A Town Without Pity

On the surface, Arthur Miller's 1950 adaption of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 An Enemy of the People seems theatrical proof of the French adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Set in a nineteenth-century Norwegian town, the drama's subject matter mirrors headlines in the 1990s: poisoned natural resources; politicians concerned with image instead of the public's well-being; newspaper editorial policy driven by circulation rather than ethics. The drama's theme -- the idealist in conflict with the values of his society -- reflects current struggles: the artist against cuts in public funding; the academic against pressure to be politically correct; the individual against depersonalizing technology. Presumably director Michael Hall had such parallels in mind when he decided to stage Enemy as the season opener at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company. The production boasts a strong cast and a splendid set. Yet because Hall directs it as a serious drama without exploiting its satiric possibilities, the play comes across as being hopelessly didactic and dated.

Often called the father of modern theater, playwright Ibsen broke ground with his realistic depictions of social issues such as women's rights and venereal disease. Rooted in ideas, set in recognizable middle-class environments, and using everyday language, his work anticipated twentieth-century sensibilities by focusing more on character psychology than on plot. Having influenced playwrights such as August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw, and John Osborne, Ibsen's dramas -- at least some of them -- still play well on the modern stage. In particular, A Doll's House, which explores the consequences of a woman's dependence upon her husband, seems fresh when given an intelligent revival. An Enemy of the People does not fare as well.

In Enemy, a provincial coastal town depends upon the therapeutic waters at Kirsten Springs, a local spa, for its livelihood. When the town's doctor, Thomas Stockmann (Chris Clavelli), learns that the springs are contaminated, he assumes the townspeople will laud him for his discovery. Instead the town turns against him, with hisbrother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (John Gardiner), leading the charge. Even the town's liberal newspaper A whose publisher Aslaksen (John Felix), editor Hovstad (Joe Warik), and reporter Billing (Tom Wahl) initially support the doctor's findings A withdraws its backing when its financial future is threatened. As corruption and cynicism engulf the town, the doctor remains the only man who cannot be bought. Defiantly, he asserts himself as the purveyor of truth, no matter how lonely and alienated that position leaves him.

What dates An Enemy of the People is its late-nineteenth-century revolutionary fervor, a railing against the rigid social hierarchy that dominated the era's European countries, most of which were still under the grip of a monarchy. If expressed by fully drawn characters, such fervor would translate to our more democratic era, since we still struggle as citizens against political powers that determine the quality of our lives. But Ibsen didn't create enduring individuals in Enemy as he did in A Doll's House with Nora or in Ghosts with Mrs. Alving and her son Osvald. Instead the playwright uses Enemy to rant and rave against what he perceived as a personal injustice.

The year before Enemy was written, Ibsen premiered Ghosts, the most controversial play in his oeuvre. Using venereal disease as a symbol of family guilt and society's depravity, this precedent-setting realist drama drew the wrath of the public and the press. Ibsen wrote Enemy in response to that backlash, creating Dr. Stockmann, the visionary loner pitted against the ignorant mob, as a stand-in for himself. Unfortunately, the playwright's use of stock characters, moral posturing, and speeches that sound like tongue lashings against the audience renders the play a polemic instead of a work of art.

Playwright Arthur Miller (whose Death of the Salesman provides a classic example of American realism) saw a correlation between Dr. Stockmann's case against society and the moral dilemmas facing the world in 1950, including the McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Senate and the fallout from World War II and the Holocaust. In the preface to his adaption, Miller writes that Ibsen was a master at using the stage for "the most intense discussion of man's fate." The theme of An Enemy of the People, Miller noted, is "valid today, just as it will always be," although Miller admits that "some of the examples given by Ibsen to prove it may no longer be [valid]." Thus Miller justifies restructuring the drama, trimming it from five acts to three, purging unnecessary exposition and transitions, and deleting speeches that reveal Dr. Stockmann -- and, in turn, Ibsen -- as a tad overzealous about superior humans who have a natural right to lead the masses. "There's a terrible gap between the thoroughbreds and the mongrels in humanity," Stockmann says in sbermenschspeak in the original version; later in the same scene he declares that the common people do not have the same right to "admonish and approve, to prescribe and to govern as the few spiritually accomplished personalities." Although Miller guts Ibsen's text of most of its fascistic overtones and makes the play infinitely more accessible, the revised Enemy still preaches.

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