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Rachel Reader: A Playwright for All Seasons—Ibsen and An Enemy of the People

By Rachel Hammer

Fri, Sep 7th, 2012
Posted in All Columnists

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is a 19th century Norwegian social-problem play examining what happens to the political minority in times of crisis. Ibsen asks how those at the ideological outposts of society treated when their views clash with the majority under the spotlight? What is truth without power?

Dr. Stockmann, a citizen in the Norwegian equivalent of Pine Island, MN, discovers that the community bathing springs are contaminated with dangerous toxins. As the town’s doctor, he believes it is his duty to alert the public. Because the springs are small town’s only tourist attraction, Stockmann’s brother, the mayor, wants to keep the health report quiet. What ensues is a political dog fight between the town doctor, the mayor, the popular press, Stockmann’s wife and children, and eventually, the whole town as pressure builds and societal discomfort is systematically concentrated upon one figure—the truth teller.

Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People, Arthur Miller says, as a response to widespread disapproval of his play Ghosts. To Victorian audiences, Ghosts was shocking and sordid because the characters were susceptible to venereal disease despite their moral lifestyles. Ibsen had hoped Ghosts would be regarded as revolutionary, when instead, it was regarded as revolting.

So in Dr. Stockmann’s character, it is not hard to see a pride-aching Ibsen peeking through the mask. Stockmann believes he offers the public the truth. When the truth is refused by the majority, he becomes the “enemy of the people” for holding fast to it.

In literature as retaliation, I muse upon where to draw the line between the charm of an appropriate touché and the immaturity/awkwardness of an overextended backlash. In this case, Ibsen not only uses the play to backlash, but he drives a freight train with the I’m Right! caboose straight through the theater. Stockmann’s righteous tirades go on and on. He will not stand for the “colossal stupidity of the authorities!”

Ibsen seems to be speaking on his own behalf in speeches like the following: “I propose to raise a revolution against the lie that the majority has the monopoly of the truth. . . These ‘majority truths’ are like last year’s cured meat—like rancid, tainted ham; and they are the origin of the moral scurvy that is rampant in our communities!”

This point is salient when first made. It is diluted as Dr. Stockmann returns to it again and again and again. Fortunately, Arthur Miller stripped many of these repetitive speeches in his 1950 adaptation, and because he updated some of Ibsen’s antiquated references, trimmed the ending (three acts instead of five), and focused the plot (rather than Ibsen’s personal agenda regarding Ghosts), I recommend the Miller version of the play rather than any earlier translation.

There are instances in the text, however, that could be construed as though Ibsen intentionally wrote Dr. Stockmann’s character going too far (Stockmann says the antagonistic majority ought to be “razed to the ground” and “exterminated like vermin” for disapproving of him and rejecting of the truth). Perhaps Ibsen did so to exhibit his own repentant self-awareness, to suggest that in his reaction to the critics of Ghosts he too went too far. Late in the play, Dr. Stockmann devolves to exude nauseating grandiosity, likening himself to a savior figure, or a prophet with a “great revelation” to deliver unto the people. The people react strongly, labeling Stockmann blasphemous (verbatim commentary from Ghosts reviews); perhaps Ibsen was suggesting that the people were right in saying so.

Regardless of Ibsen’s personal agenda for this play, it is a fascinating read for an audience 130 years after An Enemy of the People debuted (1882) who will realize that frustration with corrupted leadership, choke-chain tethering (Ibsen calls “moderation”) of the individual autonomy to the public interest, and danger for those holding views contrary to the majority are ageless issues— in fact, they seem to be seizing front and center stage as we take our seats in the public theater for another election season.

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