Archive for August 27th, 2018

“An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, with Stanislavky himself playing the protagonist Stockmann, was a sensation. The year was 1905, a rather significant year in Russian history: there was great social and political unrest, mutinies, attempted revolution, and a disastrous military defeat at the hands of Japan. Near the very start of the year, in Petersburg, soldiers fired on unarmed protestors, killing 96 people according to Tsarist official records: the actual toll is likely to have been much higher. Feelings were running high, and Ibsen’s play, written some 23 years earlier, and depicting a heroic individual speaking truth to power, struck a powerful chord. Even in its inevitably censored version, with censors actually attending performances to ensure unauthorised passages were excised as ordered, the effect, to judge from Stanislavsky’s autobiography, was electrifying. Stockmann’s speeches were enthusiastically applauded, and, at times, members of the audience actually came on to the stage to shake Stanislavsky’s hand, or to embrace and kiss him.

It is easy to see why this play, at this particular time, should make such an impact. At a time when truth was suppressed by tyrannical authorities, here was an individual standing up for this very truth in the face of everything that may be thrown at him – a man who insists that truth matters above all else. And it is tremendously theatrical. It is, perhaps, a bit difficult to stage, given that the big scene in the fourth act requires a crowd – and the bigger the crowd, the more effective the drama – but even on reading it at home, the theatricality of the various dramatic confrontations seems virtually to leap out from the page. Not surprisingly, the play has proved one of Ibsen’s greatest hits, and, despite the difficulty of staging the big crowd scene in the fourth act, has been frequently revived. It has also been filmed several times, and adapted in all sorts of ways. The opening half of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is effectively a re-tread of this play; and Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru placed the action in Bengal, with the Bengali version of Dr Stockmann finding dangerous pollution in holy temple water. (Sadly,  Ray made this film soon after a major heart attack, and in defiance of doctor’s orders not to return to work: for understandable reasons, this film isn’t among his best.) Dr Stockmann, in his various manifestations, has become the very epitome of the courageous individual who stands up alone for what he knows to be right, for what he knows to be true.

But while this heroic and inspiring stand for truth defines the principal tonality of the work, there are some very troubling dissonances throughout that frequently threaten to overwhelm this tonality. I can’t help wondering, for instance, how well the Petersburg audiences appreciated the profoundly anti-democratic nature of Stockmann’s stand, and, perhaps, of the play itself. Quite early in the play, for instance, we get this exchange between the newspaper-man Billing and the sea captain Horster:

BILLING: Still, we all have to vote, at least.

HORSTER: Even those who understand nothing?

BILLING: Understand? What do you mean? Society is like a ship; everyone must come together at the helm.

HORSTER: That might be all right on land; but it would come to no good on a ship.

Dr Tomas Stockmann himself is presented as a loquacious man, a dynamic personality, never still, forever brimming with energy and optimism. He is clearly highly intelligent, but in terms of judging the political temperature, or of judging the people around him, hopelessly naïve. He has made the discovery that the water in the spa, the very spa on which the entire economy of the town depends, is dangerously polluted. And he knows also the solution: the pipes carrying the water need to be re-laid. But he never gives a thought to the financial implications of this. He is certain that, in making this discovery, he is saving the town itself, and that he will be lionised for doing so; he is certain that he has the “solid majority” behind him.  Certainly, the liberal press is on his side, but he cannot see what the rest of us can – that they are supporting him not out of any love for truth, but merely to score political points. The points they want to score are against the town’s conservative mayor, Peter Stockmann, Dr Stockmann’s own brother, and chairman of the spa’s board. And it never even occurs to Dr Stockmann that a person in such a position is not likely to welcome his scientific findings: his belief that the truth is something that everyone would welcome is simultaneously touching in its naïvety, and also somewhat alarming. For how can someone with so inadequate an understanding of human behaviour cope with humanity as it really is?

