Men in White

Citation metadata

Editor: Jennifer Smith
Date: 2002
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 14. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 18
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Men in White


Men in White, originally presented by the Group Theatre in New York in 1933, was Sidney Kingsley’s first play. The drama focuses on the personal sacrifices required by the medical profession. The main theme of the play is summed up in one of the doctor’s final utterances: “It’s not easy for any of us. But in the end our reward is something richer than simply living. Maybe it’s a kind of success that world out there can’t measure... maybe it’s a kind of glory.”

Men in White grew out of Kingsley’s longstanding interest in the medical field. As he explained more than fifty years later in Sidney Kingsley, Five Prizewinning Plays, “I worked and spent an enormous amount of time in the hospitals of New York and was so impressed with the study of the history of medicine and the achievements made in the previous decade.” Kingsley witnessed firsthand those doctors he applauded in his dedication, “the men in medicine who dedicate themselves, with quiet heroism, to man.” Kingsley’s diligent research paid off in his writing; theatergoers, critics, and the medical community alike responded favorably to the realism and idealism that forms the backbone of Men in White.

The play also started Kingsley’s tradition of dealing with significant social issues—issues that many other writers were unwilling to explore or even raise. A pivotal plot twist in which a young woman dies of a botched abortion gave Kingsley the Page 254  |  Top of Articleopportunity to speak out in support of legalized abortion, a practice that was not adopted in the United States until 1973. As Nena Couch points out in her introduction to Sidney Kingsley, Five Prizewinning Plays, “In Men in White Kingsley did what was clearly characteristic of him and what has marked his long career—to present on the stage a major human concern boldly and without apology or disguise.”


Kingsley was born Sidney Kirshner on October 22, 1906, in New York, New York. While attending high school, he began writing one-act plays, directing, and acting. He won a scholarship to Cornell University, where he continued to write and direct plays. In 1928, the same year in which he earned his bachelor of arts degree, he won an award for the best student one-act play.

After graduation, Kingley acted with the Tremont Stock Company in the Bronx, New York. Deciding that he would never be a great actor, Kingsley moved in 1929 to California. He worked as a scenario reader in the movie business. At the same time, he continued working on a play called Crisis. This play opened in 1933 in New York under a new title, Men in White. The play was a critical and commercial success both in the United States and London, and it won the 1934 Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Throughout the rest of the 1930s, Kingsley wrote three more plays: Dead End(1935) was a Broadway success, but Ten Million Ghosts(1936) and The World We Make(1939) both were considered failures. In 1939, Kingsley also married the actress Madge Evans, who would appear in several of his later plays.

Kingsley wrote five more plays in the 1940s and 1950s. Both The Patriots(1943) and Darkness at Noon(1951) were given New York Circle of Critics Awards. Night Life(1962) was the last complete work that Kingsley presented on the stage. The Art Scene(1969) was part one of an unfinished trilogy.

From 1962 until his death in 1995, Kingsley remained an active participant in the theatrical community. He was a member of the influential Dramatists Guild, serving as its president and vice president. He also sat on the board of directors of the Cafe La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. Kingsley died on March 20, 1995, in Oakland, New Jersey, following a stroke. The Dramatists Guild Fund presented the first annual Evans-Kingsley Awards for significant achievement in 1999.


Act 1

Men in White opens in the library of a metropolitan hospital where members of the staff are gathered. Hochberg, the chief of the surgical staff, and Ferguson, an intern, are discussing Mr. Hudson, a wealthy patient who is about to be discharged. Ferguson is engaged to Hudson’s daughter Laura. After the couple marry, they plan to go to Vienna, where he will study surgery. The following year, he will return to work with Hochberg. Ferguson finds out that he needs to stay at the hospital with one of his patients. He agrees to break his evening plans with Laura. Then an emergency calls him to the operating room.

Scene 2 opens in Hudson’s hospital room, which Hochberg and Laura soon enter, and they discuss the demands of the medical profession. Hochberg points out that the next five years are crucial to Ferguson’s career as a surgeon. After Ferguson joins the group, he and Laura are soon left alone. When he tells her that he has to cancel their plans for that evening, she gets very upset. She tells him that she cannot put up with his demanding schedule much longer. She threatens to break their engagement if he does not promise to forgo his studies with Hochberg and instead open a private practice after returning from Vienna. Before they can discuss the situation in depth, Ferguson has to run off to attend to an emergency.

Ferguson has been called to see a young diabetic who has lost consciousness. When he arrives at her room, he finds the girl’s own doctor, Cunningham, is already there. The two doctors disagree on the diagnosis. Cunningham believes the girl has slipped into a diabetic coma and orders insulin, but Ferguson thinks she has gone into shock. The men argue, and when Cunningham hesitates, Ferguson wrests the hypo of insulin from him and takes charge of the patient. His diagnosis proves correct Page 255  |  Top of Articleand the patient recovers, but Cunningham threatens to report him nonetheless. After Cunningham leaves, Ferguson offers to give the nurse, Barbara, some medical notes for an exam. Before moving on to his next patient, he promises to leave the notes on the first floor for her.

Later that evening, Ferguson, who has retired to his room, has a brief conversation with Laura in which she asks him to make a decision about their future. A former student of Hochberg’s named Levine, who is now in private practice, enters. He wants Ferguson to check on some specimens from his wife that he left with Hochberg. Ferguson arranges for the results to be sent down. While they wait, Levine tells the younger man that he once had the chance to work with Hochberg, but instead he married and went into practice to support his wife. His life since then has been exceedingly difficult, and he wonders if he made the right decision. Ferguson explains that being a doctor has always been the only thing he wanted to do, even if he has to put aside personal pleasures to accomplish this goal. The orderly then brings in the lab results, which confirm that Levine’s wife has tuberculosis.

After Levine leaves, Barbara arrives for the notes, which Ferguson forgot to leave for her. Barbara volunteers to go speak with the hospital administrators if Cunningham tries to get Ferguson in trouble. They talk briefly about patients and the hard work the hospital requires. Ferguson kisses Barbara but then tells her that he is going up to the ward and she had better leave. However, after he has departed, she sits on the bed, waiting for him to return.

Act 2

Three months have passed when act 2 opens. The hospital committee is meeting to discuss the perilous financial situation of their institution. Hudson is prepared to join as a new trustee and will provide the hospital much-needed funds. In return for his donation, the hospital needs to offer Ferguson an associateship. Hochberg objects that such an appointment is not possible because Ferguson is not yet qualified for the job. The other members of the committee do not see the problem because, with Hudson’s connections, they believe Ferguson can develop a lucrative practice. Much to Hochberg’s surprise, Ferguson already has informed one of the committee members that he is delighted with the plan.

Coming from their wedding rehearsal, Ferguson and Laura enter the library in high spirits.

