Two playwrights, who have just completed adaptations of 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” spent an hour on Sunday discussing the meaning of the complex playat the Goodman’s Alice Theatre. The play is being shown sequentially at two Chicago theaters. Brett Neveu’s production, which he renamed “Traitor,” at A Red Orchid Theatre, just completed its run while Robert Falls’ production is in previews at the Goodman.
Falls had been thinking about the play for some time, even before the 2016 election, he admitted. It’s a play that “has the ability to spark conversation…it’s about capitalism, free press, the reduction of the EPA and the climate change pull out.” And then with the Trump presidency, Falls says, shifting in his chair at the front of the room and throwing his hands up in the air, “I was as angry as Stockmann and Ibsen were. How do you direct this anger? I needed to do something about our horrific, terrible, ongoing,…’ situation.
Neveu wrote his adaptation with the urging of Red Orchid ensemble member Michael Shannon who starred in the recent film, ”Shape of Water.” According to Neveu, Shannon had been motivated by the situation of water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and felt that Enemy provided a voice for that story. Then, as the cast began working with Neveu’s script, one of the members, Dado, who plays the protagonist, Tom Stockmanm’s wife, began adding intensity to it because of her own experience living in a town next to East Chicago, Indiana, in which a situation almost identical to the one Neveu had created, was actually unfolding.
Both playwrights described making considerable changes to the original play. Or rather to a previous translation since neither can read Norwegian. The question is whether these are adaptations or new plays. There have been at least 17 translations of the play and six adaptations by major theatres. Arthur Miller who wrote an adaptation for film that starred Steve McQueen and Charles Durning appears to consider an adaptation a translation into the English language at the time of the translation. Falls suggests that his and Neveu’s “adaptations” are more of interpretation than adaptation. While maintaining the basic plot and characterizations of the main characters, they have each altered genders, locations, time, settings and language to update their productions. What they haven’t changed, they both contend, is Ibsen’s meaning. Falls comments that they have both spent a great deal of time in conversations with the playwright, trying to understand his meaning as it would relate to a 21st century audience.
Neveu suggests that he “merged with Ibsen,” thus, creating a new play, and that is why he renamed it. I would agree that it is a new creation, based on an earlier play. But then isn’t that what Shakespeare did?
Both playwrights admitted that they hit a number of stumbling blocks as they worked on their adaptations. One of the major problems they both encountered was Stockmann’s monologue in the fourth act as he attempts to sway the Town Council to his side and recognizes that his cause is lost. Raging at their failure to see his point, he rails that “The majority is not always right.” He lashes out at the members, calling them “curs” and members of the uneducated masses, reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables.” The speech carries the eugenics argument in vogue among intellectuals at that time. It is the final nail in his coffin and the mayor calls him an ‘enemy of the people.”
Miller eliminates all of the Nietzschean elements of the speech; Neveu retains them as does Falls. However, Falls sees a redeeming aspect of the speech. In the latter part of it, Stockmann appears to indicate that with education the masses could change.
Part of the difficulty with this speech as well as with the ending to the play is the character of Stockmann. Ibsen has created a complex, deeply flawed character, according to Falls. Both playwrights believe Ibsen sees himself as Stockmann. Neveu suggests that ibsen is “writing a letter to himself” on which Falls believes he is telling his audience “about how good he is and really has a strong point to press.”
The final problem that both admitted struggling with is the ending. The last line, uttered by Stockmann “The strongest man is the one who is alone” is Neitzschean. In true Hollywood 1950’s mode, Miller retains the line and provides a superhero declaring he will fight alone if necessary to save the town. Neveu ends the play quite differently with the son dying from the contaminated soil. "Michael wanted me to keep this ending which is in line with the Flint episode," he comments. Falls has retained the line but he says he is not happy with it and, perhaps, it will change. I am anxious to see what he does with it by the time I attend a preview performance on Thursday.
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.