It doesn’t take long for the expected to happen – especially as Ibsen moves the drama forward with virtually every line, barely pausing for breath. Dr Stockmann’s brother, the mayor, consummate politician that he is, goes to work behind the scenes. He puts forward a proposal for some minor changes that will, he personally assures everyone, solve all the problems; and he lets people know how much Dr Stockmann’s solution will cost: it will require not merely a huge rise in taxes, but also the spa closing down for two years while the work is carried out. In short, the town will effectively be deprived of an income for two years. Dr Stockmann, still as naively optimistic as ever, continues to believe that the “solid majority” will continue to support him: how, after all, can any rational person, when faced with the truth, fail to acknowledge it? It is impossible! But others know better. Those who had previously expressed support for him now change their minds: after all, isn’t the mayor proposing a solution that would cost far less? Only a fanatic, after all, would propose depriving the town of its income for two whole years while hiking up taxes. Even the liberal press backs out: it’s not that they’re against the truth, as such – of course they aren’t – but they cannot, obviously, back Dr Stockmann’s dangerous fanaticism.

Ibsen spares no-one, not even the “centrists”, the men of sensible moderation: the printer Aslaksen (who had appeared in Ibsen’s earlier play The League of Youth), always preaching temperance and moderation, always warning of the dangers of fanaticism, also deserts the man  he now comes to see as a dangerous fanatic: when it comes to it, his “centrism” is no more than pusillanimity, a craven failure to back radicalism when radicalism is what is needed. This frankly makes for uncomfortable reading for political moderates such as myself, and that is, undoubtedly, as Ibsen had intended. While this play is still seen (as A Doll’s House often is) as a comfortable work that flatters our sense of our own honesty and integrity, it is, in truth, a deeply uncomfortable work that turns the spotlight very disconcertingly on to our own selves, and reveals things that we would perhaps prefer not to see. I must confess that if I saw myself at all in this play, it was as the cowardly and self-justifying Aslaksen rather than the heroic Dr Stockmann. And that is far from comfortable.

If things are beginning to become uncomfortable by the end of the third act (where Dr Stockmann is threatened by his own brother with losing his job should he refuse to see reason), the remarkable fourth act goes even further. Stockmann, denied a public platform, has decided to hold a public meeting where he could speak to the “solid majority” he still reckons will back him. No public hall would accept his booking, so the meeting is held in the large front room of the sympathetic sea captain Horster.

The public, even at the start of the meeting, is hostile to Stockmann: the powers ranged against Stockmann, while denying him a platform, have already let the public know how much Stockmann’s solution would cost, and have further let them know that the patches proposed by the Mayor will solve whatever problem there is. It is easy for us to take sides against the public here (as Stockmann himself does), but a simply dichotomy of Good vs Bad serves but to weaken the drama: the public’s position is surely understandable, and I, for one, find it easy to sympathise: it is, after all, their livelihoods that are at stake. Even at this meeting, against Stockmann’s wishes, a chairman and moderator are appointed, and they quickly rule that Stockmann is not entitled to speak about the water pollution. And then the dam breaks: the anti-democratic seeds that had been planted early in the play now blossom, and take on frankly grotesque forms.

Of course, since this is, after all, an Ibsen play, we know that the pollution of the public water is a symbol for something else. And now, Dr Stockmann clearly and explicitly sees it as a symbol, and explains what it is:

DR STOCKMANN: I have some great revelations to make  to you, my fellow citizens! I  want to report the discovery of a very different scope than the trifling matter of the water supply being poisoned and our Health Spa built on  plague-infested ground! … I’ve said I wanted to talk about an important discovery I’ve made over the last few days – the discovery that our spiritual wells are being poisoned, and that our entire civic community rests on a plague-infested ground of lies!

Readers of Ibsen’s earlier work should have no difficulty identifying Dr Stockmann here: he is Brand, the unyielding idealist and stern moralist, insisting that his fellow humans must accept the truth at all times without compromise – insisting on moral imperatives that human beings are, on the whole, incapable of following. The heroic Stockmann then goes on, in his rage, to articulate a number of things that are, frankly, hard to stomach. The broadside against democracy continues:

The majority never have the right on their side, never I tell you! That’s one of those lies in society against which any independent, thinking man must wage war.  Who is it that constitutes the greater part of the population in a country? The intelligent people or the stupid ones? … The might is with the many – unfortunately – but not the right. The right is with myself, and a few other solitary individuals.  The minority is always in the right.