Sidney Kingsley Sidney Kingsley

Ferguson tells Laura that he is looking forward to the associateship appointment. Although he hopes to talk to Hochberg before the committee brings it up, when Hochberg enters the library, Ferguson realizes that he is too late. Ferguson and Laura try to make Hochberg understand that they want to have time for each other, but Hochberg remains unhappy with the decision. Their conversation is interrupted by the news that Barbara is ill with a serious infection resulting from an illegal abortion. She may need surgery. Ferguson heads out for the operating room. After he leaves, Hochberg suggests that Laura observe the surgery. He hopes it may make her understand how important Ferguson’s work is. She agrees.

As Barbara is being prepared for surgery, Ferguson asks one of the nurses why Barbara never came to him for help. He says that he would never have let her go to a dangerous abortionist. Barbara is now completely alone, for she has no family and she will be thrown out of the nursing program. After examining Barbara, Hochberg orders a hysterectomy as the only hope of saving her life. The doctors head for the operating room. One of the nurses brings Laura into the operating room, and then Barbara is wheeled in. When Ferguson approaches Barbara, she asks him to take care of her and tells Page 256  |  Top of Articlehim that she loved him. Laura realizes that Ferguson is the one who got Barbara pregnant, and Ferguson admits to the affair. Starting to cry, Laura leaves the operating room, and the operation begins.

Act 3

The next day Hochberg finds Ferguson in his room. Ferguson stayed up all night with Barbara, and now her temperature has fallen. Ferguson tells Hochberg that he plans to ask Barbara to marry him—Laura refuses to speak to him and Barbara is alone in the world with little future. Hochberg questions Ferguson’s decision, pointing out the difficulties of going into private practice. Hochberg cannot convince Ferguson to change his mind, however. Ferguson even declares that he will give up medicine, if he must, to support Barbara. Then Laura comes in to see Hochberg. Ignoring Ferguson, she tells Hochberg that she is planning to sail to Europe that evening. Hochberg reveals Ferguson’s plans to marry Barbara and then leaves. Ferguson and Laura talk about what has happened. Ferguson says he has no choice; he is responsible for the destruction of Barbara’s life so he must help her. Laura admits that she was acting selfishly by making Ferguson give up his dreams of being a surgeon. She admits that she stills loves him. Then Hochberg returns with the news that Barbara has died. Laura wants Ferguson to go with her and talk things over. Ferguson refuses, saying that he belongs at the hospital. He has made the decision to devote himself to medicine.


Dr. Cunningham

Although he enjoys a roster of wealthy clients, Cunningham is a lazy, careless, and incompetent practitioner. His colleagues disparage him, but because of his influential friends, he still is granted hospital privileges for his patients. Ferguson draws his disfavor when he disagrees with Cunningham’s treatment of a patient, even though Ferguson’s actions save the patient’s life.

Barbara Dennin

Barbara is a lonely student nurse at the hospital. She is infatuated with Ferguson and initiates a sexual encounter with him. When she becomes pregnant, instead of turning to anyone at the hospital for help, she goes to an illegal abortionist who botches the job. She is brought into the hospital with an infection. The news of her indiscretion means that her life is in ruins—she will be cast out of the nursing program, and no other hospital will take her. Ferguson vows to marry her, but, although she initially seems to be recovering, she dies.

Dr. George Ferguson

Ferguson is a promising young intern who struggles with conflict between his personal and professional lives. He is dedicated to his work and his patients, and hopes to better the lives of humanity through medical care and the development of new medical treatments. As the play opens, Ferguson is set to marry Laura—whom he deeply loves—and go with her to Vienna, where he intends to study surgery for a year. He then plans to return home to study under Hochberg at the local hospital. He wants this future despite the fact that his father, also a doctor, died at a young age of a heart attack brought on by overwork.

As the demands of his profession are so great, Laura forces him to choose between marrying her and going into private practice or continuing his studies and becoming a surgeon. Threatened with the demise of the engagement, Ferguson decides to give up his plans to become a surgeon. He decides to accept the hospital’s offer of an associateship and agrees to go into private practice, though he realizes he may never fulfill his full potential as a doctor if he goes this route.

Free to pursue his medical career after Laura learns about his affair with Barbara, Ferguson again questions the importance of his medical career when he determines to marry Barbara. As before, this decision would end his dreams of becoming a surgeon. Ferguson is ready to give up medicine entirely to support Barbara. At the end of the play, however, with Barbara’s death, he chooses a professional life over a personal life. Although Laura wants to reconcile, he rededicates himself to medicine, telling her, “This is where I belong!”

Dr. Hochberg

Hochberg is the well-respected chief of surgery. His dedication to his profession is boundless; he appears to have no life outside of the hospital. Page 257  |  Top of ArticleHochberg believes that achieving potential in the medical field requires absolute sacrifice and that a doctor’s reward “is something richer than simply living.” As Ferguson’s mentor, he urges the younger doctor to stay focused on his medical career. His call that Ferguson place his studies above all other demands, even those of honor or love, shows that Hochberg has little comprehension of such demands. At the end of the play, Ferguson chooses Hochberg and the ideals he represents over all others.


See Dr. Hochberg

Laura Hudson

Laura, Ferguson’s fiancée, is the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She wants Ferguson to give up his dreams of being a surgeon and go into a less-demanding private practice. When Ferguson says he will not do so, she threatens to break off their engagement. By the end of the play, however, she realizes how important medicine is to Ferguson. Although she wants to work out a compromise, Ferguson has decided not to let marriage sidetrack his medical aspirations.

Mr. Hudson

Hudson is a wealthy businessman, one of the few who continues to prosper during the Great Depression. A patient of Dr. Hochberg’s, he declares his intention of becoming a trustee of the hospital in return for awarding his future son-in-law, Ferguson, an associateship.

Dr. Levine

Levine is a former intern of the hospital. Six years ago, he abandoned his opportunities to work with Hochberg in order to marry. Forced into private practice to support his wife, for the past six years he has barely eked out a living. His experiences have left him an unhappy, beaten man. By the end of the play, he and his wife, who is stricken with tuberculosis, have relocated, and once again Levine faces the formidable challenge of earning a living through private practice.

Dorothy Smith

Dot is a young diabetic patient of Cunningham’s. She has gone into shock as a result of

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  • Men in White was adapted for the screen in 1934 by Waldemar Young. It was directed by Richard Boleslawsky, produced by MGM, and starred Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, and Elizabeth Allan.

Cunningham having ordered a too-large injection of insulin, but Cunningham thinks she is in a coma. Ferguson’s correct diagnosis and treatment saves her life.


Professional versus Private Life

At the center of Ferguson’s dilemma is whether his professional or private life will take priority. Ferguson has spent his whole life dreaming of being a doctor. He wants this future despite the fact that his father, also a doctor, died at a young age of a heart attack brought on by overwork. The demands of the medical profession are made clear in the play. Hochberg points out that being a doctor is not about making money, but about working hard to save lives.

Laura presents a conflict for Ferguson. She is unsupportive of his professional work because it demands his almost complete concentration. She begs him to make time for their life together. She does not want him to be a man like her father and Hochberg, who have no interests outside of their careers.

