Reading a recent New Yorker, I learned that a contemporary version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “Enemy of the People” would be performed on Broadway this summer. At the Park Avenue Armory, “the doctor is now a scientist, and she is played by Ann Dowd, the redoubtable character actor best known as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Robert Icke directs its adaptation … in which spectators, seated in safely distanced pods, double as townspeople and vote on the action at various moments in the story.”
I regret being unable to attend what sounded like a lively performance, but that did not prevent me from pulling out my “Collected Ibsen” and re-reading the play. It had been a while, and I was glad to be reminded of Ibsen’s enduring powers of persuasion.
The main character, Dr. Thomas Stockman, lives with his family in a recently opened spa town in Norway. His position has been facilitated by his brother, the major of the town, Peter Stockman. In the course of the evening dinner opening the play, Thomas Stockton’s daughter, Petra, arrives with a letter containing some lab tests that confirms her father’s suspicion that the spa water is contaminated. Publishing the truth may mean an economic setback for the town, as the spa will have to close down for the time it takes to clear the contamination escaping from local tanneries.
With the economy of the town first on his mind, Peter Stockton advises his brother to refrain from publishing the article in the local newspaper, or expect severe repercussions for himself and his family. He has in the meanwhile written his own letter for publication reassuring the public about the safety of the spa. At that, Dr. Stockton takes matters in his own hands. He calls a town meeting at which he argues that ideas conveying the truth of a matter are ever condemned “due to the colossal stupidity of the authorities and the small-mindedness of people in general.”
Insulted by his haranguing, participants end the meeting shouting “He is an enemy of the people!” and their rage finds physical expression in the damaging of his house, resulting in the eviction of him and his family. The doctor refuses to leave town, however, and the play ends on his note of defiance: He is the strongest man in town because he is able to stand alone.
Ibsen voiced some concerns to his publisher about going too far in his zeal insisting that it matters but little what people think; what matters is telling the truth. The play was, however, published as he had conceived it and now, removed in setting and time, it surfaces again to remind us that seemingly upright citizens may compromise their morals when wallets are threatened.
I must agree with the New Yorker reviewer who concludes by saying, “The pull between economic interests and public health could not be more relevant.”
• Inga Wiehl is a writer and retired Yakima Valley College English professor. She has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at the universities of Utah and Texas. She has written four nonfiction books and writes about books for SCENE in an occasional column.