Was Ibsen an enemy of the people?

To the Chichester Festival Theatre to see Hugh Bonneville in Ibsen’s An Enemy of The People. The performance was flawless and attracted long-lasting applause. I recommend a visit to see it either here or when it transfers to the West End theatre. But despite the high quality of the production, I was left with a curious ambivalence about the subject of the play – whistleblowing – and how Ibsen chose to handle it.

For those who haven’t seen it, the basic story of Ibsen’s play is the plot of “Jaws”. Instead of a seaside resort preparing for summer visitors, we have a town’s spa baths, preparing for tourists coming for their health.  Instead of a Sherriff with a conscience who wants to protect lives, we have Dr Tomas Stockmann (Bonneville) who is concerned about sanitation and health.  Instead of a killer shark, with a taste for human flesh, we have a lab report which says the water supply of the baths is contaminated.

Last year some Spa visitors contracted diseases such as typhoid and Stockmann thought they had brought the disease with them. This year, to make sure, Stockmann takes samples of the water and submits them for analysis. The lab report says the water  “is full of infusoria ” and is “absolutely dangerous to use, either internally or externally.”

Stockmann feels it his duty to blow the whistle, to protect visitors. He wants to close the baths and put in a new water supply. But, of course, once word gets around that the baths are unsafe, no visitors will come. Stockmann’s determination to publicise the dangers and close the town baths puts him on a collision course with the Mayor (his brother, Peter Stockmann) and town council, the local newspaper and local property owners.

They all think that if the crisis is badly handled, the town’s reputation as a spa will be permanently damaged and that major engineering works Stockmann demands will cost 100,000 Krone – a bill that local taxpayers will have to pay. They argue for keeping the nature of the crisis quiet and seeking some less expensive solution. If the crisis is handled properly, they think, then public anxiety will be minimised and the town can still keep its reputation as a health spa. They are in favour of restricting news of Dr Stockmann’s report. The editor of the local paper weasels out of his original promise to publish the report and refuses to carry the story – even as a paid advertisment.

Stockmann reacts angrily to this. He thinks the mayor and town authorities are trying to gag him, and are corruptly conspiring to keep visitors coming even though people’s health could be at risk. Dr Stockmann calls a public meeting at which he plans to make his scientific report public.

The meeting goes badly. It is hijacked by the Mayor and town council and Stockmann is effectively prevented from speaking about pollution.  In the end he gives up all thought of making public his lab report and instead launches into a tirade against – well, more about that in a moment.

The town council and citizens who have gathered to hear their GP speak are outraged by his remarks and some try to physically attack him. The meeting decides that Stockmann is now “An enemy of the people” and is fair game. The meeting erupts into violence and destruction and he and his family only just escape home. But the mob follows and his windows are broken by stones.

He is dismissed from his position as Doctor to the Town Baths. His brother tells him that no-one will be his patient any more, that his living as GP is ended. The landlord gives the Stockmanns notice to quit their rented house and his daughter is dismissed from her position as a teacher at the town school.

Although the Stockmanns have lost everything, there is an upbeat ending of sorts because Dr Stockmann declares himself to have become stronger than ever through his dedication to the truth, to the freedom to speak out and from being isolated by the petty herd. He refuses to give in to the herd mentality.

In the end he gathers his wife and children around him and tells them, “I have made a great discovery -that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

Stockmann has completed his transformation from a naïve, sometimes rather comic figure, to that of a tragic hero, brought down materially by the world but spiritually enriched by discovering himself and his inner strength.

 

The first thing to note about this play is that it is generally regarded as a riposte by Ibsen against his critics.  The previous year, 1881, his play Ghosts had been performed for the first time and had deeply shocked polite society. Ghosts is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality, and deals with religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia. Although the play is recognised as important today as one of the first plays to deal with real social issues, it was greeted with outrage at the time.  Ibsen answered these critics with An Enemy of the People, and there is little doubt that Dr Stockmann is meant to represent Ibsen himself in his clash with the petty people in authority who are too closed-minded to recognize original thinking.

The dramatic crisis of the play comes when Dr Stockmann tries to hold the public meeting to take his case directly to the people. When he is gagged by the town council, he gives up trying to deliver his scientific report, but instead embarks on an at-times wildly emotional tirade against the small-mindedness of society.

However, the language in which Ibsen/Stockmann frames this tirade is both baffling and somewhat shocking to a modern ear. First Stockmann tells his audience that he is not going to blame the Mayor and council for the problem.

“I will say no more about our leading men. And if anyone imagines, from what I have just said, that my object is to attack these people this evening, he is wrong-absolutely wide of the mark.”

When challenged to name the guilty men, Stockmann replies,

“I shall name them! That is precisely the great discovery I made yesterday. The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority-yes, the damned compact Liberal majority-that is it! Now you know! “

Getting carried away with his theme, Stockmann says,

“The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against 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 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 I (Uproar and cries.) Oh, yes-you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has might on its side-unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right-I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right. (Renewed uproar.)

