“Try not to be so vocal!” another hushes him.
This quote is just one of many statements made during Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People that resonated all too strongly with a present-day American audience throughout a production where the personal and political are entangled all too closely and an apathetic public lays the path to its own downfall.
Ibsen first penned his play in 1882 and said upon submission that he wasn’t sure if it was a comedy or drama. The production currently in performances at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, with a script translated by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is a drama with some light-hearted moments sprinkled throughout the dialogue. But its overall impact is a solemn one, weighed with the somber recognition that when it comes to political corruption and public knowledge, not that much has changed in the past 100 years.
The main character of An Enemy of the People is Dr. Thomas Stockmann (a superb Boyd Gaines), the resident physician of a coastal Norweigan spa town. Enjoying financial success for the first time in his life, Stockmann is an energized, driven man, married, with three children and a close-knit circle of friends. After discovering that the town’s spa waters are contaminated and causing illness amongst the patients and the local residents, he contacts the mayor to inform him of the necessity of gutting the town’s plumbing and re-laying the pipes in a more sanitary way. He is confident the mayor will respond quickly to his suggestions and he will be viewed as a hero by his neighbors.
The mayor, however, balks at Thomas’ suggestion of changing the town’s plumbing, which would halt the visitors to the spa and leave the town destitute. Confident the matter will “resolve itself” quickly, he informs Thomas that if he publicizes his findings about the water, he will lose his job. The mayor is also Thomas’ brother, Peter (played in a remarkably assured, imperious performance by Richard Thomas).
Director Doug Hughes has emphasized the connection between the personal and public in this production, and Gaines aptly depicts Thomas’ agony at choosing between the well-being of his family by keeping quiet (and keeping his job), or losing both for the sake of his civic duty to the entire town.
Determined to publish his report in the local newspaper with the help of the publisher (John Procaccino) and the printer (Gerry Bamman in an amusing performance emphasizing “restraint”), Thomas forges ahead but is quickly waylaid by Peter’s influence on the townspeople. Tension continues to build until a town hall meeting erupts into chaos and Thomas is declared an “enemy of the people.”
Ibsen’s play is jam-packed with political and philosophical musings, the most apparent being the danger of a mindless majority dictating the direction of politics, which Thomas expounds upon when he takes the floor (or rather, the table) at the town hall meeting. All of his friends and neighbors are willing to declare him their enemy due to his report on the waters, but not one of them has actually read the report. Given the soundbite culture of election season (or any season), the danger of an uninformed public resonated strongly and I immediately thought of Obama’s statement, “You didn’t build that,” being taken out of context and repeated so many times a country song was written about it for the Republican National Convention.
Another theme of the play which resonated strongly was the narcissism of doing good and being a public servant, personified by both Thomas, who states, “I am no more ambitious or self-seeking than the next man,” and Peter who claims, “I am the moral guardian of this town.” Thomas is cheerfully confident he will be supported in his efforts to save the town, and he is quickly, and repeatedly, proven wrong.
In addition to the political themes of An Enemy of the People, its portrayal of women also resonated strongly. Numerous comments are made comparing public opinion to women. (Both, it seems, are notoriously fickle.) Thomas’ wife Catherine (Kathleen McNenny) does not support his efforts if they endanger their family, but once he is resolved to speak publicly, she supports him, even when he tells her, “Go home. You take care of the house, and I’ll take care of society.” A more progressive view is offered by Thomas and Catherine’s daughter Petra (Maïté Alina), who works as a teacher and openly shares her own political beliefs. And a mention of the town living in Biblical times immediately brought to mind the birth control debate over reproductive rights.
Staged on John Lee Beatty’s rotating set which artfully utilizes a transparent curtain symbolizing enlightenment and knowledge, with Ben Stanton’s lighting and David Van Tieghem’s music and sound design enhancing the ominous foreshadowing, An Enemy of the People is a somber dose of art mirroring life. While it ends on a tentatively optimistic note of hope in future generations, I couldn’t help but laugh sadly and think about the 2008 election when when one character urgently stated, “We have to bring in a whole new leadership…young, without cynicism.” One hopes that the faith these characters had in the future will prove to be justified.