Wednesday, January 15, 2020

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

Source of book: I own this.

I had intended to go see a modern adaptation of this play down in Los Angeles this summer, but was unable to find an open date. Truth be told, it was either this one, or The Mikado, and Gilbert and Sullivan tends to win that contest. I can’t say I regret the choice either, as we had a lot of fun.

For some reason, Ibsen seems to have gone out of style, and hasn’t been performed much around here. I think there was a production of A Doll’s House at The Empty Space over a decade ago (when small kids made it harder to go see stuff), but that’s literally all I remember seeing. I read Ghosts a few years back, and found that one fascinating. 

Anyway, it was high time I read some more Ibsen, and I went with this one. 

An Enemy of the People is a someone unusual play, and one that I felt pivoted from perceptive and timely to...I’m not sure what Ibsen was intending. In some ways, it is like the ending of Le Misanthrope, where Alceste stalks off and renounces humanity altogether, leaving everyone else wondering what just happened. But at least Moliere’s characters act in accordance with their personalities, while Dr. Stockman seems to just go off the deep end in ways that make no sense to me. Let me see if I can explain. 

Dr. Stockman is the brother of the mayor of the town, which has recently opened baths, expected to be a huge tourist attraction. Dr. Stockman serves as the medical officer for the baths, in addition to his private practice. As part of his duties, Dr. Stockman sends the waters of the baths out to a lab for analysis. However, when the results come back, they are quite unpleasant. Because of where the town decided to source the water, the baths are badly contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The choices are all likely to be unpopular. Either they shut down the baths, re-route the source pipes to a different supply at significant cost, or shut down the tanneries which are the source of the bacteria. Oh, and the biggest polluter happens to be Dr. Stockman’s father in law. Ouch. 

For Dr. Stockman, his duty is obvious: he must tell the truth about the baths, consequences be damned. He enlists the editor of the local liberal paper, and has his article about to go to press when everything falls apart. The wealthy owners of the baths basically have the Mayor in their pocket, and enough influence with various people and groups to control the narrative. The paper is coerced into dropping Dr. Stockman’s expose and instead printing a propaganda piece from the Mayor claiming the baths are perfectly safe. 

That’s pretty much the summary of the first three acts. Noble truth-teller is stymied by entrenched economic powers when he tries to warn of impending environmental disaster. That actually sounds a lot like our own time - 140 years later. Also prescient is the title itself, which has now been used by our own little fascist wannabe to describe any portions of the free press which criticize him. This part of the play makes sense. It is in the fourth act that things start to go really weird. 

Dr. Stockman, refusing to give up, finds a venue, and announces that he will be giving a talk, inviting the town to shop up. They do, but so does the Mayor, and manages to take control of the proceedings to an extent. But then, when Dr. Stockman does manage to get the floor, he doesn’t give his prepared remarks about the contamination of the baths. Instead, he launches into a diatribe against ordinary people in general and working class people specifically, spouting stuff about eugenics and how democracy is terrible because people are stupid, and goes quite off the rails. 

Predictably, this turns everyone against him, and he finds himself pretty much run out of town on a rail. The play ends with him defiantly proclaiming himself the only true man among them. 

It is this twist which makes for some serious whiplash. Who is the Doctor? Is he a noble whistleblower, concerned about shining a light on corruption and trying in good faith to prevent a bigger disaster? Or is he a misanthropic crank who just wants to shake his cane at the world? Or maybe an arrogant elitist who thinks only the “worthy” should have political power? Did his misfortune cause him to go insane? I have no idea, because Ibsen seems to get confused as to the point of the play. 

I read up on it a bit, and discovered that Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in response to public outcry against his previous play, Ghosts. To what extent he considered himself to be Dr. Stockman is not clear, and his comments on the play later in his life imply that he himself wasn’t sure whether his characters are intended to be farcical or serious. Take it as you like it, I guess. 

I do wonder if a stronger second half of the play would have made it both more powerful and more popular. As it is, in its unmodified form, it would be difficult to work with. This was already the case by 1950, when Arthur Miller reworked it, he took out the eugenics and made Dr. Stockman into a champion of the lower classes. There was only so much that could be done, however, and a comparison of the speeches show that, of necessity, a certain disdain for “primitive” people remains. 

