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An Enemy of the People – Footnotes

Mar 12, 2024 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People include notes about the source of Ibsen’s plot, his attack on the integrity of the press, his pitting of progressive thinkers versus conservatives, and the controversy in Dr Stockmann’s tirade at the public meeting.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Sources for the story
According to Michael Meyer in his biography of Ibsen, the plot of An Enemy of the People had its origin in two real-life events. First, a German poet who Ibsen knew, told him that his father had been a medical officer at a spa in Germany in the 1830s, and that when he made public that there had been an outbreak of cholera, his house was stoned, and he was forced to flee the town.

A second possible source is the story of a chemist in Norway who mounted a ten-year campaign attacking the Christiania Steam Kitchens for neglecting the city’s poor. When he tried to speak at the annual general meeting of the Steam Kitchens, the chairman and the unruly crowd forced him to withdraw. Ibsen apparently read a report of this meeting in the press in February 1881.

Meyer also cites Ibsen’s admiration for an English member of Parliament named Charles Bradlaugh, who had been involved in the publication of a pamphlet advocating birth control, for which he was nearly imprisoned and barred from taking up his seat in Parliament when elected in 1880. He was repeatedly returned by the electorate in his constituency, but he was not permitted to enter Parliament until five years later.

Ibsen clearly took inspiration for his Dr Stockmann from these examples of real-life truth-tellers.

19th Century Spa Town of Bad Ems in Germany

Dagbladet, Swedish newspaper 1888

The integrity of the press.
As Kirsten and I discussed in the podcast, Ibsen took full aim in the play at what he saw as the moral cowardice of the press, based on his disappointment at their lack of support for his daringly radical play Ghosts.

We get the first hint that the local newspaper’s editorial integrity may be open to compromise, when they declare that they are not above publishing the mass-market fiction that Petra has been translating for them in order to maximise subscription numbers. The fickleness of their principles is confirmed when they buckle under commercial pressure and choose not to print the doctor’s article about the spa waters.

To drive his general point home, Ibsen also suggests a lack of personal integrity in the characters of the two journalists, Hovstad and Billing. First, he insinuates that Hovstad’s support for the Doctor is not solely based on principle, but is also motivated by the more prosaic fact that he fancies the doctor’s daughter, Petra. When he tells Petra how he feels, she is outraged at his debased motives.

It is then also revealed that his comrade Billing, at the same time as he professes to seek to bring “the whole feudal elite come tumbling down”, has applied for a job as a government official at the Magistrate’s office. He expediently seeks to join the very elite he attacks, and his excuses that he will change things from the inside are clearly lame. He’s looking out for number one.

The media clearly does not cover itself in honour in Ibsen’s ethical fable.

Progressives vs Conservatives
We talked in the podcast about how Ibsen sets up in the play a world where conservatives are aligned against those with more progressive ideas. The Doctor, for example, is described as always coming up with “new ideas”, and sharing these by writing articles for the newspaper. Whereas his brother, the Mayor defends the status quo: “the general public has no need whatsoever for new ideas. The public is best served by the good, old, accepted ideas it already has.” Rather pointedly, Ibsen underlines that the spa was actually the Doctor’s new idea in the first place. His brother and others then developed it, although as it now turns out, not safely.

The Mayor sets his stall out as staunch economic conservative from the start, his being delighted that the financial success of the spa will mean that the “burden of the poor rates on the propertied classes has been reduced”. The character of Aslaksen, the newspaper printer and head of the Property Owners Association, is also a figure who protects his interests above all else. As he says when he accedes that he cannot support the Doctor’s campaign: ““When a man’s got interests that need protecting, he can’t think about everything” – meaning any wider social concerns or principles.

For Ibsen, Aslaksen is a symbol of the inertia of the social status quo. Throughout the play his most defining characteristic is caution, as indicated by his repeated use of the term translated as “temperance”.  He is clearly an obstacle to change.

It must be said that Ibsen’s progressive characters, such as Dr Stockmann or the aspiring Mrs Alving in Ghosts, are generally heavily outnumbered by those who are happy to preserve their position and privilege in the status quo, including those who pretend otherwise, like the journalists. Ibsen no doubt saw himself as one of the lone progressive voices in a traditional world.

 

 

Dr Stockmann airs his views
In our conversation Kirsten described An Enemy of the People as a “problem play”. The most problematic elements are found in Dr Stockmann’s explosive tirade at the public meeting in Act 4, where he expresses a controversial political ideology which includes disdain for the common people and the consequent dangers of democracy. The doctor’s outburst is sparked by his painful disillusionment. He had believed that the “right-thinking public” would surely support him; that the “truth and the people will win this battle.” But when the public are so easily turned by their corrupt leadership, he is dismayed and bitter. He in turn lashes out in an extraordinary attack on “the solid majority”, who he says are “the most dangerous enemies to truth and freedom”. He goes further, categorising the majority as “stupid” and presenting his logic that rule by this majority cannot be right:
Who is it that constitutes the greater part of the population in a country? The intelligent people, or the stupid ones? I think we’d have to agree that stupid people make up a quite terrifying, overwhelming majority the world over. But never…can it be right for the stupid people to rule over the intelligent ones…The might is with the many, unfortunately – but not the right. The right is with myself and a few other solitary individuals. The minority is always in the right.” 

This is a view not too far from Ibsen’s own at the time, as he says in a letter in 1883: “I firmly believe that an intellectual pioneer can never gather a majority around him.” One presumes he identified himself as an intellectual pioneer. In his biography of Ibsen, Michael Meyer cited the possible influence on Ibsen of John Stuart Mill’s famous essay “On Liberty” published in 1859, which championed the primacy of the highly gifted individual over the “collective mediocrity” of the “mass” of “public opinion”.

Not to put too fine a point on Stockmann’s view of the stupidity of the public, it is one that we have seen expressed against the majority who voted for Trump or Brexit for example. Like in this play, perhaps they have also been misled by the lies of their leaders.

Thomas Ostermeier’s version of the doctor’s speech which is delivered so passionately by Matt Smith in the London production, and as drafted in the English text by British playwright, Duncan Macmillan, is a rousing catalogue of many of the commonly expressed concerns of our age. There are many piercingly potent phrases in the speech that capture the zeitgeist, albeit in a somewhat convoluted whole that culminates in his despair that “we are sleepwalking to oblivion”, and in his attack on “the liberal majority who upholds the status quo”.  His targeted rhetoric is very effective in touching a nerve with its contemporary audience, such that as Kirsten pointed out, the majority cheer him on, regardless of the insults he throws out at them. They are responding to the truth-teller, and overlooking his problematic attitude. Far from being the enemy of the people, he emerges as their champion. An ironic result I would suggest from Ibsen’s point of view.

Doctor Stockmann provoked a similar effect in another age and context. There is an extraordinary story of the Russian impresario Stanislavski performing the role of Stockmann in Petrograd in 1905, where the audience was so caught up in a revolutionary fervour by his cry to fight on, that they stormed the stage in solidarity. As Stanislavski explained, “An Enemy of the People became the favourite play of the revolutionists, despite the fact that Stockmann himself despised the majority and believed in individuals . . . But Stockmann protested, Stockmann told the truth, and that was enough.”

 

Matt Smith delivering Dr Stockmann’s tirade.
Duke of York’s Theatre, London
February 2023
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Konstantin Stanislavski
Courtesy of the Moscow Arts Theatre

The Texts
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