others are unsupportive, even antagonistic: “I’m a Catholic.  So was she.  And this is a real issue – whether certain types of patient needs certain types of doctors to attend them – but you refused without a second thought” (p.69), and “you let her die confused and panicked, entirely without peace” (p.77).  Ultimately, Wolff’s exaggerated sense of importance and lack of sensitivity place her in a long tradition of dramatic characters whose hubris leads to their tragic downfall.     

By the end of The Doctor, after Dr. Wolff has been humbled and can no longer hide behind her title, she reconciles with the priest. Religion and medicine need not be at odds; they may, in fact, be different means to the same end:   

     RUTH.  We’re so far apart, you and I, aren’t we?  Body and soul.   

     FATHER.  …We all contain a thousand different selves, and – they can’t all be equally
          important.  We choose which selves we want to put in charge. You’ve got medicine. I’ve
          got God.  Something -one thing- rises to the top.   

     RUTH.  Medicine is faith. (p. 107)  

In conclusion, this is an important and thought-provoking play that, despite its difficulties, provides a springboard for discussion about some of today’s most pressing bioethical issues.   


The 1912 Schnitzler play that inspired The Doctor is entitled Professor Bernhardi.  It is available through Oberon Books in a 2006 adaptation by Australian playwright Samuel Adamson.   

The Doctor premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London in 2019 in a production directed by the author.  English actor Juliet Stevenson received critical praise as Dr. Ruth Wolff.  A planned transfer to London’s West End was postponed due to COVID.  The play finally opened in September 2022 at the Duke of York’s Theatre.The Doctor is scheduled to play, in the London production with Juliet Stevenson, at the Park Avenue Armory in New York from June to August 2023.      


Oberon Books

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