That said, the framework of the play, along with the first three acts, tackle some important issues which have not gone away - they have increased in fact. The first is the key question of environmental protection versus economic interests. Ibsen will be instantly understood by the smaller towns dependent on, say, coal mining. The economic consequences of environmental protection tend to fall hardest on those least able to bear them, while the wealthy ride off with their fortunes into the sunset. In this case, the bath owners could certainly afford to spend the necessary funds to fix the contamination. But that would impair profits. So they tell the Mayor that if the town wants the fix, the town pays for it. And that would fall on ordinary taxpayers. It really does seem amazingly relevant. 

Another major theme is the question of ethics for professionals and experts. The Mayor insists that Dr. Stockman’s duty is to his employer: the baths. He is not a free man to tell the truth as he sees it, but must instead look out for the best interests of the people who pay him. This is the rub for experts in general. Is the higher duty to tell the truth and act in the public interest? Or to advocate for your boss? The lines are not always clear. (We lawyers have our own set of dilemmas along that line, as we are by definition advocates for our clients, but cannot knowingly mislead.) 

Finally, there is the set of challenges facing whistleblowers. Dr. Stockman faces losing everything. His home, his livelihood, his daughter’s livelihood, his reputation, his friends, and even his family. The reason we have whistleblower protection laws is for this very reason. Warning of malfeasance when that malfeasance is highly profitable is a dangerous act, and usually carry devastating consequences. Which is exactly why we protect whistleblowers. 

It is interesting the way Ibsen handles the family dynamics. Mrs. Stockman is mostly supportive, but urges him to be prudent. (Come to think of it, she is clearly the most sensible person in the play.) The eldest daughter is practically a radical in her support for her dad - she may go even further than he does. The boys are a bit young to really figure in things, except as a reason given why Dr. Stockman should be quiet and hush up the contamination. 

I have an old Modern Library hardback containing eleven Ibsen plays in English translation. For some reason, the book does not have (or no longer has?) the publishing date or the name of the translator(s). It seems to be a decent translation, although I don’t have the knowledge necessary to compare it to the original. There are some memorable lines, which I will assume Ibsen intended. 

First is this humorous exchange early on. The mayor, Peter Stockman, comments on how heartily Dr. Stockman’s children eat. (I hear that about my kids too.) 

“Lots of food - to build up their strength! They are the people who are going to stir up the fermenting forces of the future, Peter.”
“May I ask what they will find her to “stir up,” as you put it?
“Ah, you must as the young people that - when the time comes. We shan’t be able to see it, of course. That stands to reason - two old fogies, like us.”

More seriously, though, Peter has come to warn Dr. Stockman about going against those in power.

“You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way, at all events; and that is almost equally inadmissible in a well-ordered community. The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community - or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare.”

Ah, there’s the rub. One must submit to the authorities, and keep one’s mouth shut. I very much thought of the ill-advised designation of Extinction Rebellion as a dangerous extremist group in Britain. Most telling is this line: the group is a risk to public safety because of “Anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change underlies its activism…” Hmm, speaking up against the establishment and seeking system change...we definitely can’t have THAT! Nor can we have people telling rather obvious truths. 

“As usual, you employ violent expressions in your report. You say, amongst other things, that what we offer visitors in our Baths is a permanent supply of poison.”
“Well, can you describe it any other way, Peter? Just think - water that is poisonous, whether you drink it or bathe in it! And this we offer to the poor sick folk who come to us trustfully and pay us at an exorbitant rate to be made well again!”

Of course, here in the 21st century, we seem to prefer to inflict our poisoned water, not on rich suckers looking for a miracle cure, but on low income African American communities.

Peter suggests a more “reasonable” approach to the problem: put it aside for bit, then look at “remedies” which do not disturb the existing water supply. The Committee might consider “certain improvements” that are consistent with a “reasonable expenditure.” Sound familiar? 

And certainly, he shouldn’t go around spreading ideas about change. 

“Well, but is it not the duty of a citizen to let the public share in any new ideas he may have?”
“Oh, the public doesn’t require any new ideas. The public is best served by the good, old established ideas it already has.” 

