An Enemy of the People was written at the turn of the 19th century by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It has recently been adapted by three Midwestern theaters-- The Goodman and A Red Orchid in Chicago and the University of Michigan-Flint. This is a powerful play. And it is as relevant today as it was in 1882. The play reflects the contamination crises in Flint, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; and East Chicago, Indiana; the political autocracy attempting to lead our country, and the moral ambiguity that exists between environmental and economic needs, and the role of the press in concealing or informing the public with truth or alternate facts.
In Ibsen's play, a small town has built a public health Bath with the expectation that visitors from throughout the country will come to use it to improve their health. Ironically, the Baths turn out to be contaminated; instead of healing, they can kill. The doctor of the Baths, Tom Stockton, discovers that there is bacteria in the water. He is about to blow the whistle when his brother, the Mayor, attempts to silence him. If the information is leaked, no one will come to the town. The financial loss to the town will be great and those who invested in the Springs will lose a lot of money. Gathering the townspeople around him, the Mayor labels Stockton an "Enemy of the People." Unable to accept defeat, he swears to continue the fight but his young son, swooning, recognizes that he cannot win.
The play has had a number of adaptations. Arthur Miller's interpretation in a 1978 film stars Steve McQueen as the doctor and Charles Durning as the Mayor. The adaptation eliminates the comedic elements of Ibsen's play, leaving it more of a melodrama than a dramedy. It also eliminates the references to eugenics, ideas that were prevalent among some European intelligentsia at the turn of the 19th century.
I saw the film which had been adapted by Arthur Miller for the first time recently and spent the remainder of the evening stunned. It's relevance to present day situations was shocking. The mayor gives a speech that could have been given by President Trump. The refusal of the townspeople to accept that "bacteria" that cannot be seen could kill them is reflected today in the rejection of those who continue to deny climate change, and the capitulation of the newspaper editor to the mayor's threats of dire consequences to the town if word of the contamination were to get out echoes the recent film The Post about the Pentagon Papers as well as the situation in East Chicago where word of lead in soil beneath a housing development was kept quiet for well over a decade.
The doctor, the whistleblower, becomes a pariah; the townspeople turn against him. The Mayor declares him an 'enemy of the people,' a 'traitor' to the best interests of the town. His house is attacked, rocks are hurled through his windows. But in the best of Hollywood traditions he stands unbroken. HE WILL REMAIN IN THE TOWN TO FIGHT. Unlike Ibsen's recognition of the hopelessness of the situation, Miller's adaptation leaves you cheering him on. It was too pat an ending for a play with a powerful but ambiguous message
It is a play to be, as Bacon says, "chewed and digested thoroughly".
As we listen to the powerful voices of students from around the country calling for better gun control, it would seem that those who are trying to save us should finally be heard.
Two other adaptations of Ibsen's play are presently being played out in Chicago at A Red Orchid Theatre and at The Goodman. A review of the play, "Traitor," at A Red Orchid Theatre appears on my Feb. 28 blog. An interview with playwright Brett Neveu was published Feb. 22.
For a discussion of the theme, see my blog for March 14. For a summary of the play, see my blog for March 13. For a report on a discussion between Brett Neveu, playwright for A Red Orchid's "Traitor," and Robert Falls, playwright for Goodman's "Enemy." see my blog for March 13.