Henrik Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in 1882 in a fit of white heat as a diatribe against the general public and the politicians, and as revenge for the vicious attacks they visited upon his earlier play Ghosts. He was angered by the irrational tendencies of the masses, who were appalled by his veiled references to syphylis. He was angered by the Victorian morality of his fellow Norwegians, so he concocted a story about the pollution of the baths that were an important part of the economic life of his new hero’s coastal home town in southern Norway.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann is introduced early in the play as an ecstatically happy physician who has discovered that the waste from the tanneries that line the water supply of his town’s baths is polluted, and he is about to publish an article demanding that they be closed at once . He expects to be idolized for saving his neighbors from certain illness and perhaps death. His own brother, the Mayor of the town, had been the baths’ most ardent fan, for it is about to become a great tourist attraction, and he is firmly against any such closing.
The Doctor insists, and town meetings are arranged to discuss the matter. At first, all the participants are grateful for the news, and back the Doctor to the man. But one by one they defect as they learn the economic consequences of such a dramatic move. All turn against him except his daughter, a free spirit, who joins her father in the good fight to have truth conquer practical matters. Even his wife, who believes and loves him, tries to convince him to compromise, to work out some solution other than the immediate closing. He is denounced, disgraced, called an enemy of the people.
The play is performed with all stops out by a first rate cast. Boyd Gaines, a four time Tony winner, and Richard Thomas, whose stage work since his long life on “The Waltons” has been exemplary, are front and center as adversaries. Under Doug Hughes’ direction, the choice has been made to give new meaning to “all stops out.” The glee the Dr. feels at his discovery is contagious, and his outrage at the intransigence of his friends and neighbors is delivered as one long howl. Throat specialists will soon be required in the wings for when the forces convene at a town meeting, and the numbers are increased by the addition of principals plus townspeople sitting in the theatre itself, a shouting match unlike any other of recent memory erupts. It’s vigorous and not without effect. I imagine it was something like this at the end of Waiting for Lefty when the mob roared “Strike! Strike! Strike!”.
The stars are supported by James Waterston, who brings a fresh twist to “Billing” who works at the tannery, by Kathleen McNenny as the Doctor’s wife, Maité Alaina as his spirited daughter, and other excellent actors whose turnaround is written too abruptly, but who play with nuance, and in most cases, they diminish the introduction of melodrama to the proceedings.
It might have been better if Mr. Ibsen had taken some time off after what he considered the outrageous reception of his Ghosts, for his Enemy, presented only one season later, is a far more turgid and less balanced work than his later masterpieces Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, The Master Builder and others.
A Doll’s House, which immediately preceded Ghosts in the Ibsen canon is more evenly tempered as well, and as a result it resonates to this day. However, I suspect the reason Manhattan Theatre Club decided to include Enemy in its season is that there are still political corruption, coverups, betrayals and turnarounds in our current environment.
As adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, some modern references to “closeted” and “outed” are intrusive and not necessary, but they apply to today as well and we react viscerally to them. The anachronistic phrases are not needed because we get it. Some things never change, and some truths have a short shelf life and find themselves in time replaced by other truths. For that reason alone, it is nourishing to have a new look at An Enemy of the People, even though its message in this production is thrown at us with the force of a stone in a sling shot.
Doug Hughes, always a thorough pro, must have read Dr. Stockman’s line: “Every single exclamation mark stays! If in doubt, add more.” In his otherwise excellent staging, that’s what he did. He added more.
The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen (new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz) runs thru Nov 11, 2012 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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