The Doctor: DEI On Steroids


The Doctor: DEI On Steroids


Leonard Zwelling

“The Doctor” is a play by Robert Icke, re-worked from a 1922 play by Arthur Schnitzler called “Professor Bernhardi.” At first glance it’s a play about a Jewish doctor in London who heads an institute for Alzheimer’s research, but is presented with a patient through the emergency room who has suffered a botched abortion and is dying of sepsis. The young girl’s good Catholic parents are away and they contact their priest to visit the girl in hospital. The Jewish doctor won’t let the priest administer last rites because she thinks it will prevent the patient from a peaceful death. In the battle between the priest and doctor a tap by the doctor on the priest’s shoulder turns into a push and the priest is turned away. The girl dies.

The rest of the play is about the aftermath, but that’s not what this updated version is about for immediately you are confused when the cast comes on stage. Most of them are doctors (they’re in white coats), but they are addressed as men, but played by women. Black characters are played by white actors and gender is so fluid it is impossible to discern who’s what. The point is obvious. It shouldn’t matter.

The question being raised here is that of unconscious bias and people assuming they know what someone else is thinking or in fact actually who he or she or they are by the way they appear. You, as the audience, are confused and soon you get more so as you learn the actual sexes, races, and genders of the characters and the streak of antisemitism that confronts the lead character in her attempt to clear her name. If none of this should matter, why does it?

You leave the play confused about your own perceptions of reality. How much of a judge of someone’s character are you in the moment you are introduced to someone (and please don’t tell me you’re color blind)? And, how much of unconscious bias can be overcome by DEI rules on hiring and promotion, subjects addressed in this play within the confines of an academic medical center.

As The New York Time’s theater critic Jesse Green says in his review (above review from The Wall Street Journal):

“The thought experiment runs like this: If everyone represents only the group they belong to, instead of an overarching humanity, and if those groups get sliced finer and finer, what hope can there be for a common language, let alone a common achievement?”

This play may be more relevant today than it was one hundred years ago, because the DEI movement is trying desperately to categorize people on the microscopic level such that they are no long people. They have to be a member of one or many tribes.

The major objection that those opposed to the DEI movement have is that in a true meritocracy, the individual’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation ought not matter. The pro-DEI forces say that the minorities DEI attempts to serve have been shut out for years and the DEI programs are needed to right past wrongs.

The play does not answer the question completely, but it does make you keenly aware of your own unconscious bias as you make assumptions about characters based on how they look only changing your mind later when you find out who they are really.

This is a challenging work with many levels of subtlety along with a percussive sound track that can both promote awareness and grate on the nerves.

This is not one for the musical comedy crowd. But it is one for those who are struggling to figure out where to land on the DEI question—those who believe that everyone ought to have an equal chance and that historically, that has not been the case. It is also one for those who recognize their own intrinsic bias and battle with those biases when meeting new people or trying to manage groups fairly. Put me in that camp.

Dr. Zwelling’s new novel, Conflict of Interest: Money Drives Medicine and People Die is available at:,

on amazon if you search using the title and subtitle, 


directly from the publisher Dorrance at:

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