June 21st, 2014


So modern ...

As regular readers of this space know, I frequently take advantage of the very reasonably priced Dover Thrift Editions to nudge an on-line order across that magical free shipping line. As I've also previously noted, these provide an opportunity to plug holes in my otherwise-excellent Liberal Arts education – after all, you can't read all the classics in 4 years of college (especially if you're triple-majoring, but that's another story). So, that's how Henrik Ibsen's play, An Enemy of the People recently found its way into my to-be-read pile.

Ibsen lived from 1828 to1906, and had success relatively early in life, with his plays being published and staged as early as 1850, when he was 22, and had become artistic director of the Norwegian Theater in Oslo before he was 30. A series of reversals followed, however, and by 1864 he left Norway, not returning for nearly three decades.

I was impressed at how modern the themes of An Enemy of the People are, despite coming from over a century ago (this was initially published in 1882). In it, a doctor (Dr. Thomas Stockmann) goes up against the establishment of his town, including his brother the Mayor, to try to stop work on a project he himself had previously proposed.

Dr. Stockmann is a significantly flawed character, very headstrong, highly opinionated, and certain that he's “the smartest person in the room” in every situation. He also has very little sense of how others process his pronouncements … which leads him to being blind-sided by how events unfold.

O.K. … since I'm usually reviewing non-fiction books, I am sort of “spoiler deaf”, but I assume almost everything from this point on could be seen as “spoilers” to the plot … you have been warned.

The key scenario of the play involves the town's new Baths, that have been developed to make the area a thriving tourist locale. The idea of the Baths had evidently been originated by Dr. Stockmann, and the facilities developed at considerable expense. However, corners had been cut, and the channel for the waters were originating at an easier-to-build source, rather than a more distant source as he had initially selected. In the time since the Baths had been open, there had been many mysterious illnesses coming to those who sought healing there … from typhoid to various gastric conditions. Being the Medical Officer for the Baths, Dr. Stockmann began to, quietly, investigate this … sending samples of the water off to be analyzed.

The play begins when these reports arrive, causing Dr. Stockmann to insist that the Baths be closed. He is under the delusion that his discovery of this will be widely hailed as saving the town, even instructing his early allies to not allow public spectacles being made about it. Ibsen writes Dr. Stockmann as a hard man to like as he, while generally correct, is quite insufferable in the way he expresses himself:
The whole Bath establishment is a whited, poisoned sepulchre, I tell you – the gravest possible danger to the public health! All the nastiness up a Mölledal, all that stinking filth, is infecting the water in the conduit-pipes leading to the reservoir; and the same cursed, filthy poison oozes out on the shore too -
… {showing letter} Here it is! It proves the presence of decomposing organic matter in the water – it is full on infusoria. The water is absolutely dangerous to use, either internally or externally.
Despite this, the initial response comes as him saving the Baths following the “error” of the establishment of not getting the water from the more expensive source above tanneries at Mölledal, and finding allies in local householder organizations, and the town newspaper.

One of the more “modern” aspects here is that the newspaper staff is rather radical, and happy to have a go at the establishment. They essentially goad Dr. Stockmann into more and more incendiary rhetoric, and more heated encounters with his brother.

However, the “powers that be” in the town do not want to throw “good money after bad” to fix the problem, and do everything they can to suppress the information, and reframe the argument in terms of the Baths closing and the town losing not only all the forecasted revenue, but their investment as well. Bit by bit, the opinions are turned, and rather be the savior of the town (for bringing up the dangers of the current situation), Dr. Stockmann is made “the enemy”, a dangerous person who is bent on destroying what they have.

Even his staunchest allies are turned … the newspaper is faced with being shut out from the only available printing facilities, and a sea captain that has provided meeting space, etc., to air the health concerns over the Baths finds himself without a ship, pressure having been put on his employers. Dr. Stockmann's family is targeted: his daughter, the school teacher, is suddenly relieved of her positions, and his young sons sent home from school, because they had become a source of disturbance via constant attacks by the other students. Their house is subjected to stoning (breaking out most of the glass in the windows), and his wife's father-in-law (who owns one of the tanneries at Mölledal) writes her and the children out of his will.

Again, Dr. Stockmann is hardly a loveable character … as all this is going on he only becomes more belligerent, and more extreme. Rather than being a doctor serving the community, or a crusader after its best interests, he turns on nearly everybody:
The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies agains which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk or the stupid? I don't imagine that you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord! – you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones!
The last part involves the phrase “does not dare do otherwise”, in the face of public opinion. This comes up in an eviction notice, but is the spun out by Dr. Stockmann as the reaction of all those in conflict with the establishment. It is, perhaps, the last sane bit left to him, as he circles down to the point of declaring him the strongest man in town, if not the world, because the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.

An Enemy of the People is a fascinating, fast (under 100 pages) read. If the above sounds interesting to you, consider picking it up. Your best bet is finding this on-line, as its meager $2.50 cover price makes it a hard economic proposition for the brick-and-mortar stores … and it might just save you shipping charges on one of those orders.

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