Because Ferguson loves Laura so much and cannot imagine his life without her, he convinces himself that he can balance his career and his relationship. As a means of accomplishing this new

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  • Research the abortion issue in the United States from the 1930s to the present day. How did abortion come to be legalized? Which groups support and which oppose abortion today? What are the reasons given by each side for their viewpoints?
  • The 1930s saw a number of important discoveries in the medical and surgical fields. Research what accomplishments doctors made during this period and explain how these accomplishments affected the quality of life and health.
  • Kingsley’s other plays also focus on important social issues. Read either Dead End or Detective Story. Then analyze the selected work in terms of what social problem(s) it presents and any solutions suggested.
  • Nena Couch writes in her introduction to Sidney Kingsley, Five Prizewinning Plays that Kingsley’s “pioneering work for the stage led the way for new genres,” such as hospital and doctor dramas like ER. Compare Men in White to a modern hospital drama. How are the two works similar? How are they different?
  • The doctors in Men in White make several references to potential changes in the government’s relationship with the medical establishment. Research how Americans in the 1930s felt about reforming the country’s health care system. How did members of the medical community feel about potential reforms? What, if any, reforms took place?
  • Men in White raises many important social issues. Make a list of some of these and then determine if these issues are still relevant to today’s society. Explain your assertions.

goal, he prepares to accept the associateship and enter private practice. With this decision, he is attempting to mold a future in which he can be both a doctor and a husband. The play ends, however, with Ferguson realizing how much medicine has yet to accomplish and preparing to give up any semblance of a personal life. He dedicates himself completely to his professional life and to the medical field.


The play raises the ethical questions as it demonstrates the favoritism that exists even in as noble a profession as medicine. Ferguson is offered an associateship solely because of his relationship to Hudson, whom the medical board committee is courting to become a trustee. The members of the board openly admit to trading this position for Hudson’s money, which they so desperately need. While Ferguson is a very promising intern, he is not prepared for the job, nor does he have the training to go into practice. The board further acknowledges that, even without the proper training, Ferguson will do well in private practice, because of the Hudson connection.

In a contrasting situation, however, the board refuses to award an internship to a medical student who is the nephew of a senator. The student has finished 297th out of 300 candidates who took the medical boards. Despite this abysmal performance, several of the doctors support his candidacy because of his family connections and background.

Duty and Responsibility

Ferguson is a man who wants to fulfill his duties and responsibilities to others. He believes that as a man of medicine his greatest duty lies with his patients. Although he loves his fiancée, she must take second place to people he does not even know. Ferguson briefly denies this sense of duty when he opts to accept the associateship and rejects further Page 259  |  Top of Articlestudies. At the end of the play, Ferguson reaffirms that a doctor’s greatest responsibility is to humanity and to learning more about medical care.

Barbara is the only person toward whom Ferguson feels a strong sense of personal responsibility. When she faces disgrace and the loss of her job and reputation after the abortion, he determines to marry her. He does not love her but feels he has no choice but to do the honorable thing because he holds himself responsible for her predicament.

Law and Abortion

The denouement of the play comes after Barbara dies as the result of an infection brought on by a botched abortion. This incident points to a theme that is essential to the play, even if it is not emphasized: that the law sometimes does not reflect what is best for the people it protects. At the time the play was written, abortion was illegal, yet many women underwent them. The individual members of the medical community in the hospital do not support the criminalization of abortion. Hochberg refers to whomever performed the abortion on Barbara as a butcher and tells a colleague that it is a “shame” that “some our laws belong to the Dark Ages!” A footnote to the 1933 edition of the play further discusses views on abortion. It notes that a doctor and former president of the American Medical Association estimated that there were more illegal abortions performed in New York and Chicago than there were children born in those cities. The footnote advocates that the United States should follow a program of fostering birth control education (birth control was also illegal at the time) as well as run legal abortion clinics.


Realistic Setting

Men in White takes place in a New York City hospital in the early 1930s. The hospital is typical of those found in large cities. The play presents this setting, and the characters who inhabit it, in an utterly realistic fashion. All of the details reflect the state of the medical profession in the early 1930s, from the medical techniques to the instruments and the treatments. For instance, in the 1930s, insulin was just beginning to be used on diabetics and blood transfusions were starting to be performed. The characters also make many references to issues surrounding the medical community, mentioning actual doctors and surgeons, medical school education, and even illegal abortions. The committee members talk in blunt terms about the perilous financial situation that hospitals face because of the Great Depression. The doctors discuss their concern over the government’s involvement in medical institutions, which caused many doctors of the period a great deal of worry. For its original 1933 production, the script of Men in White contained numerous footnotes to clarify many of the points and references raised throughout the drama, as well as the medical terminology.


There are many conflicts with which Ferguson must deal. He confronts an older doctor, loses a patient, fights with Laura, and has an affair with a student-nurse. The most important conflict, however, is the conflict that takes place within him as he decides which is more important to him: a satisfying personal life or a challenging professional life. As Ferguson—and everyone around him, from Laura to Hochberg—sees it, he is unable to fulfill both his professional and personal needs. Ferguson is pulled in two directions as Laura threatens to break their engagement with him if he continues his studies with Hochberg, and Hochberg continuously reminds him of the noble work for which the doctor sacrifices his personal life. Ferguson’s resolution of these conflicts comes three months after the dilemma first presents itself and after many dramatic events take place.


The Great Depression

By 1933, the United States had been suffering under the effects of the Great Depression—the worst depression in American history—for four years. During the Depression, with the loss of work

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  • 1930s: Three out of every four Americans polled in the mid- to late 1930s want the government to help pay for medical care.

    Today: A 1999 poll conducted by NBC and The Wall Street Journal shows that two out of three Americans believe the federal government should guarantee health care to all citizens.

  • 1930s: Only about 5 percent of all medical students are women.

    Today: Women make up close to half of all medical students, and more women than men are applying to medical school.

  • 1930s: Because many Americans cannot pay for their medical care, the U.S. government initiates changes in health insurance as well as changing its own role in providing money for health care.

    Today: Despite an effort led by President Bill Clinton to reform the health care system and provide medical coverage for all Americans, many Americans—nearly one in four—still lack health care and medical insurance. By the end of the decade, 42 million Americans have no health insurance while another 20 million Americans are under-insured.

  • 1930s: In 1933 the average hospital stay is two weeks.

    Today: In 1998 the average hospital stay is 5.1 days.

  • 1930s: In 1932 tax funds pay for 14 percent of the national medical bill.

    Today: In 1998 government funds pay for just over 50 percent of all hospital care and physician services expenditures.

  • 1930s: In 1931 there are 156,440 physicians in the United States, or about 12.74 physicians per 10,000 American citizens. Doctors are clustered in the cities and are rare in rural areas.

    Today: In 1998 there are 777,900 medical doctors in the United States, or about 29.03 doctors per 10,000 American citizens.

  • 1930s: Feminist Margaret Sanger, appalled by the deaths from self-induced abortions that she witnessed as a nurse in New York City, pioneers the birth control movement in the United States. Before a federal law legalized the dissemination of birth control information in 1938, one of every four maternal deaths is due to abortion. In 1933, 58 pregnant women out of every 1,000 die.

