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Reflections of a working writer and reader



An Enemy of the People

I’ve made a great discovery. . . and I’ll tell you what it is: the strongest person in the world is the one who stands alone
Dr. Tomas Stockmann.

Henrik Ibsen’s opening play at the newly refurbished Sheffield Crucible, is An Enemy of the People, with Anthony Sher in the role of Dr Stockmann.

It’s a disturbing drama, constituting an attack on democracy and the theory of majority rule, a position with which Ibsen himself had some sympathy.

Stockman, a scientist and an idealist, quite unworldly in this production, almost a natural innocent, discovers that the waters of his Spa town are polluted and poisonous. He immediately wants to go public with this news, shut the Spa down and, at whatever expense, cleanse and reroute the water. But his brother, the Mayor, suppresses the report. The bureaucrats, the local small businessmen’s association, the town newspaper and eventually the workers of the town, turn on Stockman, his family and his friends, and reduce them to penury.

The play works as a forum for ideas. For a modern audience to empathize with Stockmann entirely is almost impossible. He does, of course, stand for truth against the suppression and lies of his brother and the other organs of the democratic process, but he does not understand the need to educate his audience and become instead self-righteous and arrogant and a chilling and contemptuous social darwinist in his remarks about “disgusting, mangy, vulgar mongrels” whose brains don’t develop in the same manner as gently reared pedigree dogs.

On the other hand his sense that truth, any truth, has a limited lifetime, and that time always brings us round to the realisation that what was once true has now become untrue, is never less than fascinating.

And his fear that the suppression of material facts and the acceptance of political lies will lead, inevitably, to a kind of spiritual corruption and decay of society, is a companion to each of us in the twenty-first century.

A disturbing play, then; one that still, in our own time, offers an audience no place to hide.

This production, directed by Daniel Evans, with Antony Sher as Dr Stockmann, in a new version by Christopher Hampton, runs until the 20th March.

If you go out and fight for freedom you should never do so in your best trousers.
Dr. Tomas Stockmann.

5 Responses to “An Enemy of the People”

  1. Rachel Fox says:

    Have you ever written a play, John?

    jb says: Hi Rachel. Yes, I tried my hand a couple of times at a tv play, but didn’t manage to get anyone to take it up. When I lived in community, many years ago I used to write plays which were produced locally. I often think I should try again, especially after seeing badly written and produced plays. Had the thought only last week after seeing Andersen’s English at the Leeds Playhouse.

  2. john baker says:

    One other thing I thought was interesting but forgot to mention in the review was that Jaws, the 1975 Steven Spielberg film, was based on An Enemy of the People. The great white shark represents the polluted Spa water and the beach of Amity and the small community around it are Ibsen’s townsfolk.
    In both cases the people of the town are financially dependent on tourists who visit solely for the water. But something in the water is killing people. One man wants to do something about it, but the bureaucrats try to keep it quiet.

  3. Dick says:

    I really hope this production travels down here at some point. A decent production of ‘An Enemy…’ has so much to say to a contemporary audience. Proof positive that Brecht’s contention that naturalistic drama (‘the theatre of illusion’, as he called it) has nothing to tell us about the world in which we live because any issues addressed will be neutralised by character and emotion is nonsense.

    jb says: You can understand Brecht’s point, though. It must be possible to be wrong while, at the same time, pointing at a truth.

  4. Bill Yamm says:

    As a young man, Ibsen bought Peer Gynt from a starving poet and set himself up as a pretender to being a playwright. Then, in Germany, he was killed in a bar fight, and a group of young German writers wrote his plays for a while as a joke, eventually hiring an out-of-work actor to impersonate him. My book will decode all of the jokes the playwrights wrote into the plays in code, though anyone can tell Peer Gynt was written by a different author than the one who wrote Hedda Gabler. Further stylistic analysis, date comparisons and research will be provided. See the upcoming TV special.

    We have established that more than one writer wrote Ibsen’s plays, and will reveal our data more completely in the book. However, as can be seen clearly from the style of language Ibsen used, one of the writers (called “Ibsen 4” in the study) is clearly speaks danish fluently. And, we believe there is a case that Ibsen 4 was the dramaturg for the group, engineering the plots and mechanics of the plays. To reveal one exciting finding of the study, it is clear that the cabal of playwrights who actually wrote so-called Ibsen’s works were women. certainly, any reasonable person will not find it odd that a woman in that oppressed day and age would both write “Hedda Gabler” and be unable to publish it because of the repression of her gender.

    jb says: Interesting conspiracy theory you have there, Bill . . .