Then, he draws a parallel between humans and dogs, coming in the process close to advocating what we would nowadays describe as eugenics:

First, imagine a simple, common dog – I mean the kind of vile, ragged, badly behaved mongrel that runs around in the streets fouling the house walls. And put one of these mongrels next to a poodle whose pedigree goes back several generations, and who comes from a noble house where it’s been fed with good food and had the chance to hear harmonious voices and music. Don’t you think that the poodle’s cranium has developed quite differently from that of the mongrel?

Michael Meyer, arguing that the poodle has associations in English that aren’t present in Norwegian, changed the breed to greyhound in the above passage in his own translation, but its meaning is unmistakable either way. Not that Stockmann is favouring the aristocracy: the “mongrels” he is referring to are, as far as he is concerned, from all social classes. But even so, those of us who had been cheering on Stockmann so far, and who remain convinced that he is in the right (as he surely is), can but grit our teeth. But Stockmann is now unstoppable:

It’s of no consequence if a lie-ridden community is destroyed. It should be razed to the ground, I say! All those who live a lie should be eradicated like vermin! You’ll bring a plague upon the entire country in the end; you’ll make it so the entire country deserves to be laid to waste.  And if it comes to that, then I say from the depths of my heart: let the entire country be laid to waste, let the entire people be eradicated!

The mayor, the press, Aslaksen, weren’t wrong: Stockmann really is a dangerous fanatic. He is declared by the meeting to be “an enemy of the people”. And if Stockmann is Brand in his unbending integrity and his fanaticism, he is also, it seems to me, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, who, also in a public meeting, is declared an enemy of the people and exiled; and who, again like Stockmann, remains unbowed, and vents his fury upon the populace that repudiates him, banishing them even as they banish him:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As the reek of the rotten fens, whose love I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air: I banish you.

The  play ends not with victory, but on a note of defiance. Stockmann has been attacked by the mob, and the windows of his house smashed; he has, predictably, lost his job, and so has his daughter:  not that her employer wanted to dismiss her, but, like everyone  else,  they dare not keep her. No-one in the town dares: the weight of public opinion is too strong. The Stockmanns are evicted by their landlord: once again, he dares not do otherwise.  But Stockmann, like his predecessor Brand, is determined  to fight on, to stand up for the Truth, no matter what the cost to himself or to his family. And we are left not entirely sure whether to admire or to deplore him.

***

In the context of the twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, which may loosely be termed a “cycle”, this play, the fourth in the series, is, in some ways, a step back. After having used the very public medium of theatre to explore inner lives of his characters in A Doll’s House and, even more, perhaps, in Ghosts, we are, in this play, back in the very public world of The Pillars of Society: the inner lives of the characters here are not addressed; the characters are only really important here in terms of their public function. Of course, Ibsen was soon to delve more deeply into the inner lives of his characters in his subsequent plays:  in some of these works, he delved as deeply into the recesses of the human mind as is perhaps possible. But this play stands apart somewhat from the others: it is, in a sense, simpler, in that its content can be fairly adequately summarised, in a way that the contents of plays such as Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, say, cannot. But it is still very much a part of the cycle: its themes – the nature of truth, our human capacity for accepting and acknowledging the truth – are every much themes that Ibsen explored from different perspectives in this and in other plays.

The truth here, despite Wilde’s famous epigram, is both pure and simple: in literal terms, the spa water is indeed dangerously polluted, and, in symbolic terms, our human society, as in The Pillars of Society, is indeed built upon lies and corruption. What is at issue here is not the nature of Truth (Ibsen was to explore that later), but, rather, our human capacity to accept and acknowledge the Truth, and also the inhuman fanaticism to which an entirely admirable devotion to Truth all too often gives rise. For the title is not ironic: Dr Tomas Stockman is, quite literally, an enemy of the people. That he is a man of the utmost integrity, and heroic and admirable, does not alter this fact. It is a play that should make us all feel uncomfortable.