    Today: Birth control and abortion are legal, but there are continuing challenges to the laws governing these practices. In 1997, 1 pregnant woman out of every 1,000 dies.

and the lowering of wages, millions of Americans sank into poverty. Under the New Deal initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt, social welfare programs, including those that helped pay for health care for Americans, came under the federal government’s auspices.

The Field of Medicine

In the 1930s, the United States faced a serious problem in medical care in that many Americans could not afford it. Many people responded to this financial situation by curtailing visits to physicians and hospitals. At the same time, those people forced to seek medical help often could not pay their bills. As a result, the income generated by physicians and hospitals dropped. Hospitals further suffered as charitable contributions fell. Private insurance, such as the Blue Cross plan for hospital costs, created in 1933, helped cover some costs for those Americans who could afford to purchase it.

In the 1930s, there were three types of hospitals—voluntary, public, and university. Voluntary hospitals (privately owned but nonprofit) attracted paying patients and added amenities such Page 261  |  Top of Articleas private rooms and quality food and nursing care. In order to stay solvent, they reduced the amount of charity care they provided, and to attract more paying patients, they opened their facilities to private physicians; many extended surgical privileges to surgeons who were not properly qualified. Public hospitals began to conduct more medical school and specialty training and to establish affiliations with medical schools. While these developments helped improve the quality of care, hospitals continued to suffer from inadequate facilities and funding. The university hospital of medical schools also emerged at this time. These institutions accepted many charity patients, but focused on teaching and research or patients with special problems.

Medical school education and curriculum also became more standardized. Higher admission standards improved the quality of medical students. All medical school graduates were required to complete internships, a period of one to two years of unpaid postgraduate training. Most hospitals, however, did not have enough staff or facilities to train the interns. The residency system, consisting of a period of post-internship training in a specialty, also developed.

New Developments in Medicine

Many important discoveries in drug therapy took place in the 1930s, such as insulin injections for diabetics and cures for bacterial infections. Surgery also saw many significant improvements. American doctor Karl Landsteiner identified blood groups. This discovery allowed blood transfusions to take place and thus more complicated surgeries began to be performed. Surgeons also made use of intravenous replenishment of salts, fluids, and nourishment, as well as X-rays. While these innovations led to beneficial surgical operations, useless and even harmful surgeries were also performed.

Abortion and Birth Control Reform

In 1930, the drive to reform abortion and birth controls laws was beginning to gather momentum. At that time, abortion was illegal throughout the country, and women who sought them were undertaking a significant health risk. The Depression years saw a big surge in the abortion rate. Some doctors and clinics performed abortions, and “birth-control clubs” formed, wherein members could draw from the club’s fees to pay for an abortion as needed. Despite reform efforts, abortion remained illegal for decades.

Prior to 1930, existing obscenity laws outlawed anyone from circulating birth control information. People who merely possessed contraceptive articles could be fined or imprisoned. Margaret Sanger was a leading pioneer in the birth control movement. Despite the laws forbidding the prescription of contraceptive devices, she opened several birth-control clinics in New York. She also organized American and international birth control conferences in the 1920s. In 1930 the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control endorsed lifting such restrictions, and in 1936 the courts said birth control did not violate obscenity laws. Within a few months, the American Medical Association approved birth control as part of medical practice and education. All but three states struck down the laws against birth control (these states lifted their laws in 1938).


Men in White opened to rave reviews in 1933. In The Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch called it an “extraordinary production of an extraordinary play.” This “genuine work of art,” Krutch lauded, “furnishes an experience which is thrilling and absorbing.” New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote two glowing reviews of what he called “a good, brave play” within one week’s timespan. He found that the play was “warm with life and high in aspiration.” Arthur Pollock wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that the play “shines continuously with a steady intelligence.” Most of these reviewers’ contemporaries agreed; ten of twelve critics named Men in White as one of the best plays of the year, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

John Mason Brown was the primary voice of dissent, asserting in the New York Evening Post that the play was “piffling” and “mildewed in its hokum.” While the play’s advocates were not immune to its weaknesses—for instance, Atkinson questioned the play’s “slavish fondness for medical terms” and Krutch admitted that “it can hardly be said that there is anything completely new in

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A scene from the 1934 film adaptation of Men In White, featuring C. Henry Gordon, Clark Gable, and Elizabeth Allan A scene from the 1934 film adaptation of Men In White, featuring C. Henry Gordon, Clark Gable, and Elizabeth Allan

[its] theme”—the vast majority of audiences responded favorably to the compelling social issues, human drama, and triumph of the dedicated medical profession.

Men in White quickly moved beyond New York, touring the United States and on to productions in London, Vienna, and Budapest, all to equally receptive audiences. The American medical community was particularly receptive to the play, which was reviewed in medical journals and bulletins. The Medical Record even recommended it for “wives and fiancées of physicians and those who depend or expect to depend on a physician’s income... [and] every medical man, for it gives to the public a clearer idea of the ideals and the problems of our profession.”

The later years, however, were not as kind to Men in White. In a retrospective of Kingsley’s career in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Paul Bailey acknowledges that the “play is dated”; Kingsley’s dramatic techniques, which are “frozen in the 1930s,” have “not aged well.” Despite this weakness, however, Bailey asserts that because “it is imbued with a sense of optimism in the future and Page 263  |  Top of Articlein progress, and as a reflection of attitudes in the 1930s it remains historically significant.” Other contemporary critics and scholars have pointed out that the social issues raised by Kingsley remain relevant, even more than six decades later. As Couch writes in her introduction to Sidney Kingsley, Five Prizewinning Plays, “And in this time in which some form of all the humans rights issues and social problems dealt with in these plays are still, or again, with us, Sidney Kingsley has proven to be a playwright whose work is timely as well as timeless.”


Rena Korb

Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she explores how Kingsley uses characterization to explore different types of physicians.

Men in White was a critical and commercial success when it was first produced on the New York stage in 1933. Although it raises compelling social issues that are still of concern today, such as abortion and the conflict between personal and professional life, Kingsley’s work generally has resonated much less loudly in the decades following his initial success. Paul Bailey notes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography,“Many contemporary critics of drama and theatre... tend to dismiss him with a brief mention of his work and an acknowledgment that his plays are either dated or insignificant.” The main reason for this dismissal is Kingsley’s dramatic style, which often strikes modern audiences as unrealistic, stilted, and underdeveloped. Writes Couch in her introduction to Sidney Kingsley, Five Prizewinning Plays this style “dates his work more than do the issues he confronts in that writing.”

A prime example of the shortcomings of Kingsley’s writing, from a contemporary point of view, is seen in the characters who populate the hospital in Men in White. Medical personnel and patients alike fail to truly emerge as flesh-and-blood people. However, this stylistic technique for creating characters serves a more important purpose than presenting “round” characters: It illuminates Kingsley’s message—that being a good doctor requires absolute dedication, and if necessary, self-sacrifice. Kingsley creates three doctors associated with the hospital, whom Bailey finds to be “drawn

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in bold and clear strokes,” to demonstrate the options that Ferguson has before him as he is forced to choose between the demands of his fiancée, his mentor, and himself. These doctors—Cunningham, a successful but incompetent society doctor; Levine, a beaten-down doctor scraping by in private practice; and Hochberg, the well-respected, capable chief of surgical staff—all provide examples of whom Ferguson might become in the future.

