Academic journal article Ibsen News and Comment

Nothing to Hide? A Media-Saturated Enemy of the People

Academic journal article Ibsen News and Comment

Nothing to Hide? A Media-Saturated Enemy of the People

Article excerpt

Zürich Schauspielhaus

September 10-December 14, 2015

This production of Ibsen's Ein Volksfeind (An Enemy of the People) could not have landed in a more resonant reception context than the international rise of populist movements in Europe and the U.S. during the fall of 2015. The production run coincided most directly and locally with the run-up to the Swiss parliamentary and cantonal elections (featuring their usual direct-democracy initiatives) on October 18, 2015. But as an American audience member at least, I could not help but think of the concurrent developments in the U.S. election cycle, including the unseemly collusion between politicians and the press for maximum clicks and mutual profit. Judging from the constant Swiss coverage of the U.S. elections, global developments were probably not far from mind for the rest of the audience watching the play, either. The archly conservative expressions of "popular will" in recent political backlash movements throughout Europe and the U.S. provide a potentially new and juicy target for Stockmann's tongue-lashing. After all, when would the "majority" seem more likely to get it wrong than now? And at what other time has public discussion has been so impervious to facts? At the same time, the strongman, elitist aspects of Ibsen's original Dr. Stockmann have the potential to create other uncomfortable resonances with the political personality cults that have emerged in tandem with these populistconservative movements. Given the ways that contemporary international political movements have reshuffled the deck to form unexpected new political combinations, it may be too much to ask a theater company to make sense of it all simply by staging Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, since the play itself does not offer an entirely coherent political statement. Even so, this production in Zürich nicely avoided the logic of one-to-one slot-substitution that plagues many "modernized" productions of the play, aiming instead to use Ibsen's text as a structuring point of departure for a related but fundamentally new discussion. The result was in my judgment successful in its commentary on the ways in which today's globally networked, multi-media democracies have shifted the calculus present in Ibsen's original play.

The basis for this production was an adaptation prepared at the request of the director Stefan Pucher by the contemporary German author Dietmar Dath, which in tum was based on a translation by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel. Dath's input into the production is important to disentangle from Pucher's since Dath's German text (to which I was given access by the Schauspielhaus) specifies few if any of the striking scénographie and performance elements that distinguish this production. Nevertheless, the Dath adaptation (which according to information in a pre-performance lecture consists of approximately 50 percent Ibsen and 50 percent Dath) certainly makes its own interventions. Like many recent adaptations of An Enemy of the People, this version expands the critique of newspapers in the original Ibsen text to include their modern media equivalents, namely all sorts of participatory social media that today lend themselves as ready substitutions for the function the press served in Ibsen's time. Such modernizing gestures can often feel superficial if they are unaccompanied by an overarching understanding of the fundamental shifts that digital culture represents, but it is in this larger cultural critique that Dath's adaptation excels.

The most consistent interpolation into Ibsen's text in Dath's version of Ein Volksfeind is an ongoing discussion about the ideal of "transparency" in contemporary democratic societies. Ibsen's Stockmann suffers from a naïve trust in Enlightenment ideals when he initially assumes that the majority will of course be guided by disinterested reason-in other words, when he assumes that the facts about the water pollution can speak for themselves and persuade a majority simply by virtue of being true. …

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