An Enemy of the People

Ibsen News and Comment, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

An Enemy of the People


Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Manhattan

September 27 - November 10,2012

One of the most striking features of the plays of Ibsen's middle period is the power with which they address major social issues, a feature which of course attracted the warm but ultimately misguided praise of Bernard Shaw, who praised Ibsen for his move from ambitious dramatic poems to "the most obviously transitory social questions." As a result, Shaw famously concluded: "A Doll's House will be as flat as ditchwater when A Midsummer Night's Dream will still be as fresh as paint; but it will have done more work in the world; and that is enough for the highest genius, which is always intensely utilitarian."

Today, more than a century after Shaw contributed those words to a symposium on the theatre and social problems, it remains a sad truth that the "transitory social questions" of plays like A Doll House and Enemy of the People continue to trouble our society in ways all too relevant to Ibsen's trenchant dramatic case studies. This was perhaps most widely noticed in the politicized decades of the 1960s and 1970s when Eric Bentley commented, as women's rights and industrial pollution were major topics of discussion, that it appeared that we were going to have to recognize that Ibsen was a political dramatist after all.

Another half century has almost passed, and such "transitory social problems" remain with us and continue to give a contemporary edge to Ibsen's middle-period plays, but in a number of recent productions, including this current revival of Enemy, I have felt something else at work, finding in the plays' political dimension a new richness and a new relevance. No Ibsen play was more frequently revived during the new wave of feminism in the 1970s than A Doll House, and, hardly surprisingly, the great majority of such revivals took Nora as a kind of model of emancipation. As the century moved on, however, a more nuanced and socially complex view of the play gained currency and now, I think, informs most contemporary productions. The focus shifts from Nora's problem to the general structures in society that created such problems, and Nora is not the only victim. Torvald is equally trapped, as indeed are all of the characters in the play.

A similar shift, I feel, is taking place in the contemporary view of An Enemy of the People. The late 20tb-century productions I have seen often stressed the ecological concerns of the play (often using the Arthur Miller adaptation to emphasize Stockmann's role as the enlightened liberal idealist), or, if they were more interested in American psychological conflict, stressed the relationship between the two brothers. The current Broadway production also touches on these matters but places its emphasis not on the industrial pollution but, as Stockmann himself stresses in his public address, on the overarching political system of which pollution is only a single manifestation. Again, the shift is from a specific social problem to a general structural problem, to the shortcomings of a democracy as a system in which the "compact liberal majority" (which make up almost the entire audience of this New York production) are exposed as much too easily influenced by the interlocking forces of capital, the media, respect for authority, and a desire for security and stability. The laughter, bursts of applause, and occasional gasps of surprise showed that this contemporary reading of the play made Ibsen once again among the most challenging and politically relevant of dramatists. The play was perfectly suited, as several reviewers have noted, for the climax of the 2012 American presidential election.

There is a certain cost to the emotional and intellectual complexity of the play in order to achieve this effect. Stockmann's negative qualities-his casual arrogance, his sexism, his jealousy of his brother, his unconsidered impetuosity, his championing of oligarchy, if not outright fascism-are softened in order to create a character not quite as noble and unflawed as the Stockmann of Miller, but certainly less ambiguous than that of Ibsen. …

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