As a young, talented intern with a bright but busy future ahead of him, Ferguson is at a crossroads in his life and career. He plans on becoming a surgeon but this path requires significant sacrifices. He is willing to make these sacrifices but his willful, spoiled fiancée, Laura, rejects all notion of them. Tired of Ferguson’s unavailability and foreseeing this as the pattern of their life together, Laura tells him that she only will put up with his schedule for another year; after they return from Vienna she wants him to discontinue his studies in order to “arrange our lives like human beings.” Her solution is for Ferguson to “open up an office and have regular hours... specialize!” Through the character of Cunningham, however, Kingsley makes it clear what kind of doctor—and man—Ferguson would become were he to choose this path.

With his flourishing Park Avenue practice, “impressive equipment,” and wealthy patients, Cunningham would seem the picture of a successful doctor. However, Cunningham is all image, and his success merely the result of his “political influence,” which has also helped him secure the privilege of using the hospital facilities although “his colleagues look down on him with scorn.” In truth, Cunningham is a dangerous, incompetent quack. Having no interest in “keeping up with the medical journals and the march of treatment,” and believing that “nine patients out of ten will be cured by nature Page 264  |  Top of Articleanyway, and the tenth will die no matter what the physician does for him,” he lacks the dedication that people expect from physicians. He is so unfamiliar with current medicine that, were it not for Ferguson’s intervention, he would have killed his young patient, Dot, whom he had misdiagnosed and sent into shock with an overdose of insulin.

Kingsley makes it clear that if Ferguson accepts the hospital’s offer of an associateship, he will end up like Cunningham, a doctor for whom he feels nothing but distaste. At the meeting of trustees, it is roundly acknowledged that if Ferguson goes into private practice, “[W]ith his wife’s connections, he ought to... er... do very nicely.” But according to Hochberg, Ferguson “doesn’t know enough, yet; he’s apt to make mistakes”; Ferguson is neither ready for an associateship nor private practice, but at Laura’s behest, he is willing to “sacrifice his career for a nice office and an easy practice.” Ferguson well recognizes the mistake he is about to make in terms of his medical career. Though he claims to be “delighted” by the opportunity, in reality he “looked so glum” after speaking to one of the doctors about his acceptance of it. Already, with the decision he has made, Ferguson is becoming more and more like Cunningham.

This potential of developing into Cunningham is taken away after Laura breaks off the engagement, which means Ferguson loses the offer of the associateship and the chance to progress himself through the Hudson family connections. However, the chain of events instead offers Ferguson another alternate future: becoming a Levine. This once promising intern gave up the chance to “be somebody” when he married. Disowned by his wealthy mother, he was forced to discontinue his studies in order to go into private practice to support his wife. The facts of his life since he left the hospital bear out his loss. When Levine first went into practice, he was sure and confident. He wouldn’t allow Hochberg to help him even a little bit. However, without connections, as Ferguson now is, Levine was reduced to “Tenements! Fifty-cent patients! Poverty! Dirt! Struggle!” The past six years have been a struggle for Levine and his wife, who has since developed tuberculosis. When Ferguson first meets Levine, the former intern presents the picture of a man whom life has beaten down, with his shabby clothing and worry lines crossing his forehead. By the end of the play, desperately trying to build up a new practice in Colorado, he is reduced to begging Hochberg for the loan of a few dollars.

Levine has come to feel some sense of regret for the choices he made in the past. He considers Ferguson lucky to have the opportunity to study with Hochberg and sighs sadly when speaking of the same opportunities that he squandered. Kingsley makes the parallelism clear: If Ferguson follows through on his intention of marrying and going into private practice to earn a living, he will become like Levine, haunted by bitterness and the memories of what he gave up. Levine considers himself a “human sacrifice,” and Ferguson will undoubtedly become another sacrifice, with his ambitions and ideals destroyed.

One other future faces Ferguson, a future represented by Hochberg himself. Hochberg has devoted his life to his work and urges Ferguson, whom he believes has great potential, to follow in his footsteps. His dedication to the medical profession shows itself in his utter lack of personal life; with Ferguson, he talks only of patients and of the studies that lie ahead. The rest of the doctors, as well as discerning patients such as Hudson, greatly revere Hochberg. When he enters the library where they gather, he is immediately bombarded with requests and opinions. Hochberg has earned this position because he placed his medical career above everything else. He continually reminds Laura that Ferguson needs to concentrate on his studies, holding out as an example a doctor who works with him now who “even has a cot rigged up in one of the laboratories” to ease his 16-plus hour days. As Ferguson’s mentor, Hochberg will undoubtedly sculpt the younger man into a version of himself.

While Bailey finds Hochberg a sympathetic character who is “full of wisdom and patience,” other readers may choose to question the surgeon’s narrow focus and its accompanying lack of humanity. His attitude is most clearly seen when he learns of Ferguson’s intention to marry Barbara. Calling Ferguson’s desire to do the honorable thing “[M]id Victorian idealism,” he urges Ferguson to reconsider letting this “accident... ruin yourself—the rest of your life—destroy your ambition.” He believes that in helping a woman whose ruin he helped bring about, Ferguson will merely be “throwing his life away.” With his admonitions, he reveals his essential belief that nothing is important but the medical profession. He puts the important work that good doctors do—saving lives—ahead of everything else.

At the end of the play, with Barbara’s sudden death, Ferguson has the chance to choose between Page 265  |  Top of Articlethese three models or to carve out his own style of doctoring. After Laura rescinds her earlier demands that he give up his studies with Hochberg, declaring that she will marry him nonetheless, Ferguson has the opportunity to combine his professional love and his personal love. Instead, Ferguson decides to follow in Hochberg’s footsteps. He affirms his commitment to the medical profession when he tells Laura “This is where I belong!” Ferguson has come to accept, like Hochberg before him, that for the physician the reward is in “something richer than simply living”—it is in sacrificing his own life to the greater need of society.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Men in White, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Ray Warren

Warren is a freelance writer with a master of fine art’s degree in writing from Vermont College. In this essay, he explores the deeper issues of this staged production as they contributed to its Broadway success.

Sidney Kingsley’s three-act play, Men in White, is a mix of social commentary on moral issues and soap-opera drama. But more than this, it is a deeply felt philosophical treatise on humanity. The visible, driving emotional force of the play is a young intern’s struggle to integrate his career with an upcoming marriage. Its hospital setting uses life-and-death issues, love, and betrayal to pull the audience toward a conclusion. The drama of the intern’s tortured conscience over a sexual impropriety, which eventually causes the death of a young nurse, rakes the conclusion with profundity. The actual cause of her death, a botched, back-street abortion, becomes an underlying moral theme, seldom discussed in the 1930s. Beneath this veneer, however, many other serious issues are brought forth: medical ethics, the economics of medicine following the Depression, integrity in actions, and altruism in a most dedicated form.

