translated by Cathy Porter and Peter Majer
Unlike many other plays by Čapek, The White Plague is pervaded not by hope with a little nihilism, but with anguish and fear for what the future would hold. Written in the late 1930s, shortly before the Munich Agreement delivered much of Czechoslovakia into Nazi control, The White Plague tells the story of a dictatorship which is overcome by an illness it is powerless to control.
In their introduction, translators Peter Majer and Cathy Porter write: ‘The White Plague (1937) [is] a savage and anguished satire against fascist dictatorship. The action is set in an unnamed country and under its dictator, the Marshal, the population is poised for the final war which will conquer the world. Science, medicine and production are ruled by fiat, and dissent is ruthlessly suppressed. But people are dying by the thousand from a mysterious epidemic for which nobody knows the cure. The disease slays soldiers, rulers and workers alike, depleting the labour force and jeopardising production . . . A humanist by nature, Čapek struggled to understand the psychology of his time, joining the front line of journalists and intellectuals fighting for democracy and against the infamous Munich pact . . . But he was already being attacked by Czech and German fascists at public meetings and in the press, and The White Plague made him more enemies.'
The White Plague was first performed and published in Czech in 1937, the year before Čapek’s death at the age of 48.