Keystone Mutualists: German Studies X Medical Humanities – A Drama in Three Acts (Part II)

An artistic intervention, precarious and provocative, in the multilingual medical humanities, which makes a case for how German studies and medical humanities keep each other alive by acting it out.

Act II

Medical Humanities, German Studies and History of Art are setting the scene through Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaeus Tulp (1632). Rembrandt’s visual drama has at least three lead figures: first, there is the master surgeon, Dr Tulp, who enacts the anatomy by holding forceps in his right hand and contracting the same muscles with his left hand that he is pulling with the forceps on the body being dissected. The second protagonist is the corpse of a young criminal, known as Aris Kindt, who was convicted of armed robbery (for stealing a coat) and was sentenced to death by hanging. The anatomical atlas, located at the bottom end of the slab, closer to the picture pane, is the third non-human lead agent. What are the ants doing?

Re-Performance of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy. Reading Bodies Workshop, Senate House, London, April 26, 2024. Photograph by Steven Wilson. Reproduced with permission.

Red wood ants, Annja Neumann, Ina Linge.

Red wood ants

(Start to stack up a pile of pine needles, several attempt to lift a rusted monocle)

You talk a lot about how the medical humanities need German studies. But of course keystone mutualists need one another to maintain a thriving ecosystem where we can survive. Annja, can you tell us about your research and how the medical humanities are central to an expanded understanding of German studies? What is gained when we combine methods in this way? Does cross-disciplinary research create more material for us ants?

Annja Neumann

Innovative methods between German studies and the medical humanities certainly cut both ways, and often involve other research fields too (nods to History of Art). The methodology that I developed also draws on material from art history (History of Art performs three star jumps) and from medical anthropology and theatre and performance studies. What I haven’t mentioned yet (Ina clears her throat and impatiently taps on her watch) is that, in a minute, an unannounced actor will enter the stage (lightning flashes and the ants form the letter D, followed by another letter that can be construed as an H, on the open anatomical atlas to foreshadow future events). So, I don’t think I can contribute an origin myth for the expanded German studies here – a field that benefits from two-way exchanges with other disciplines – or clearly define who benefits the most from cross-disciplinary research.

Red wood ants

(They interrupt a risky manoeuvre with a plastic spoon)

This is not what we are asking anyway (they continue with their meticulous material arrangement of tiny objects).

Annja Neumann

Cross-disciplinary research tends to be collaborative work, so your colony of fellow ants (points to the anthill that is being built on the stage and that keeps collapsing around its edges) is in a good position to gain the most material from this. Form an orderly queue please. No pushing in!

(Brushes some hair out of her face and looks over to the anthill that is swaying a little, although hardly perceptible). My current book project on Re-staging public spaces explores medical and public spaces. I argue that medical and public spaces are key sites in which it is possible to address perceptions of social and digital developments and, by extension, generalise about bodies and digital change in society at large (Neumann 2024). My work partly focuses on German literature, visual culture and performance, and partly on practice as research into medical spaces and the medicalisation of the everyday, undertaken during and after the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK and Germany.

During archival work in Cambridge and Vienna, and by producing the hospital drama Professor Bernhardi (1912) by Austrian doctor-writer Arthur Schnitzler in different medical spaces (the entire cast assembles around a table centre stage, where a spoon and a monocle are being inspected), I discovered – in collaboration with fellow researchers, artists and practitioners – that Schnitzler’s drama on doctors re-performs Rembrandt’s canonical painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaeus Tulp (1632). Building on foundational work on Schnitzler and stereotype (Kolkenbrock 2019), I show how Schnitzler employs medical spaces to dissect the antisemitism of Viennese society around 1900 (Neumann 2016).

To cut a long story short (looks at Ina’s watch), Schnitzler’s imaginary worlds – or his Story Spheres (Baker, Neumann and Webber 2020) – pointed me to a method and genre that was popular in nineteenth-century Europe (points to the table): medical topography. Around 1900, medical topography was a large-scale medical survey of a place or a region, of Vienna for instance, with regard to its geographical location, climate, size of population, and an overview of the wellbeing of a population and common diseases. It also provided descriptions of medical facilities, public health services, and the physical and moral education that was available to citizens. Schnitzler’s hospital play, Professor Bernhardi, employs medical and public spaces to create a new medical dramaturgy to dissect and diagnose socio-political developments through literature. Furthermore, it creates experiential learning for the audience members, who gradually realise that they are the patients-in-waiting (winks at the audience) being addressed by the actors (Garrett et al. 2016; Neumann 2016).