Rather than using medicine as a mere setting for entertainment, Kingsley takes on the philosophical issues of ethics, truthfulness, compassion, altruism, and even greed, in a very simple, yet dramatic format. One line, brought into the body of the text through the remembered voice of the young intern’s father, sums up Kingsley’s theme for Men in White:“My dad used to say, ‘Above all is humanity!’ He was a fine man—my dad.” The intern goes on to say how his father died because he refused to give up medicine as a career in favor of his own health. Then

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he says, “Above all else is humanity—that’s a big thought. So big that alongside of it you and I don’t really matter very much. That’s why we do it, I guess.” Kingsley’s ideas about personal values come through in scene after scene. Had he not become a playwright and actor, he may well have become a physician or some other server of humanity.

Along with praise, reviewers and critics have found fault with Men in White, yet it was a triumph on stage and screen. In a review in Sidney Kingsley: Five Winning Plays, edited by Nena Couch, Thomas E. Luddy of Salem State College in Massachusetts says that the usual response of critics to Kingsley’s plays has been that “they practice outdated dramaturgy (19th-century naturalism), argue a suspect sociology (determinism), and embrace a dead politics (socialism).” In the 1930s, ideas of the nineteenth-century may have become stale to the point of feeling outdated, but it was these elements that contributed to the success of Men in White. Kingsley’s use of personal struggle and dedication in an unkind world gave its audience a point of identification. Luddy believes, however, that because of“the writing power, the mastery of issues, and complexity of the stage vision,” Kingsley’s plays have a permanent place in the theatre. The themes and style of Kingsley’s plays can be seen in many contemporary TV shows. Social elements and laws of nature, always present in society and often presented as dramatic themes, create an emotional impact for an audience.

One person who thought little of Kingsley’s writing power in Men in White and of his mastery of issues was Elia Kazan. Kazan was a member of the Group Theatre company, as was Kingsley, that first performed Men in White in 1933. In his autobiography, A Life, published in 1988, Kazan wrote that it was “the style of Lee Strasberg’s production and their own [the Group’s] ensemble playing [that] had provided Sidney Kingsley’s bone-bare text with what it didn’t deserve.” What it didn’t deserve, Page 266  |  Top of Articleaccording to Kazan, was its great success on Broadway, and the Pulitzer Prize it won the following year. It was even the “first great success” for the Group, said Kazan, giving its members “a long flow of full salaries.” In 1934, while still on Broadway, Men in White was released as a film by MGM, starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. It was a success, although Kazan never acknowledged its attributes. Its issues and emotional base did not make it a success for Kazan.

MGM recognized the opportunity for success with Kingsley’s theme and issues, however; issues common to all societies, issues of substance, brought forth through love, death, and sacrifice. This is dramaturgy with naturalism that reaches across social boundaries. Beyond soap-opera dramatizing, the emotional impact of the issues thrives.

In reading only the script, it is true that the dialogue, settings, and characterizations are all quite average. The story is simple, the scenes minimal. Yet, when reading the original text as published by Covici Friede in 1933, with footnotes intact, it is apparent that Kingsley’s purpose was not merely to create an actable play, with hopes of stardom, but rather to purport some profound philosophical ideas. His dedication of the play reads “To the men in medicine who dedicate themselves, with quiet heroism, to man.” Following the dedication in the text, and before the opening scene of the play, Kingsley places a lengthy excerpt from the Hippocratic oath, which as Kingsley says, “physicians have bound themselves since the days of antique Greece.” As an oath, it is a most serious commitment for men of medicine, meant to bind them with heart, mind, and spirit to the principles of altruism. They are sworn by “all the gods and goddesses” to do only good for the benefit of the sick and all men.

Through the play’s dialogue, Kingsley speaks seriously about the nature of humanity, of the importance of man’s humanity toward his fellows as being the most important element of their lives. In the hospital setting, it is the service of the physician to his patients—above all else—be it home, health, money, or personal need that he attempts to bring forth. However, it is in the footnotes of the original text where Kingsley records not only his own views on these issues, but backs them up with serious thought from respected sages of the past. Some footnotes are merely historical in nature or give medical definitions to the reader, while others are educational, regarding advances in anesthesia and sterilization techniques. Many of Kingsley’s more serious concerns are brought out in the footnotes of the opening pages. A footnote on the first page of dialogue quotes the German born physician and researcher Hermann Nothnagel: “All knowledge attains its ethical value and its human significance only by the humane sense in which it is employed. Only a good man can be a great physician.” He makes a footnote reference to the enormous bulk of information that had come to the science of medicine by then, and to the great task of the physician to absorb and use it. Another footnote quote is by Karl Marx, from Garrison’s History of Medicine:“The education of most people ends upon graduation; that of the physician means a lifetime of incessant study.” Throughout both footnote and text, Kingsley continues to make a strong case for the seriousness and dedication needed to succeed in medicine. The principles of a dedicated humanity are extremely important to this author.

Perhaps the play’s most important issue, and the one it is most often remembered for, is abortion. While abortion plays a prominent part in the stage production, it is also discussed in the footnotes. Kingsley takes the issue seriously. He comments clearly on the criminal state of abortion: politically, ethically, and socially. Expanding on a footnoted quote by a former president of the American Medical Association on the number of abortions in New York and Chicago being greater than the number of children born, Kingsley says:

Most of these operations are performed on otherwise respectable, law-abiding, married women. Proof enough that here is another social problem that can’t be eliminated by legislation. No one wants to encourage the indiscriminate use of this grim practice. However, the lash of the law, instead of correcting the evil, only whips it into dark corners, creating a vicious class of criminal practitioner—bootleg doctors and ignorant midwives who work in dark, back-room apartments. A saner, healthier attitude is that adopted by the Soviet government, which is fostering birth control education, and instituting legal abortion clinics in a spirit best expressed by the motto inscribed over the door of one such clinic: ‘You are welcome this time, but we hope you will never have to come here again.’

The Group Theatre ensemble produced plays that dealt with moral issues. When Kingsley presented his “bare-bones text” to the Group, he opened the door for the rest of the process to complete itself—that process being creativity. Kazan was right in this regard, that the play needed a skilled ensemble to present it. When a dramatic work is written as a play, it is never finished on the page. Not until it is interpreted and performed by its Page 267  |  Top of Articleactors is it a completed work. Kingsley was able to, with his simple presentation and complex issues, give his players just the right formula for a successful performance. Its ingredients were: an altruistic and well meaning leading man; an obstacle for the leading man in terms of a fiancée who doesn’t fully understand his need for dedication to medicine; a small but important outside love interest; a plot-driving mentor, always pushing for the hero’s success; one less-than-competent wealthy physician; comic relief in the form of two rather less-than-serious interns; a serious sociopolitical issue of the day (i.e., the state of medicine and hospitals in a floundering society recovering from a major Depression); and a seldom discussed social issue, abortion. Without the depth and intensity of the emotional issues, this may well have been bare-bones. But it is not and was not bare-bones, not when the surface had been pierced by the accomplished actors of the Group, who were able to bring all of the background sentiments and seriousness of the issues to the foreground. They brought personal feelings and experience to the stage and created believable, flesh-and-blood characters.

