What the People Want
Somewhere in Hollywood, there ought to be a statue to Henrik Ibsen.
The great 19th-century Norwegian dramatist is often credited with the invention of theatrical realism, but this has always struck me as an unfortunate choice of word. The upper classes are no less “real” than members of the other orders of society, and Ibsen’s protagonists are as apt to break into set-piece declamation as any Shakespearean soliloquist. In my book, the theatrical master at capturing reality—internal and external—has always been Chekhov.
If the word were not already exhausted from use in a very different context, I would call Ibsen’s great theatrical achievement the invention of theatrical “socialism.” That is, he created plays that were enormously successful as dramas and dealt with pressing social issues of the day, whether the effect of modernity on marriage (“A Doll’s House”) or how sexual hypocrisy helps spread venereal disease (“Ghosts”) or the vicissitudes of modern finance (“John Gabriel Borkman”).
This is harder to do than one might think. Too often writers who attempt it—even great writers—wind up subordinating the psychological reality of their characters to their ideas about the issue in question. In the worst cases, you get a crude morality tale: the utterly righteous hero taking down the system. “Issue” movies of this sort are a staple of modern Hollywood, the kinds of films frequently described as “Oscar bait.”
Ibsen’s play “An Enemy of the People”—reportedly the inspiration for the great Spielberg film “Jaws”—is both a perfect prototype of these crusader-against-the-system movies and, as well, the perfect takedown thereof. And the current production, of an engagingly contemporary translation by Rebecca Linkiewicz, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, provides a rare opportunity to see this classic produced at Broadway scale with a phenomenal cast and to consider how much and how little has changed since it was written in 1882.
The play is set in a small but prosperous Norwegian spa town, and the new production is set in the original period, with a set (by John Lee Beatty) of warm, unpainted timber and starkly dark Victorian costumes (by Catherine Zuber). (A flimsy, diaphanous scrim that barely obscures the stage during changes is the only odd element—perhaps intended as another signifier of rustic simplicity.) The central figure is Doctor Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines), a boisterous, liberal man who only a couple of years earlier finally returned to his hometown after toiling in obscurity in the provinces. He has settled in, thanks to the help of his brother, the town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann (Richard Thomas), who arranged for him to be hired by the spa as the official medical director.
Peter is Thomas’s opposite in everything: restrained, even finicky in his movements where his brother is expansive; a teetotaler where his brother enjoys a toast or two or three; fiscally prudent where his brother brags of finally earning “nearly as much” as he spends.
Thomas hasn’t just settled in happily, though. He’s too restless for that. For the past year, he’s been investigating a suspicious series of typhoid cases among visitors to the baths. At the end of the first scene, his investigations have born fruit: he has definitive evidence that the baths are thoroughly contaminated by runoff from a tannery upstream. The only thing to do is shut the baths down and rebuild the water system the way he, Thomas, had suggested it be built in the first place—more expensively but more securely. His friends from the town’s liberal paper applaud him and confidently affirm his prediction that he will be hailed as a town hero.
Of course, things are not so simple. The liberals—the rabble-rousing publisher, Hovstad (a sly John Procaccino), his easily-roused flunky, Billing (James Waterson), and the sober printer, Aslaksen (a charming Gerry Bamman, who benefits more than anyone from the colloquial translation)—aren’t so much interested in the health and safety of the baths as they are in using the issue as a stick with which to discredit the conservative authorities and bring in a more liberal government. Hovstad even hopes that his championing of the doctor will help to win the favor of the doctor’s daughter, Petra (Maïté Alina). And Thomas’s father-in-law, Morton Kiil (played with exquisite malice by Michael Siberry), the owner of the offending tannery, believing not for a minute in the reality of the pollution, cackles with excitement at the prospect of the stuffed shirts in government getting a good skewering. Only Thomas thinks battle won’t be necessary—surely the authorities will immediately take the necessary steps to protect the town and its visitors.
Peter has no such plans, and his initial confrontation with Thomas is electric. Richard Thomas sheds his fussy reserve and lays into Gaines, and Gaines returns fire, decades of the brothers’ mutual contempt bursting into the open. The battle is joined, words are said that can never be unsaid, and Thomas Stockmann races off to the offices of the liberal paper to blow the lid off his brother’s attempt at a cover-up. It takes only one visit from the once again oleaginous mayor, though, to turn the liberals against Thomas. The corporation, he reveals, won’t absorb the exorbitant costs of the proposed renovation; if the baths are to be rebuilt, it’ll mean a steep tax hike on workers. And the baths will still have to close, probably for years.
