Albert Schweitzer arrived in French Equatorial Africa, now known as Gabon, in 1913 and spent the better part of the next 50 years there treating the sick and supervising the building of medical facilities. Although the doctor worked in obscurity at first, his dedication and success eventually sparked the curiosity of the Western world. By the time he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, his life was considered good copy, with journalists and filmmakers traipsing through the jungle to hound him for interviews. In photographs taken back then, the physician cuts a somewhat natty figure; dressed in rumpled summer whites, with his bushy white hair and unruly moustache, he looks like a cross between Albert Einstein and Mark Twain. Notoriety was anathema to him, however, unless it advanced his mission of healing. In fact Schweitzer refused to interrupt his work in Africa to travel to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize; still, he eagerly used the award money to fulfill a long-held dream of building a village for lepers. He died in 1965 at the age of 90, working right up until the end.
Playwright and Carbonell Award-nominated actor Bill Yule pays tribute to this heroic figure in a world-premiere one-person show aptly, if unsurprisingly, titled Schweitzer. In an admirable effort to encourage the writing and production of new works by local artists, Coral Gables's New Theatre commissioned the 90-minute one act in 1995 and has mounted it as the final show of its 1995-96 season. (A year ago, Yule and the theater probably wouldn't have been able to predict how replete the current season would be with one-person pieces; with Schweitzer, the actor/playwright becomes one of more than a dozen performers to have strutted his/her solo stuff locally since last summer.)
Authors of biographical dramas often patch together scripts using excerpts from their subject's writings or speeches. Yule, however, coauthor with Barry Ball of an earlier play called The Boys of Mariel, departs from that approach in his portrait of Schweitzer. Although the playwright gleaned information from Schweitzer's autobiography and collected letters, he used his own words to reimagine Schweitzer's experiences. Reportedly, only one line was lifted directly from Schweitzer: "The Nobel Committee has really mucked up my life."
Given the passion with which Schweitzer approached his work, it's easy to understand why Yule wanted to portray him. And as playwright and actor, Yule effectively conveys that passion: Schweitzer emerges as a complex character, capable of both self-sacrifice and selfishness, as courageous and brilliant as he was cranky and paranoid, as intoxicated with purpose as he was deeply lonely. Passion alone, however, cannot sustain a show in which 90 years of a very full life must be condensed into an hour and a half. In structuring his play, Yule relies too heavily on Schweitzer's personality to carry the evening. By moving from anecdote to anecdote instead of developing a series of fully realized scenes, Yule fails to provide the piece with a strong enough framework; ultimately, Schweitzer is an exhaustive character study in need of a dramatic backbone.
The play opens in 1965, several months before Schweitzer's death. The doctor's eyesight is failing and his memory has grown confused. As he moves in and out of his small screened-in house (part of a handsome, atmospheric set designed by Michael Thomas Essad and lighted by Todd Wren), he reflects on his past. In fluid, often lyrical language he recounts his early years in Gabon with his wife, the first operation he performed there (done in a chicken coop), and his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War I (he and his wife were incarcerated by the French in Africa because they were German). He tells of his return to Europe after the war and his eventual decision to resume his work in Africa, leaving behind his wife and their new daughter. He relays the hardships of trying to heal people in the jungle, while proudly detailing the continuing growth of his hospital. He reads aloud letters to and from his wife. He scorns newspaper accounts written about him. He reacts to the rise of fascism in Europe, disdaining Hitler and the Nazis while fretting over the fate of his Jewish wife and daughter (they survived the Holocaust -- Schweitzer himself was not Jewish). He remembers his childhood, including his harsh mother and his minister father, in whose professional footsteps he originally had hoped to follow -- that is, until he decided to pursue medicine. He maintains an ongoing dialogue with God.
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His life contains no shortage of dramatic conflict and fascinating detail. Through the years Schweitzer tirelessly lobbied for funds, at first to keep his facilities afloat and then to expand them, practicing medicine without electricity until the Fifties. Toward the end of his life he was roundly criticized by young black nationalists who equated his presence in Africa with imperialism. He professed devotion to his wife and daughter, but, spurning the bourgeois life of the European middle class, left them behind in favor of his work. An accomplished musician and authority on Bach, he practiced classical music on a piano in his jungle hut, and during trips to Europe he made dozens of recordings for Capitol Records, many of which are still available today.
Theoretically, these numerous episodes from Schweitzer's life, coupled with abundant evidence of his contradictory nature, should provide sufficient grist to produce good drama. However, because Yule has chosen to convey all this information through a long A at times rambling A reminiscence, the tensions inherent in Schweitzer's life are left to the imagination when they should be brought to life on-stage. Had Yule constructed his narrative around one, two, or even as many as three significant events, delved deeply into the details of each, and allowed those concrete details to illuminate the themes of Schweitzer's entire life, the show may have resonated with much more power.
In his program notes for this show, New Theatre artistic director (and director of this production) Rafael de Acha writes, "To take a play from idea to page to stage is, at best, a daunting and foolhardy proposition." Daunting, yes. Foolhardy, no. If the South Florida theater community wants to become a major player on the national scene, then new works should be encouraged and developed. Yet Schweitzer offers an example of just how arduous the development process can be. Despite its lovely set design, mostly seamless direction by de Acha, extensive research by Yule, and an enthusiastic performance that offers an often inspiring and moving glimpse of a compelling historical figure, Schweitzer still needs to be poked, prodded, and shaped into a gripping evening of drama. The five-week-long run at New Theatre enables Yule and de Acha to gauge what works and what doesn't work before a live audience. The next step -- turning an unsparing editorial eye to another draft of the play --
still remains to be taken.