Apart from the emotional intrigue of the play, Kingsley did a successful job with pacing to give it dramatic impact (even with its contemporary soap-opera flare). At the end of the first act the hero has an undescribed, but obvious, sexual liaison. At the end of act 2 he is in the operating room helping to undue the damage he had done at the end of act 1 (the girl with whom he had a sexual liaison had an abortion outside the hospital and was at the hospital due to complications from a botched underground procedure). Meanwhile, the hero’s fiancée is also in attendance and discovers that her fiancé is the cause of the poor girl’s condition. This is the major plot point of the entire play. At the end of act 3, all truth is revealed and actualized. The young nurse dies, from even more complications, the hero is sent into the world with a blessing to do his best for humanity and himself, and the fiancée has understood and accepted his need for dedication and service, somewhat forgiving him for his indiscretion. Her parting words are, “Maybe some day we’ll get together, anyway.” An audience loves the possibility of happily ever after.

Sidney Kingsley wrote a number of plays. Some were successful and some not, but the success of Men in White came from not only the drama of life, death, love, and sex, along with a talented ensemble and receptive audience, but also from the depth of the author’s obviously heartfelt issues involving medicine and altruism. Men in White was a combination of elements that worked.

Source: Ray Warren, Critical Essay on Men in White, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Laura Kryhoski

Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. In this essay, she considers the social impact of Kingsley’s play on his contemporaries.

Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White had a profound impact on American audiences of the 1930s. The production was amongst only a handful of theatrical successes set against the backdrop of the depression era and Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The play earned Kingsley a Pulitzer Prize, remarkable for a work represented by stilted, or stiff, cookie-cutter character types and a rather predictable story line. It was an obvious victory, however, when noting the work’s consideration of the medical profession. Kingsley specifically created Dr. Ferguson, a young rising star and physician, to illuminate this addiction to the medical profession. It is the audience which then becomes hooked, however, captivated by a young doctor’s ineffectual struggle to separate his professional from his personal life.

Kingsley uses his characters to convey the progressive, powerful nature of modern medicine. At the outset of the play, Dr. McCabe is “worried” by all of the “new medical literature” that “keeps piling up,” fearing “it will all end in confusion.” Dr. Hochberg agrees, adding, “where the sciences in general are going to end, with their mass of detail—nobody knows.” The practice of medicine is depicted by McCabe and Hochberg as an ever-changing frontier, a science constantly reinventing itself, creating new challenges for practitioners. There is never enough for a physician to observe, to learn, to accomplish.

Central to the play is Dr. Ferguson, a physician and rising star. He is a young doctor consumed by his passion for medicine. He too marvels at his dedication to medicine, admitting that “it wasn’t much fun... but still... it’s the only thing I really want to do.” He later adds “above all else is humanity—that’s a big thought. So big that alongside of it you and I don’t really matter very much.” According to Ferguson, medicine is a power far greater than he is, a force he cannot understand but

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to which he is compelled to respond. This idea is pivotal to understanding Kingsley’s work—medical crises at the hospital prove to be uncontrollable life-changing events for his characters, both professionally and personally.

Evangeline Morphos, in her work “Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White,” discusses Kingsley’s insistence on creating a realistic hospital environment as a factor in characterization and as a function of unity for the play. On the subject, she quotes Kingsley: “I take a long time developing a play because I am developing a whole environment, on the premise that a man’s—or woman’s—environment is enormously important to their life and their life’s work.” This statement gives credence to Morphos’s idea that Kingsley’s hospital environment creates unity and confines the action to a single location. The idea of confinement is of central importance to the struggle occurring throughout the work, that of a young doctor attempting to juggle his personal relationships with his professional duties. During the course of the play Ferguson’s life is illuminated only within the walls of the hospital. Neither he nor any of the other characters are observed elsewhere. Kingsley, from the outset, successfully presents a view of medicine as being more than a profession—it is an all-consuming lifestyle.

Morphos comments on the subject matter of the work, stating “Men in White presents a series of crises set against the backdrop of hospital life. The ultimate crisis involves a young intern’s choice between his fiancée and his research.” Ferguson’s personal struggle to create a balance between his relationship with his fiancée Laura and hospital life serves to create tension in the play. In several instances, Ferguson is called upon by the hospital staff and must choose between his personal plans with Laura and his obligation to the hospital. Despite his desire for a relationship, Ferguson consistently makes choices that sabotage any efforts with Laura.

In act 1, scene 2, an intimate moment between lovers is interrupted by a loudspeaker call and Laura stating “don’t move,” only to be countered by Ferguson, who exclaims “It’s no use, Laura! That’s my call! Let me up!” Laura pleads her case with him, only to find out that he has also rejected her plans for the evening in order to perform a blood transfusion. This inspires yet another serious conversation and an ultimatum from Laura. What is of interest here concerns Ferguson’s response to the situation. Laura has just threatened to “break off now and try to forget” him, yet he is once again distracted by the loud speaker. He forgoes any attempts to resolve the conflict and becomes instantly engrossed in the medical emergency at hand.

Ferguson’s reaction to his argument with Laura is to take comfort in an affair with Barbara, a nurse who can understand his struggles as a doctor. It is Barbara’s passion for medicine to which Ferguson is drawn. Ferguson’s affair, however damaging, is little more than a predictable reflex action. The attraction medicine holds for him compels Ferguson to respond to crises in a particular manner. Based on his responses, it is easy to anticipate the failure of Ferguson’s relationship with Laura, despite his desire for the relationship. Medicine is the ultimate force driving him, inhibiting his ambitions to pursue any life outside of the hospital. It is also easy to empathize with Ferguson because he operates under the illusion of free choice, when in fact, the audience can already see he has none.

It is a bizarre love triangle (Laura/Ferguson/ medicine) playing on a swell of emotion from the audience as tension rises and falls, scene by scene. Estelle Manette Raben, in her piece “Men in White and Yellow Jacket as Mirrors of the Medical Profession,” comments on Ferguson’s commitment to medicine, claiming that “the hospital presents its demand for a type of almost religious celibacy.” She continues, observing “doctors are thereby exhaulted to a position that the public seems to have wanted them to occupy and that doctors were all too willing to accept—namely, a total devotion to their profession.” As Raben also points out, this is clearly apparent in the case of Dr. Levine, who chose marriage over medical training. The consequence of his decision, the audience comes to learn, is that he is left with both an ailing career as well as an ailing wife and has been disowned by his mother. In act 1, Page 269  |  Top of Articlescene 4, Levine speculates on the opinion of one of his former professors, stating “I know just what he says: Levine—the fool!—wealthy mother—chance to work with Hochberg—to be somebody. Threw it all away... for a pretty face.”

