1990s >> 1997 >> no-1120-december-1997

Theatre Review: ‘An Enemy of the People’

The Theatre of the Absurd

‘An Enemy of the People’, by Henrik Ibsen

Regular readers of this column may remember a less than enthusiastic review of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman last summer. Now we have more nonsense about nineteenth-century capitalism from the same author: a view of the world so patently absurd that it is surprising that the audience are prepared to take it seriously. But then most people who attend the National Theatre know that Ibsen has a serious reputation, and they react with reverence rather than disbelief.

I find Ibsen enigmatic. Plays like Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, and, perhaps especially, A Doll’s House are full of insights about the unresolved tensions of family life, the oppression of women, and the hypocrisies which abound in bourgeois life. As credible representations of life in the nineteenth century they seem both psychologically astute and dramatically persuasive. And their resonance are such that it is easy to see their relevance for contemporary audiences.

But on a bigger scale, when Ibsen writes more directly about the impact of the wider society on people, he seems to get it spectacularly wrong. In An Enemy of the People we follow the fate of Dr Tomas Stockman, the medical officer of the spa baths in a small Norwegian town. The town’s well-being is much dependent on the appeal of the baths to wealthy tourists, but Stockman has made an unfortunate discovery. The spa waters are polluted by a dangerous effluent from a nearby factory. Stockman sees this as an opportunity to upstage his brother, the town’s mayor, and to increase his own reputation in the town by publishing a series of articles in the supposedly radical town paper. Predictably, mayor, factory owner and newspaper proprietor conspire to challenge Stockman’s  evidence, and the mass meeting of tradesmen and shopkeepers which Stockman subsequently addresses is similarly more interested in tourism than the “truth”. Isolated and enraged, Stockman turns and delivers a devastating critique not of the pernicious evils of a social system which puts profits and people’s livelihoods before public health, but of the intelligence of the town’s people.

The play is not, as the programme infers, a clash between “The Individual and Society”. Rights and wrongs, in a moral sense, must always be informed by the facts of the case and by reasoned argument, and on the basis of the evidence presented in the play it isn’t that Stockman is “right” and the townspeople “wrong”. As far as we can see Stockman is clearly right about the spa being polluted, but grotesquely wrong in attributing the behaviour of the townspeople to a lack of intelligence. What they do is entirely consistent with, as they see it, their interests. They react, as people will and must do in a capitalist society, precisely in their own interests. Were Stockman the intelligent and principled man that he claims to be, he would have understood the townspeople’s motives, and offered them a critique of their situation under capitalism rather than an absurd attack on their intelligence. His position seems to imply the existence of a superior intellectual elite, whose freedoms are being denied by the intellectually challenged. It is, in essence, a fascist, non-democratic position.

An Enemy of the People was first performed in 1882, more than 30 years after Marx and Engels had published The Communist Manifesto. And it prompts the question, “How can a playwright who is so astute about the motivations of people when they are locked in intimate family relations, be so ignorant of the larger world of which families are a part?” Ibsen’s position is so extraordinary as to feel contrived. It is almost as thought he deliberately set himself up as an apologist of the capitalist class, intent on deception based on elitism.

On this evidence a plausible case might be made out that it is Ibsen who is “an enemy of the people”. And yet I remember a stunning production at the Young Vic ten years ago in which Arthur Miller managed to suggest that it was capitalism rather than the stupidity of people which was at the heart of Stockman’s dilemma. But then Miller described his work as an adaptation of Ibsen’s text not a translation of it.

Not only is the play misconceived. In Trevor Nunn’s production text has been sacrificed to movement. The sophisticated technology of the Olivier Theatre is very much to the fore. The stage revolves interminably, with actors still delivering their lines as they are whisked out of our view. At the slightest pretext the stage is filled with people, a brass band appears regardless of its spurious relevance, only to march off again. It’s horribly reminiscent of another production — Nunn’s dreadful Les Miserables.

Michael Gill

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