This encounter with the history of medicine (puts a sticker on Medical Humanities) not only helped me to draw connections between the dramaturgy of Schnitzler’s play and the politics of health at the time, but to see how the afterlives of Dr Tulp bring together German studies and the applied medical humanities. Schnitzler’s literary medical topography is radical, I think, especially when we position him next to Sigmund Freud, who famously named him his Doppelgänger. It’s a bold move … but Schnitzler puts groups of doctors (invites the cast to sit on the table), organisations and socio-technical systems on the couch. More fundamentally – and what distinguishes him from Freud – Schnitzler’s group analysis is embodied. It’s mutually constituted by bodies on and off the stage.

Ina Linge

Oh, I see! And that’s why you just started working for an organisation that analyses unconscious processes and systems psychodynamics in groups, organisations, and communities by using methods like group dynamics and social dreaming?

Annja Neumann

It’s a match! Thanks to Tulp and his anatomists (nods to History of Art, who bursts into a performance of three star jumps), and other keystone species (Ina stops further star jumps to prevent chaos) who have been excellent guides, I have to say. My work on Rembrandt’s Tulp and his afterlives has introduced me to emerging fields and methods. This includes (drumroll, followed by Digital Humanities stumbling onto stage) the digital humanities, and has informed my work in the new and rapidly expanding field of the digital medical humanities (Bevan-Mogg, Westling and Neumann 2021).


The stage area is the screen you are looking at. Ants begin to dance.

Ants busy at work. Newton St Cyres, May 4, 2024. Photograph by Ina Linge. Reproduced with permission.

Annja Neumann

(Observes the ants). Nice moves! (To Ina) How does your work move people today?

Ina Linge

I enjoy collaborating with diverse groups to understand how historical constructions of gender and sexuality in Germany and consequent ideas about sickness and health are still relevant – still productive, still unsettling – today. As part of the Wellcome Trust-funded Transformations project, I was part of a team of researchers that used queer history to engage young, gender-diverse people in the UK in discussions about diagnostic categories and medical authority. In our workshops, young people found the historical material affirming and even life-changing, because it offered really powerful counter-narratives to a hostile public discourse that wants to erase trans people’s experience and even existence. We even co-produced a podcast based on our conversation! Engaging with those populations who have most at stake in the way scientific and medical histories of gender and sexuality are written is key to researching this history (Barker et al. 2022). Culturally specific research can transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries (sits down to look closely at ants).

(To Annja) Can I return your question? How does your work move people today? And I mean this literally: how do bodies and movement feature in your work as an artist-researcher?

Annja Neumann

Earlier I mentioned digital medical storytelling. As part of my practice as research, I use participatory digital theatre to understand digital aesthetics and the underlying politics of embodiment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Tulp and his anatomist were also adapted to digital spaces, especially during the pandemic. For example, I used a meme that adapted Rembrandt’s Tulp painting for a Zoom audience as inspiration for a piece of interactive online theatre, Dr Tulp and the Theatre of Zoom (2021).

Theatre of Zoom was live streamed and happened in real time at the height of the first lockdown in the UK. This meant that nobody, neither actors nor participants, shared a physical space. Participants were asked to join a Zoom call and move across different virtual spaces via point and click movements (with their mouse). They took on the roles of the anatomists – relegated to a Zoom window in the gallery – and, more fundamentally, only gradually realised that they played a part in a vaccine trial (Bevan-Mogg, Westling and Neumann 2020). It was compelling to experience how Tulp’s anatomy lesson on Zoom not only demanded constant role-changes, as Rembrandt’s painting would, but also performed bodies in new ways; for example, through the shared experience of feeling stuck or reduced to a rectangle on the screen. The production showed that virtual cultures are bodily cultures after all (Neumann 2020).