Yeesh. There are some definite parallels to Fundamentalism there. “No new ideas! We already know everything and don’t intend to change!” This idea is stated in a more scandalous form during Dr. Stockman’s later screed, where he goes from the noble “new information leads to rethinking ideas” sort of thing to “truth only lasts for a little while then dies.” As I said, a bit off the rails. 

It later becomes all too obvious, though, who is pulling the strings. At the newspaper office, Aslaksen, the printer, and Hovstad, the editor, are informed by Peter that they cannot print Dr. Stockman’s article. Peter insists that it would bankrupt the town. Here is the exchange that follows:

Peter: “Of course it will be necessary to raise a municipal loan.”
Hovstad: “Surely you never mean that the town must pay---?”
Aslaksen: “Do you mean that it must come out of the municipal funds? --out of the ill-filled pockets of the small tradesmen?”
Peter: “Well, my dear Mr. Aslaksen, where else is the money to come from?”
Aslaksen: “The gentlemen who own the Baths ought to provide that.”
Peter: “The proprietors of the Baths are not in a position to incur any further expense.” 

And this is where I decidedly part ways with Libertarians. This is precisely what happens with pollution absent government action. Sure, sooner or later the truth might come out. But the investors will have looted the corporation and left a shell and a trail of damage. Seriously, look at any mining community. This is how unregulated (or underregulated) capitalism works. The rich plunder, privatizing the profit, while socializing the risk. Everyone else pays, they win. 

One could certainly see how Dr. Stockman would go crazy after this scene. A right and just result seems impossible. In that sense, Stockman’s speech in Act Four starts off so well:

“[W]hat I want to speak about is the great discovery I have made lately -- the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.”

I kind of concur. A lethal brew of xenophobia, social darwinism, and religious bigotry has poisoned our civic community, and particularly our churches. But then Stockman gets more and more vicious toward ordinary people, culminating in this nonsense which gets him booed off the stage:

“That is, the doctrine you have inherited from your forefathers and proclaim thoughtlessly far and wide -- the doctrine that the public, the crowd, the masses are the essential part of the population -- that they constitute the People -- that the common folk, the ignorant and incomplete element in the community, have the same right to pronounce judgment and to approve, to direct and to govern, as the isolated, intellectually superior personalities in it.” 

It is rather easy to recognize this sort of thing. I heard it a lot before I left the GOP, and continue to hear it in every justification for voter suppression. “If we could just keep those people from voting.” Usually meaning the poor, minorities, the disabled, those with criminal records. They don’t understand things as well as middle class white people, right? It gets worse, as the Doctor compares commoners to mongrels rather than purebreds, and so on. 

Near the end, Dr. Stockman considers emigrating to America, although he eventually concludes that things are probably bad there too, because “from one end of this country to the other, every man is the slave of his Party.” That one is pretty dang true, alas. One of the hardest things to stomach about the Trump Era is watching family members literally defend what they used to condemn, because the official stance of their party changed. 

The play never really resolves things, because Stockman apparently decides to stay, despite having no home or job or prospects. What he will do? Who knows. But he has made his moral point and that is that. Well, except for more complaining about how nobody likes him anymore. It is Mrs. Stockman who gets in the best line here:

“But, Thomas dear, the imprudent things you said had something to do with it, you know?”

Perhaps Stockman might have listened to his wife a bit earlier, stuck to his key point about the poisonous waters, and then let the furor die down one way or another. But that might not have made either as tragic or humorous (take your pick) ending. 

Having read this one, I think that my conclusion is that, on the one hand, the subject matter of the play is highly relevant, and the questions it raises are important. However, it isn’t as well conceived as Ghosts or his other better known plays. I have to wonder if Ibsen’s own ire at the reception of Ghosts caused him to lose his objectivity for a while, and the flaws in the play stemmed from that. 

My edition of the plays contains a delightful introduction by H. L. Menken (who, like Ibsen and many others of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, held eugenicist and racist ideas, sadly), who points out that Ibsen wasn’t nearly as radical as he was accused of being. His ideas are often obvious, if rather inconvenient, truths. But, as Menken puts it, Ibsen “put obvious thoughts into sound plays.” I considered quoting a bit of the intro, but I couldn’t decide where to start or stop. It is a really good bit of work, and worth reading, if you find it. 


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