Review - An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen’s realism in An Enemy of the People wears the garb of idealism

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Abubakar Ishaq Eazy writes that Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is a realistic play masquerading in the form of idealism because the characterisation of the protagonist, Dr.  Stockmann, who is more in tune with idealism than realism.

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), a Norwegian playwright, is regarded as the father of modern realism in the dramatic arts. This is because his plays favour the use of day to day prosaic speech form for dialogue in a Victorian era that is still attuned to using versified and regal language in drama at that time. Also, Ibsen thematic troupes revolve around contemporary issues, issues that bother around the scandalous that society would rather not have discussed. Nonetheless, his plays were quite acceptable. Ibsen realism is, however, more realized in the physical aspect of the theatre, for he favours realistic scenery; using the actual objects rather than having them imagined by the characters and audience. Hence, you get to see a realistic depiction of a living room complete with chairs and window blinds or a kitchen with actual pots and cutleries.

Today, we shall be examining one of Ibsen’s plays, An Enemy of the People.

An Enemy of the People is actually meant to be Ibsen’s retort to the hypocritical reception of his play Ghost which bothers on issues related to sexually transmitted diseases and society’s sense of morality. The play falls under the credo of realism in all major aspects except in the characterization of its major character who is more of an idealistic hero than a realistic one.

In the play, we meet Dr. Stockmann, the town’s medical officer of health, who has just confirmed his suspicions that there is something wrong with the town’s Municipal Baths; the water has been rendered impure, contaminated and unhealthy by some bacteria living in it. He intends to publish this information using the local newspaper, the Herald while also informing his elder brother, Peter Stockmann, who happens to be the town’s mayor, chief constable, and chairman of the Municipal Baths Committee.

Allowing such information to become public seems damaging to Peter’s reputation as the chairman of the Municipal Baths and he would not allow that to happen yet. Dr. Stockmann thinks the truth should be told no matter whose ox is gored. Peter manages to convince Mr. Alasken and Hovstad not to publish the article as it would have greater repercussion on the finances and tax payers in the town. They agree not to publish the article and also join hands with Peter to frustrate all efforts by Dr. Stockmann to ensure this information is passed to the public.

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Dr. Stockmann is challenged by the forces of this trio, Peter, Hovstad, and Alasken, at every attempt to pass his message across to the people and he ends up being branded “an enemy of the people,” who no one should associate with or have dealings with his family members. The town’s people hurled stones at his house and he lost his job as the medical officer of the town.

However, as fate would have it, his wife father buys up the Municipal Baths, offers him the opportunity to right what is wrong with it and prove the people wrong but Dr. Stockmann refuses the offer. Rather, he chooses to educate the street urchins with the hope that they can become pious men in the future who will pose a threat to the many other hypocritical ones – “Drive all the wolves away” (p. 113).

The play is a perfect example of how the human society detests truth and those who hold on tenaciously to the truth. It reminds me of Galilei Galileo and the papacy saga. Time has proved Galileo right after all, but he was forced to accept the fact that he told a lie! Every human society have politicians like Peter who can never forego or sacrifice their personal ego for the good of all and there are those like Alasken who are more concerned about the economic value of truth than its long term implications for all. A society that thrives on lies while suppressing the truth is a sick one and ought to be razed as Dr. Stockmann suggests.

The play exposes the hypocrisy and rot in the human society. We are made to see how the followers are blindly led by egoistic leaders who claim to be working for their good.

The play is fairly long but well written. The characters are true to life and the dialogues are realistic.

I find that I miss most of the humour in the play and I believe this problem stems from the translation of the play into the English language. Oh, do not get me wrong, Max Faber did a fantastic work translating the text but as common with every translation, the level of accuracy with the original is never the same, in most cases, it gets watered down to accommodate the new language it is translated to.

Except the producer allows improvisation, I am quite sure there are bound to be some difficulty in producing the play for the stage due to the use of elaborate dialogues, especially in Act 4.

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Lastly, Ibsen fails (in this play) to understand that he need not turn his play into an open ideological warfare. As we come to see in Act 4, he should have allowed ‘actions’ to prove his case! I am sure George Bernard Shaw learnt from Ibsen not to make this mistake as his play, Arms and the Man, expresses an ideological battle between idealism and realism using humorous actions rather than subjecting us to unnecessary and plain arguments as Ibsen purposely did in this play.

However, my greatest problem with this realist play is the characterization of the protagonist, Dr. Stockmann. Unlike the character of Bluntschili in Arms and the Man, Dr. Stockmann is hopelessly idealistic! I am led to believe Ibsen purposely loaded the dice against his protagonist to deprive us the joy of what would have been a seemingly happy ending with Stockmann becoming the owner of the baths and righting that which is wrong with it! Ibsen knew himself that there is something wrong with the character of Dr. Stockmann for he writes of him in a letter addressed to Friedrich Hegel thus: “Dr Stockmann and I got on so very well together; we agree on so many subjects. But the doctor is more muddle-headed than I am…” (p. vii).

At first, we enjoy Dr. Stockmann insistence that the truth be told even if there are costs to be borne by the populace but as we go on, we come to see that he is too naïve and understands very little about the ways of the world! His character reminds one of the character of Alceste in Moliere’s The Misanthrope; both are hopelessly idealistic! Dr. Stockmann should have emerged the hero of the day but Ibsen denied him that victory and an opportunity to get back at those who have belittled and betrayed him. Dr. Stockmann could not even see that Alasken, Billings, and Hovstad are but vultures who thrive only in places where food is always available. Even Martin Esslin in his introduction to the play agrees that there is something wrong with the character of Dr. Stockmann for he says of him that:

“There is a certain arrogance, a certain aristocratic intolerance in his attitude. An Enemy of the People is not a difficult play, it is built on the model of the most successful kind of nineteenth-century French drama; but its subject matter is closely akin to Ibsen’s most ambitious and most difficult work, the great poem Brand, the hero of which also is a man who feels strongest because he stands alone and whose stubborn determination not to yield an inch brings ruin to all around him…. At the end of An Enemy of the People we are left without any indication whether Dr. Stockmann’s courageous stand, his decision to face his adversaries on his own homeground rather than to move elsewhere and start afresh, will in fact bring ruin to his family.” (pp. ix-x)

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It is on the fact of how Dr. Stockmann and his family will end up that I disagree with Martin Esslin, I do not think we need a soothsayer to tell the aftermath of Dr. Stockmann’s stance. He is headed towards self-destruction and he is dragging others down with him if he insists on the making a profession out of educating street urchins for free in a society that has made him an outcast! His redemption should have been his wife’s father but he threw the opportunity to the wind and would rather see the ruination of the old man which could also mean that of himself, his children, and the wife (Katherine).

Dr. Stockmann character is a great one (every human society should have, at least, twenty of his kind) but like Alceste in Moliere’s The Misanthrope, Ibsen makes it difficult for the audience to sympathize with his protagonist at the end. Dr. Stockmann is quite intelligent but he seems to be losing touch with reality at a time he should have come to terms with it, not by compromising his principles, but by making the right decisions. Dr. Stockmann is also an example of that which is fundamentally wrong with the society’s intellectuals, they see a problem very well, they can identify it but when called upon to help solve it, they take a step backwards and refuse the offer.

In conclusion therefore, we say Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is a realistic play wearing the garb of idealism because of the characterisation of the protagonist who is more in tune with idealism than realism.

When you do peruse the play, let us know if you agree or disagree with our opinion on this play.

Stay tuned every Saturdays for a new review!

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist.

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