Martin Edwards as Nicolaes Tulp in the final scene of the live-streamed online performance of Dr Tulp and the Theatre of Zoom. July 16, 2020. Also starring Reynah Oppal as Reynah/Actor 2 and Paul Panting as Paul/Actor 1. Screenshot by Annja Neumann.

Apropos role-changes. What are you working on next, Ina?

Ina Linge

I am interested in comedy as a performance and coping strategy that enables us to discuss topics that can be painful, from eco-anxiety to transphobia. Another project I am currently working on considers how German-language artists, scientists, and writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century created knowledge about non-human animals and their natural environment to shape new ideas about gender and sexuality, and the place of LGBTQ+ people in a fair society. There’s one species I am really interested in: Formica rufa, the red wood ant. Sexologists and writers were obsessed with them. I think I get it.

Ina Linge exits in pursuit of ants. Annja Neumann exits left. The Reader briefly takes in the screen in front of them, then begins to respond by writing a reply below …

An ant crawls across the laptop on which Ina is writing the script for this play. Heilbad Heiligenstadt, April 10, 2024. Photograph by Ina Linge. Reproduced with permission.

About the authors

Dr Ina Linge is Senior Lecturer in German in the Department of Languages, Cultures and Visual Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. Her research in queer German studies, environmental humanities, and medical humanities investigates early twentieth-century sexual knowledge production as a collaborative endeavour between the arts and medical and natural sciences. Publications include the monograph Queer Livability: German Sexual Sciences and Life Writing (Michigan University Press, 2023), which explores the importance of queer and trans life writing for sexual knowledge production in early-twentieth-century Germany. Her recent work has explored the role of the non-human in sexual knowledge production, see for example an article on the role of butterfly experiments for German gay-rights activism and research in the 1920s (winner of the 2020 Women in German article prize); and a co-edited special issue on “Sex and Nature” for Environmental Humanities (2022).

Dr Annja Neumann is a Principal artist-researcher and innovator, a change consultant, and an educator with 15+ years’ experience at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, where she has just joined the faculty for the Deepening Creative Practice learning experience for organisational leadership. She connects research as a cultural anthropologist and literary and performance scholar with her embodied practice as theatre-maker, writer and digital media artist. She also works as an Affiliated Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Cambridge and as a Senior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.


Baker, Frederick, Annja Neumann, and Andrew Webber. 2020. Schnitzler Story Spheres. Six interactive 360° digital panoramas and research tools.

Barker, Jason, Kate Fisher, Jana Funke, Zed Gregory, Jen Grove, Rebecca Langlands, Ina Linge, Catherine McNamara, Ester McGeeney, Bon O’Hara, Jay Stewart, and Kazuki Yamada. 2022. “Adventures in Digital and Public Humanities: Co-Producing Trans History Through Creative Collaboration.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Digital and Public Humanities, edited by Anne Schwan and Tara Thomson, 69–88. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bevan-Mogg, Wendy, Annja Neumann, and Carina Westling. 2020. Dr Tulp and the Theatre of Zoom. Video recording of online live performance.

Garrett, Trine, and Camila França (artistic directors), and Annja Neumann (artistic producer). 2016. Professor Bernhardi: A drama by Arthur Schnitzler, translated by Judith Beniston, and Nicole Robertson. A site-specific performance. Anatomy Lecture Theatre, Downing Site, Cambridge.

Kolkenbrock, Marie, 2019. Stereotype and Destiny in the Prose of Arthur Schnitzler. Five Psycho-Sociological Readings. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Neumann, Annja. 2016. “Schnitzler’s Anatomy Lesson: Medical Topographies in Professor Bernhardi.” In Jahrbuch Literatur und Medizin 8, edited by Christa Jansohn and Florian Steger, 31–60. Heidelberg: Winter.

Neumann, Annja. 2020. “The Many Masks of Dr Tulp.” CRASSH News, August 4, 2020.

Neumann, Annja, with Uta Baldauf. 2024. “Waiting Room: Material Moments of Medicine as Performance.” In The Routledge Companion to Performance and Medicine, edited by Gianna Bouchard and Alex Mermikides, 442–48. London and New York: Routledge.

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