Stockmann goes on to enrage the crowd even more by making a kind of bad-taste joke comparing humans to dogs. He says that ‘For many years I lived in a terrible hole up north; when I came to meet some of the people who lived there, thinly scattered among the rocks, I sometimes thought that what those poor stunted creatures up there really needed wasn’t a doctor like me, but a vet !’

Someone in the crowd calls out ‘We’re not animals, doctor.’

Stockmann replies:

But bless my soul, that’s exactly what you are, my friend – we’re the finest animals anyone could wish for … though you won’t find many pedigree animals even among us. Yes, there’s an enormous difference between the human poodles and the human mongrels.

Well, isn’t that true with all the rest of living creatures ? … look at dogs, they’re [near] to us human beings in lots of ways. First think of an ordinary mongrel – one of those filthy, ragged, plebeian curs that does nothing but run round the streets fouling the doorposts. Then put that mongrel beside a poodle with a pedigree going back through generations of famous ancestors – who’s been properly reared, and brought up among soft voices and music. D’you really think the poodle’s brain won’t have developed quite differently from the mongrel’s ?

At the time that Ibsen wrote Enemy of the People, the ideas of Eugenics were in their infancy, but had been enthusiastically take up by many writers and intellectuals, including Ibsen, Shaw, H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence and others.  Long before anyone had experienced or even conceived the horrors of Auschwitz, it was fashionable for the literati to flirt with the idea that they, as “superior men”, occupied a special place in society, above the common herd.

Shaw expressed his view that ‘Extermination must be put on a scientific basis if it is ever to be carried out humanely and apologetically as well as thoroughly . . . if we desire a certain type of civilisation and culture, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it.’  Shaw thought extermination a desirable thing because, ‘the majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive’.

Shaw approved of Ibsen’s drama, not least because of their shared vision of society debased by mass culture and of the superior individual who opposes it. In 1891 he wrote an essay entitled, The Quintessence of Ibsenism in which he described at length Ibsen’s recurring subject of the strong individual holding out against social hypocrisy.

Shaw also wrote of people being split into three categories:  the Philistine, the Idealist, and the Realist. Philistines comprise the bulk of society: they are often likeable, endowed with athletic ability, unpretending and credulous. The Idealist, says Shaw, is dangerous due to his desire to uphold and defend values such as duty and altruism at the expense of individual life and happiness. He is characterized by a “devotion to romantic illusions” such as that of honour and self-sacrifice and the “plausible” excuses with which he seeks to justify the extremes of his conduct (which invariably consist of an “attack on the nonconformist”.

The Realist is often cynical, opinionated and characterised by independence because of his mistrust of others. Above all  the Realist is a skeptic. Realists include those who enjoy shocking conventional and orthodox sensibilities, those who are the disillusioned, and the Nature Worshipers who acknowledge the power of nature and its influence.

Ibsen’s heroes then are usually Realists who events pit against the Philistines and Idealists of society and this is the role of Dr Stockmann. It also explains Stockmannn’s contention that “the majority are always wrong” – the majority being Philistines and Idealists.

This kind of talk is completely lost on modern audiences. Arthur Miller mounted a production of the play on Broadway in 1950, but he cut out all the eugenics-inspired dialogue, saying that, “ in light of genocide, the holocaust that has swept our world on the wings of the black ideology of racism, it is inconceivable that Ibsen would insist today that certain individuals are by breeding, or race, or “innate” qualities superior to others or possessed of the right to dictate to others.”

In his analysis of the play, Dr Greg Garrard  wryly observes of Miller’s cuts, “So not only does his adaptation transform Stockmann into an unambiguous moral and existential hero, but Ibsen himself is given a posthumous pardon and allowed to join the postwar liberal consensus.”

If this tirade by Stockmann is Ibsen’s riposte, why did he choose to deliver it in such an intemperate and provocative way? Ibsen was an immensely sophisticated and gifted intellectual – why did he not employ reason and logic to demolish his enemies?  Why make them a present of this ill-judged elitist rant?

What is even stranger is that Ibsen has deliberately depicted Dr Stockmann throughout the play as being rather naïve – sometimes comically so. When, in Act 1,  he announces his intention of disclosing that the baths are unsafe, he expects to be regarded as a public benefactor.  He even modestly tells the newspaper editor that he doesn’t want any kind of torchlight parade or financial reward, it’s enough  that he has done his duty.

If this play, and this key speech at the public meeting, are Ibsen’s riposte to his critics then it is hard to imagine a more ill-considered, or immature response. Stockmann comes across – both to his fellow citizens and to us the audience – as no better than a teenager refusing to clean up his room on the grounds that he is superior and hence above such menial matters.