The prospect of the town’s ruination quickly turns all of Thomas Stockmann’s allies into enemies and him into the titular Enemy of the People. This is the title slapped on him by virtually the entire town at a meeting called by Thomas himself, at which he insults everyone in attendance and rails against “the majority” as the greatest threat to sane, liberal governance. It’s a bizarre speech, but brilliantly executed by Gaines and marvelously staged by director Doug Hughes, who plants the townspeople in the front row, turning the theatre audience into the attendees at the meeting. I say bizarre because no more foolish strategy could possibly be conceived for winning popular support. But what it lacks in logical sense it makes up for in psychological acuity. For this mad speech, really, is the heart of the play.
There is a contradiction at the heart of progressive liberalism, a contradiction that conservatives have exploited from the beginning, in that liberalism calls for government of, for, and by the people, but it also calls for government according to liberal principles—transparency, public concern for the welfare of the needy, education to promote “enlightenment,” etc.—that are not always popular. And when the populace vote for an illiberal government, liberals all to often wind up lecturing the people about their gullibility at best, their stupidity and venality at worst. Just like Thomas Stockmann does.
It’s a credit to Ibsen that he shows us just how vain and self-serving Thomas Stockmann really is, just like everyone else in town. The typical Hollywood crusader film flatters our vanity; heroes may be flawed—drunks, cowards, women “with a past”—but they find a higher calling in a great moral crusade that lifts them above their biographies and redeems their flaws, and we feel, watching, as if we’ve done the same, overcome our defects and become heroes.
Doctor Stockmann’s fatal vanity, though, is inseparable from his virtue. He’s not a compromised hero: he’s not intimidated by the prospect of losing his job or his children’s inheritance (he’s blackmailed towards the end of the play by his father-in-law), but that’s because he doesn’t have the slightest appreciation of money. He wants to be worshipped generally as he is by his daughter and his off-stage sons. His vanity is the vanity of the would-be-hero—the vanity we share and that the typical Hollywood “issue” movie exploits to win us over.
There’s a marvelous bit of business in the middle of the play where Thomas steals his brother’s beribboned black top hat and parades about the liberal newspaper’s office, proclaiming himself king, to the embarrassment of everyone and the exasperation of his brother, who snatches at it saying: it’s an emblem of office. To which Thomas shouts in reply: it’s a hat! Leadership, Thomas declares in his town-meeting rant, belongs by right to the noble, by which he means the noble of character, such as himself. Not the noble-by-birth, or by wealth. Or by headgear. But the key to his character—the ignoble flaw—is the demand that this nobility be publicly affirmed. Over and over in the play, the doctor effuses his thanks to anyone who agrees with him in his self-estimation. It’s almost as if he isn’t actually sure of his own worth.
“An Enemy of the People” has unquestionable weaknesses, particularly in the dynamics of the Thomas Stockmann family. His daughter, Petra, is a one-note father-worshipper, and his far more sensible wife, Catherine (Kathleen McNenny), loses her ginger right when she should be gaining it, which considerably dilutes the final scene. The motivations of Captain Horster (Randall Newsome), the only character who stands by the family in the depths of their trial, are never explained at all. And the final act’s repeated tightening of the screws around Doctor Stockmann and his family begins to feel more mechanical than emotionally revelatory. But the importance of the play lies in that portrait of the doctor.
It’s not exactly news that communities will not look kindly on someone who exposes their dirty little secrets, or that most people are more devoted to their livelihoods than to honesty and righteousness. Indeed, if you take a look at how anti-fracking campaigns are received in western Pennsylvania towns that have been revived from near-death by the new oil and gas rush, you’ll see that Ibsen wasn’t cynical enough. People don’t want to hear—assuming for the sake of argument that fracking’s critics are right—they may be letting their own children be poisoned; how much more readily would they poison the messenger.
The news that never seems to penetrate is that those who wish to do right in the teeth of interest, like Doctor Stockmann, are also selfishly motivated, and this is a sign of their humanity, not their elitism. If they were more aware of their motivations and had a bit more humor about them—and if we were more accepting of such motivations and had a bit more humor about them—we might listen with more open ears. Which would be a good thing, because sometimes, as in this little Norwegian town, the well really is being poisoned.
Noah Millman’s blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/Millman.