However understandable this devotion to medicine may be, the victims of Ferguson’s professional devotion happen to be women. Women are on the periphery of this medical mayhem, their protests muted. Raben provides clarification on this point. She identifies within the body of the work the existence of what she calls “institutionalized sexism,” which “manifests itself through every female character.” This idea is readily observable—the main females characters of the play, whether nurse or fiancée, are portrayed as impediments to Ferguson’s professional progress and are sacrificed for his sake.

Laura is characterized as being a selfish, impulsive child rather than a competent adult. Often Hochberg’s interaction with Laura is that of an overbearing father chiding or scolding his ill-behaved daughter rather than a mutual discussion between respectful adults. Hochberg expends considerable effort to influence the course of Ferguson’s professional career, not with Laura’s help but despite what he clearly views to be her interference, without respect for the couple or their wedding plans. In act 2, scene 2, for example, Hochberg responds to Laura, who has just returned with Ferguson from their wedding rehearsal, saying “Laura, you deserve to be spanked! Don’t you realize what that boy’s work means?” Hochberg engages in this dialogue repeatedly throughout the course of the play. Laura is consistently portrayed as an impediment or roadblock to Ferguson’s progress, not appreciated as a supportive figure in his life.

Barbara is the object of Ferguson’s desires and a victim of an illegal abortion. While the audience is never privileged to learn the details of their one-night stand, the event does cost the nurse her life. Even more startling, as critic Raben is also quick to point out, is Hochberg’s reaction in act 3, scene 1, to the news that Ferguson is responsible for the pregnancy. He immediately suggests to Ferguson that, if Ferguson did not force himself on the girl, he should not feel responsible for her unwanted pregnancy nor her dismissal from the hospital. Furthermore, when Ferguson comments on the fact that Barbara has been thrown out of the hospital, her life disgraced by the incident, Hochberg refutes Ferguson’s idea to marry her and is quick to remark, “Don’t worry. We’ll find something for her.” Hochberg simply dismisses a grave situation as being a casual mistake rather than acknowledging what is really a terrible tragedy for one young woman.

It is easy to surmise or guess that the female characters only serve as impediments or roadblocks to medical progress. Ferguson, at the end of the play, has gone through several major crises—he has contemplated a loveless marriage, faced the deadly consequences of an irresponsible affair, and dismissed his fiancée—yet he returns to medicine, seemingly unchanged by this dramatic chain of events. Raben has a rather interesting theory behind this behavior, stating “the women in the play function essentially as props to emphasize the male doctors’ superior social status and commitment.” The main female characters in the play are presented as hurdles to Ferguson’s professional success. Laura is portrayed as the self-centered, childish, demanding fiancée and Barbara as a life burden to Ferguson. Throughout the play Ferguson struggles with the idea of coupling his romantic life with his professional life, but by the play’s end he is unable to synthesize both aspects of self, all attempts at compromise having failed. Ferguson’s triumph is his return to medicine despite his personal challenges.

Scientific thought is presented as the superior rationale, an idea mirroring the work of one of Kingsley’s contemporaries, Aldous Leonard Huxley, author of Brave New World. Huxley’s novel is much like Kingsley’s play, insomuch as it has been called a novel of concepts or ideas, the characters having little depth, not unlike Kingsley’s characters. Nor is Kingsley’s hospital terribly different, philosophically speaking, than Huxley’s Utopia. In utopia, babies are produced in a lab, born and classified by order of intelligence. The children are conditioned psychologically after birth to excel in a specific, predetermined profession based on their intelligence—not unlike Ferguson’s environment, one fostered by his father and society at large. In utopia, Hypnopaedia is just one of the psychological techniques employed, by utilizing the power of suggestion. This method induces people to behave in certain ways. During the course of the play, Dr. Hochberg engages in a similar type of mental conditioning or priming when speaking to Ferguson of his future career objectives, and as a result retains him as an understudy. Utopia, not unlike Kingsley’s world of medicine, also encourages reliance on the scientific, the rational, rather than a dependence on Page 270  |  Top of Articlethe emotional world. Finally, utopia is an emotionless world run entirely by men, not unlike St. George’s Hospital.

Sidney Kingsley and Aldous Huxley had separate artistic agendas. Huxley’s novel was a social commentary warning of world like utopia based on the nature of contemporary society, whereas Men in White celebrated it. Juxtaposing or comparing the works makes clear the climate and influences Kingsley was working under, and explains his success as a playwright with the completion of Men in White. The idealistic content of the play was responding to an audience enchanted with scientific advancement and captivated by the nobility, and also by the heroism of practicing medicine. This sentiment is perhaps captured best by the words of Hippocrates, who believes that “where the love of man is, there also is the love of the art of healing.”

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on Men in White, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Atkinson, Brooks, “Men of Medicine in a Group Theatre Drama,” in New York Times, September 27, 1933, p. 24.

Bailey, Paul M., “Sidney Kingsley,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 31-41.

Brown, John Mason, “Hospitals and the Stage: Further Remarks on the Group Theatre’s Production of Men in White,” in New York Evening Post, October 7, 1933, quoted in Sidney Kingsley: Five Prizewinning Plays, edited by Nena Couch, Ohio State University Press, 1995.

Couch, Nena, ed., “Introduction,” in Sidney Kingsley: Five Prizewinning Plays, Ohio State University Press, 1995.

Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, Harper & Row, 1989.

Kazan, Elia, A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Krutch, Joseph Wood, “An Event,” in Nation, Vol. 137, No. 3562, October 11, 1933, pp. 419-20.

Luddy, Thomas E., “Review: Sidney Kingsley,” in Sidney Kingsley: Five Prizewinning Plays, edited by Nena Couch, Ohio State University Press, 1995.

“Men in White,” in Medical Record, February 7, 1934, quoted in Sidney Kingsley: Five Prizewinning Plays, edited by Nena Couch, Ohio State University Press, 1995.

Morphos, Evangeline, “Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White,” in The Drama Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter 1984, pp. 13-22.

Pollock, Arthur, “Men in White,” in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 27, 1933, quoted in Sidney Kingsley: Five Prizewinning Plays, edited by Nena Couch, Ohio State University Press, 1995.

Raben, Estelle Manette, “Men in White and Yellow Jack as Mirrors of the Medical Profession,” in Literature and Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 19-41.


Abbott, Berenice, New York in the Thirties, Dover Publications, 1974.

This volume collects photographer Abbot’s black-and-white shots of New York City during the Depression years.

Clurman, Harold, The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre and the Thirties, Da Capo Press, 1988.

Clurman, a member of the Group Theater (which first produced Men in White), chronicles the birth and development of this drama company.

“Conversations with... Sidney Kingsley,” interview by John Guare and Ruth Goetz, in Dramatists Guild Quarterly, Autumn 1984, pp. 8, 21-31.

Two noted playwrights discuss Kingsley’s plays, background, and theatrical history with Kingsley.

McElvaine, Robert S., The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, Time Books, 1994.

McElvaine’s revised edition focuses on the human consequences of the Great Depression.

Watkins, T. H., The Great Depression: America in the 1930s, Little Brown & Co., 1995.

In this companion piece to the PBS series of the same title, Watkins chronicles American life in the 1930s. The book includes many illustrations.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693900022