Monday

30th Nov 2020

Column

Some lessons from Ibsen's An Enemy of the People

All over the world theatres are dusting off an old play: An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, first performed in 1882.

According to the IbsenStage project in Oslo, the play is "more popular than ever". It is about truth, freedom and tyranny. It deals with the loner versus the group, the role of the elite and the power of the majority.

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  • History never repeats itself, Voltaire once said, but the behaviour of people clearly does

Those themes again resonate everywhere. Apparently, very few changes are needed for the text to sound 'fresh' - in the United States, in Europe, in Egypt, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.

The main character of the play is Dr Stockmann, a doctor working in a newly developed spa in a small, poor Norwegian village.

This spa is the pride the villagers, as well as their main hope of getting out of poverty. One day Dr Stockmann discovers that the waters have been poisoned. Without telling anyone he sends samples to a laboratory.

His suspicion is soon confirmed: this water makes people sick. As a good citizen Dr Stockmann immediately warns the authorities. But the mayor of the village, who happens to be his own brother, is not very grateful.

On the contrary: he fears that if the lab results become known, the spa must close for a while. This would ruin the village. Detoxification would require investments the village doesn't have. In short, the mayor wants Dr Stockmann to remain silent and pretend all is fine.

But the doctor doesn't intend to. He writes an article for the newspaper and plans to inform villagers at a public meeting. The mayor, meanwhile, starts a smear campaign against Dr. Stockmann, putting pressure on the newspaper and others not to give him a podium.

That campaign works.

Many villagers soon believe Dr. Stockmann is a jealous schemer who discredits the spa in order to get his brother's job. The editor-in-chief reverses his decision to publish Dr Stockmann's article: "I'm not an expert. If everyone disagrees, who am I to believe you?"

The planned village meeting turns into a public tribunal with Stockmann, not the mayor, as the accused party. The doctor believed he was a hero. Instead, he's become the most hated man in the village.

During that village meeting, Dr Stockmann loses his patience. He bitterly laments the pettiness of the majority and the ignorance of the uneducated. He is an educated man, he has the facts, hasn't he?

From there all goes downhill.

The villagers get to their feet and call him "an enemy of the people". That night, the doctor's windows are smashed. He loses his job. His daughter, teacher, is also fired. He refuses to leave because "morality and justice are turned upside down".

In the last scene, Dr Stockmann declares that he is the strongest in the world, because he fights for the truth and dares to stand alone.

Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People shortly after Ghosts, a play about adultery, siphilis and hypocrisy in Norwegian society. Ghosts infuriated many. Ibsen was called "immoral" and "degenerate". This is how he got the idea to write a play about someone telling the truth and being punished for it.

In the early 1950s, the playwright Arthur Miller rediscovered An Enemy of the People. He left it intact for the most part, and just made Dr Stockmann a little more modern and sympathetic – in the 1950s society would not dismiss "uneducated people" as easily as in 1882.

Miller's adaptation, which was recently republished as a paperback too, became a huge success.

No wonder: these were the days of Joseph McCarthy and his witch-hunts of anyone suspected of sympathy for the Soviet Union. A perfect moment for a thorough exploration of truth and tyranny.

Yet again the balance between public health and economic loss is a major theme. It is not at all difficult to understand why the play has once more regained popularity.

Parallels are everywhere

The US president fires respected scientists who disagree with his own home-made assessments of the Covid-19 virus. On Monday he lashed out against newspapers on Twitter: "FAKE NEWS, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!"

In Europe, too, scientific research institutes are dismissed as "left-wing" and "elitist". As soon as borders were closed in March European countries started a fight for masks.

Foreign cars are treated with suspicion. French nurses working in a German hospital near Freiburg were insulted to such an extent that one French mayor gave them explicatory signs to put on the dashboard ("Medical personnel - I am working for your health").

A bitter diplomatic fight has broken out between Budapest and Bucharest about Hungary's delivery of masks to the Hungarian minority in Romania.

Dutch and Italians are doing battle about the costs of prolonged lockdowns, with extreme generalisations flying around. A Dutch professor correcting her fellow countrymen on some points received death threats.

History never repeats itself, Voltaire once said, but the behaviour of people clearly does.

Edward Snowden and Mohammed Morsi have recently been compared with Dr Stockmann, and the mayor with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Each performance of An Enemy of the People has its own local emphasis and raises slightly different questions.

Is someone clinging to facts and truth a naive utopian? Is the majority always wrong? The fact that questions that were topical 150 years ago come up now with the same intensity, shows that citizens fall into the same traps, over and over again.

It also shows how each generation must take very good care of democracy. And above all, protect the individual from the masses.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in Standaard.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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