It is mainly this speech and the final act that follows that made me feel so ambivalent about the play and to wonder about Ibsen’s motives. His theme is almost identical to that of jaws: the danger that will ruin livelihoods and drive trade away; the man of conscience who wants to keep people safe; the council and shopkeepers who are afraid of publicity and seek to make light of the problem and to hush matters up, their commercial self-interests over-ruling public health.

But there is one distinctive difference between the stories of Ibsen and Jaws author Peter Benchley. The great white shark is undoubtedly a clear and present danger to anyone and everyone who bathes in the waters of Amity. Go into the water swimming and you’re likely to be attacked. The threat is real to anyone who has eyes to see.  The townspeople of Amity are closing their eyes to the truth that is in front of them.

But the problem identified by Dr Stockmann is a little different – not just in one, but in several ways. The first is that the scientific analysis of microorganisms in the public water supply was still in its infancy in 1881. Louis Pasteur had demonstrated that putrefaction was caused by infusoria [microorganisms] only 20 years before. It was not a subject that the townspeople could be expected to know about. The term infusoria was ill-defined and used to cover bacteria, spores, and other microscopic forms of life.  Some of these are harmful, other are not.

Dr Stockmann dogmatically asserts that the water supply is “absolutely dangerous” but the previous year only a few people were taken ill from among presumably hundreds or thousands who visited the baths. It is hardly surprising that the townspeople  were unconvinced by his report. He used scientific jargon likely to be unfamiliar to them. Stockmann made no attempt to translate his findings to them or to quantify the true nature of the danger. And common sense must have suggested to them that the waters couldn’t be that dangerous – only a few people had been affected and – so far as we know – no-one died. In fact, for all we, or Stockmann, knew, the few who became ill might well have been infected before leaving home as he had originally assumed.

So Stockmann’s dogmatic absolutism in the name of science must have seemed an over-reaction to his fellow townspeople, especially when so much was at stake. At the very least, Stockmann’s lab report should have been treated as reason for more detailed analysis, further research backed by a cautious approach – not good reason for pressing the panic button, ruining the town and its livelihood.

The fact that Stockmann – and presumably Ibsen –take it for granted that a lab report from a medical doctor should be received by the community as holy writ that cannot conceivably be challenged is another aspect of the nineteenth century love affair of intellectuals with all things scientific as representing absolute truth. In reality, had the fictional Dr Stockmann researched his subject more thoroughly he would have discovered that as long ago as 1850, Dr John Snow had used chlorine to disinfect the water supply to combat the famous London cholera epidemic. Chlorination would have been a remedy that was quick, effective, and relatively cheap to implement.

Secondly, Stockmann may have been a little unworldly as a medical man, but he must have realised that his report would seriously damage the industry of his own community. Any normal person would have felt some sense of responsibility and would be keen to work with people to find a cost-effective solution that would not blacken the town’s reputation.  After all, the existence of disease microorganisms was not the fault of the mayor and council any more than it was the fault of the Doctor. Any reasonable man would have wanted to help his community, not attack it: to co-operate, not antagonise.

Stockmann’s response, smug, self-congratulatory, thinking only of the paper he will publish and the rewards that others will wish to shower him with for his scientific insight, turning to outrage and horror when others fail to see things his way – strongly suggest to me the responses of a man on the autism spectrum. And if Ibsen intended them to somehow represent his own response to a world unheeding of his genius, then it suggests that he, too, may have suffered from this disorder.

Given all these ambivalencies, I’m not at all clear what Ibsen was saying with this narrative. That scientists must be more reasonable if they wish to influence the community? That becoming medically qualified can give some men delusions of grandeur? Or that tradespeople are greedy and heartless and only science has people’s welfare at heart?

Or is his message really that a few bold and original thinkers (like Henrik Ibsen) are responsible for society’s progress and the rest of us are a herd of pea-brained mediocrities who merely follow their lead, and hence who should pay attention to them?

One final point to notice here is that Ibsen’s title is ambiguous. The phrase an “enemy of the people” can be interpreted to mean an honest individual whose devotion to inconvenient truths has caused the people to turn on him – to blame the messenger for the bad news.

But it can also mean an individual who despises the mediocrity and self-serving blindness of the majority and, as the only individual with the intelligence and courage to perceive the truth, sees the people as his enemy.

If Ibsen’s Enemy Of The People was his answer to his critics, was his play intended to be understood in this sense? Was his riposte that his vision was superior to his critics who were mere Lilliputians trying to bind a giant figure to their commonplace will?

It is only fair to add that, whatever else he was, Ibsen did have a well-developed sense of humour. When Dr Stockmann is attacked by the mob at his public meeting, he tears his trousers while making his escape. He bemoans the loss with what is perhaps the most wonderful piece of campaign advice ever offered:

“Never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.”

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