An invigorating staging of Henrik Ibsen’s still pertinent play about spinelessness up and down the political spectrum.
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh. Directed by James Bundy. Staged by the Yale Repertory Theatre at the University Theatre, 222 York Street, New Haven, CT, through October 28.
By Bill Marx
Just who is the ‘Enemy of the People’ in Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play?
Propelled by McCarthyism and the dramatist’s rectitude, Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation of Ibsen’s script firmly takes the side of Thomas Stockmann, the idealistic doctor who discovers that the waters in his town’s lucrative medicinal baths are polluted. Instead of being proclaimed a hero by a grateful community (as Stockmann so innocently dreams), he is systematically undercut by two-faced liberals and conservatives who for various reasons — from the personal (the mayor is Thomas’ competitive bother) and the ideological to the economic — turn their backs on him. Eventually they combine into a braying majority that reviles and then silences him. For Miller, the forces of brute ignorance have been unleashed; surrounded by his loyal family, Stockmann stands as a bulwark of solitary courage, a thinking man among vicious sheep.
That is a fine liberal fairy tale, but Ibsen is the far greater playwright because he has no patience for that kind of earnestness. The dramatist makes his playful attitude to Stockmann clear in an 1882 letter to his publisher, Frederick Hegel: “Work on this play has given me a lot of fun, and I shall miss it now that I am finished with it. Doctor Stockmann and I got on excellently together, we agree about so many things, but the Doctor is more muddle-headed than I am …” Yale Rep Artistic Director James Bundy’s splendid staging focuses on that notion of “fun” – this production is energetic, at times nearly farcical, but it is still scathing about the rotten goings-on that riled up Ibsen. Bundy provides a list in his program note: “demagoguery, crony capitalism, demonization, nepotism, elitism, closed-mindedness, self-delusion, and the relentless pursuit of economic advantage at the expense of our own health.” He left out denying scientific truths, a theme that gives Ibsen’s warning about the price paid for disregarding the facts — given the growing threats of climate change — considerable relevance. In truth, the gorgeous picture of the fiord that sits in the background of this production should not, as it does, remain pristine. It should, from scene to scene, be streaked with black or melt. After all, our world is being thrown out with the bath water.
[Editor’s Note: No need to just look at the big picture. The play’s resonances with environmental health crises — generated by a corrupt collusion between government and business — extend from the Flint, Michigan water debacle to the current CNN report on how petrochemical plants are contributing to rising cancer rates in Louisiana.]
The critical line on An Enemy of the People is that the dramatist wrote it as an angry riposte to the moralistic derision that greeted the premiere of Ghosts. But the playwright didn’t indulge his fury so much as play with it (to the point of gentle parody) through Stockmann. The craven conformity of liberals, moderates, and conservatives turn an embittered Stockmann from an empirically-based truth teller into a faux-prophet. He ends up preaching a form of ersatz Nietzschian elitism: the noble few should lead; the powerful should be discarded and the rabble castigated. Ibsen will go on to create a series of fabulous portraits of failed Übermenschen (Hedda Gabler, Halvard Solness); his Stockmann comes off as fanciful early version of the arrogant breed, a comic turn on a trait that will turn tragic (or tragicomic) in the plays to follow: the megalomania that comes when you think you have the power of the truth (or nobility) on your side.
As Stockmann, Reg Rogers gives us an enraged but good-natured luftmensch; a manic, absent-minded professor who, after he comes into contact with realpolitik, goes a touch rabid. He delivers his rants with an amiable flair. His hand ruffles through his hair with mechanical regularity; it is as if he is trying but failing to remember one — of a dozen — long forgotten ‘great’ thoughts. The actor might suggest more of the figure’s growing ego; when I saw Mandy Patinkin play the role in 2003 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival there was the ripe suggestion of the birth of a monster. But Bundy works hard to connect Rogers with those around him — this is not just a play about cowardice, but curdled family dynamics – Stockmann and his puritanical brother (played with punctilious fervor by Enrico Colantoni) come off as a sort of yin and yang of the bourgeoisie.
The rest of the cast members in Yale Rep give vibrant and engaged performances, investing their roles with plenty of zesty behavioral details, particularly Jarlath Conroy as Morten Kiil, an aged ‘badger’ who is willing to play all sides for the sake of his sadistic satisfaction. Particular emphasis is placed on finding the humor in the script: amusing bits of business (some of it invented out of whole cloth) have been created for Stockmann and his wife Catherine, the latter played with patient verve by Joey Parsons. The actress invests the character’s humane pragmatism — in reaction to her husband’s embrace of fantasy — with welcome poignancy. Her plea that the family can’t take on everyone in the town packs an emotional wallop. The open-sided cube of a set, which is turned around and around, is effective, and Walsh’s translation is fresh and direct, with some neat Trumpian words (“swamp”) sprinkled in to accent the political relevance of so much spinelessness. He softens some of the rougher material — his Stockmann complains about being surrounded by “mongrels” rather than the “curs” of earlier translations — but this tempering is a reflection of the production’s comic spirit.
The friskiness can become overwrought. The staging is a bit too infatuated with its own momentum. The characters talk manically fast during the first act (just what is in the drinking water?); the proceedings slow down, thankfully, during the second act. Stockmann’s muddle-headedness is present, but not the darkness of his plight, particularly at the play’s end. Stockmann decides not to flee but to fight it out in town, even though his home has been vandalized, he has been kicked out by his landlord, and he has lost his job. His loyal friend Captain Horster (a figure of silent courage, like Aunt Julle in Hedda Gabler) gives him a place to live. Ibsen highlights the absurd heroics of Stockmann’s final line: the crusader insists that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone” surrounded by his supportive family members. But the doctor also plans to make a career out of teaching, specifically to the town’s poor, the very masses he has consigned to barbarity. How long is that job going to last, given that he will be gassing on about revolution? The inspiration in the final scene needs to be tempered with a healthy sense of futility, even a smidgen of utter defeat. After all, the truth — what we don’t want to hear — has been successfully marginalized. And the truth, for Ibsen, is always an enemy of the people.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.