Regardless of the time and writing style, Ibsen remains among the key figures of drama. Born in 1828 in Norway, Ibsen dedicated his life to theatre as director and playwright. He is known as “the father of Realism,” and in a speech given to some students in 1874, Ibsen outlines his philosophy: “An artist must possess some experience of the life he was trying to create.” According to J.L. Styan, the playwright George Bernard Shaw considered Ibsen to be “a great teacher and critic of society.”
Ibsen’s ability to direct may have also contributed to his effectiveness as a playwright. In a letter to producer and director August Lindberg, Ibsen wrote: “The language must sound natural and the form of expression must be characteristic of each individual person in the play.”
Despite his secured greatness today, Ibsen didn’t always receive only positive criticism from his contemporaries. According to Styan, “a familiar complaint was that Ibsen was morbid and unwholesome.” Several prominent writers faulted Ibsen’s approach:
Chekov saw Ghosts just before his death in 1904 and said: A rotten play. It was Ibsen’s lack of humour and his posture as a moralist that disturbed the Russian.
William Buttler Yeats, an Irish poet, criticizes Ibsen dealing with the reality of life in joyless and pallid words.
Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People was published in 1882. In this play Ibsen questions whether the absolute truth is what people desire. He explores this through the central conflict between the truth-seeking Dr. Stockmann and the city mayor, the truth-evading Peter Stockmann, his younger brother. This family clash provides a realistic plot device.
The writer Michael Cumming identifies the themes of the play: “Shiny apples are sometimes rotten at the core. The baths of the city appear safe and salubrious, but poison befouls their waters,” Arguably, the same could be said for the characters of the play. Although Dr. Stockmann seems to be the only person who cares about the ideology of truth, Cummings suggests that “he becomes a caricature rather than a real person. Ibsen’s realism thus becomes less real.” However, the realism in An Enemy of the People is perhaps an extension of phenomenology, as “it is not concerned with the world as it exists in itself but how the world appears to the humans who encounter it.” As few are willing to compromise their images in the name of the truth, role-playing becomes a daily exercise. Ibsen uses this play to remind his audience that corruption, intimidation and betrayal are all around, and that participants remain complicit because of the fear of losing face, power or money.
The Enemy of the People uses five acts instead of classic three. But this structure does not influence the audience’s understanding of the play. When a spectator watches a realistic piece, he becomes part of it. Other than the story itself, Ibsen used the tool of closed form theatre to influence the audience the most: this pièce bien faite capture the attention of the audience in such a way that they don’t have the freedom to think anything else other than what the playwright wants them to think. The plot is tight and centres on one question: whether to clean the baths. Suspense is created with Dr. Stockmann’s good sense in conflict the society. Shaw describes:
Ibsen substituted a terrible art of sharpshooting at the audience, trapping them, fencing with them, aiming always at the sorest spot in their consciences… In the theatre of Ibsen we are not flattered spectators killing an idle hour with an ingenious and amusing entertainment. We are guilty creatures sitting at a play and the technique of past time is no more applicable than at a murder trial.
There is no narrator, yet the dialogue style and the tone serves this purpose. The audience might feel ashamed for having acted in the past like one of the untrustworthy characters, ad are likely to place their sympathies with Dr. Stockmann and his children. Personally, my positive feelings didn’t change towards Dr. Stockmann, who remained the centre of my attention throughout the play. Like any closed form play, the element of surprise is used to capture the attention and interest of the audience. In The Enemy of the People this important moment occurs when Dr. Stockmann pays a sudden visit to the editor of the newspaper, to verify the quality of the article that is about to be printed. The printing of the mayor’s article is the turning point of the play, as it prepares the people of the town for the upcoming town hall meeting. Ibsen illustrates for his audience how easy it is to influence the masses, regardless if the content printed is true or false.
To outline that the health of the people is at stake seems secondary, and the suppression of free speech seems to be the focus. Daniel Addis, after analysing the play, frames its central question as follows:
“During a time of crisis… should we stand up for what is right and put ourselves and our family in danger, or should we keep quiet and ignore our principles, protecting ourselves and our family?”
The meaning of the play becomes clear after the moment of the greatest impact, when Dr. Stockmann decides to leave town with his family. Ibsen shows the audience that although the minority might be in the right, the majority, even though wrong, will usually win. At the end of the play, when Dr. Stockmann reconsiders his decision to leave town and decides to stay, Ibsen brings the audience to see that it is possible to adapt to different situations when larger things are at stake than personal wellbeing.
This is the moment when Dr. Stockmann proves how strong he is by ignoring his own shame just to spare his family. Honour becomes secondary in The Enemy of the People and Dr. Stockmann develops into an “unheroic character:” the opposite to what he wanted to be from the moment he found out about the poisoned baths. At the very end of The Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann stands alone, although the audience is left with a sense that time will make people forget.
Both readers and theatre spectators encounter three dynamic forces: what is desired to happen (that the baths are cleaned from the poison), what ought to happen (the fuss about Dr. Stockmann’s discovery) and what happens (baths won’t get cleaned). Obviously, the silent reading gives the freedom of visualization, whereas a performance fills out the imaginative exercise. However, Styan notes that “Ibsen’s social plays have little physical action; the emphasis is all on a new psychological contest of minds as the characters circle and evade taboo subjects.” Thus, the decoding of stage signs becomes another task for theatregoers whereas readers can follow their visual imagination. Nevertheless, the experience of theatre is valuable. Whereas reading is a solitary act, theatre, as Marvin Carlson describes, “interplays society and culture.” Far from being a lonely quest, the experience of the play is a collective one. Mark Fortier emphasises this aspect of the theatre: “as a public space, theatre functions to reflect, expose or compensate for the outside world.” The theatre director will be faithful to the text, but as writer David Selbourne suggests, “fidelity to the words of the text is not enough: there must be fidelity to the sense of those words.”
Unfortunately, I haven’t had the privilege of watching a performance of The Enemy of the People, so I must refrain from taking sides as to whether a performance or the printed book best expresses meaning. However, I agree with Edoardo Esposito when he states that “the separation between text and performance is difficult to conceive.” Also, the mise en scène deals, above all, with a questioning of the meaning (more than a message) that Ibesn wanted to suggest to his audience.
Ibsen published his works, and therefore knew many people would read his plays instead of watching them. However, it seems that he hoped to modify the behaviour of a theatre audience, by providing a shocking treatment of his subject. Frost and Yarrow outline this function of theatre: “theatre can be a moral and political thermometer because it is related to the health of society.” Richard Sonn notes that “The Enemy of the People resembled an anarchist attentat in its violent assalt upon the sensibilities of the audience,” and this seems to reflect Ibsen’s intentions, which were not to show the truth that is known, but rather to make his readers/audience consider this truth, and not to just ignore it and keep on living their lives.
To conclude this essay, I would like to borrow one of Esposito’s sayings: “One of the great powers of a performance resides in its politic dimension:” in the Enemy of the People and Ibsen effectively realizes this power of performance.
Luciana B. Veit