Thursday, 11 December 2003

Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People (1882)

Translation: Eleanor Max-Aveling
Edition: Heinemann, 1907
Review number: 1203

In most of his plays, Ibsen's major concern seems to be the depiction of hypocrisy. It is possible to expand this obvious idea into something which is an important part of even more of his works - he was interested in the relationship between the public and private aspects of people's personalities. Thus in Peer Gynt, the central character is unable to repress his inner childlikeness and rebels against developing an outer shell of an acceptable adult; Hedda Gabler, in the play bearing her name, is similarly unwilling to accept the changes society requires of her as a newly married woman; and in Brand an iron hard Puritan begins with his inner and outer selves in harmony but has his certainty chipped away by the events that unfold in the play. In An Enemy of the People, however, the central character is one whose inner and outer selves are the same and remain so throughout, while the hypocrites around him seek to make him compromise and then, when he refuses, try to destroy him and his reputation.

Dr Stockmann lives in a provincial Norwegian town (they continued to provide the setting for many of Ibsen's plays even after he moved to Italy), and was one of the main instigators of a plan to build a therapeutic baths, turning the town into a (hopefully soon to be fashionable) spa. The baths have recently been completed, but Stockmann has learnt that cost-cutting in the building has meant that the water supply is contaminated. For the long term good of the town, he wants to see the baths closed down and the water supply improved before a patient becomes seriously ill, causing a scandal. However, the leading men of the town refuse to listen, thinking only of the short term financial damage this would cause. (They are not so much to blame for this as a modern audience might think, as the idea of disease carrying bacteria invisible to the naked eye was far less well established in 1882, and was probably something of a novelty to a provincial capitalist.)

Of all the characters in Ibsen's plays, Stockmann is the one most frequently cited as a self-portrait. There are certainly many aspects of the character which match up with Ibsen's perception of himself. An example is the best known line from the play ("The minority is always right"), in which Stockmann declares that he will always be in the minority not to say that he is contrary in nature but that he is the kind of progressive who is always ahead of the majority, so that he will have moved on by the time they have caught up with his views. In fact, Ibsen apparently deliberately made the character of this man who was to put forward his own ideas as unlike himself as possible to increase the impact of what he says; he is, for example, exuberant where Ibsen himself was rather melancholic.

The play itself was wrtten in part as a response to the criticism heaped upon Ghosts, his previous drama, which had provoked a scandal that created the dramatist's international reputation. In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen turns what he considered the rotten centre of bouregois Norway into the metaphor or symbol or the corruption polluting the baths which are heralded as the heart of the town's future. Much of the central act, a town meeting addressed by Stockmann, was inspired by a particular remark made by fellow dramatist Bjornsen in a criticism of Ghosts, that the "majority always has right on its side".

This particular translation is one of the series made under the auspices of Ibsen fanatic William Archer, who oversaw the first English publications of many if not all of Ibsen's plays. (Indeed, several of the original Norwegian language versions were first published by Archer, so that Ibsen could take advantage of the British participation in international copyright treaties that Norway was not yet party to.) Many of these translations now appear stilted and wordy, but this one is still remarkably easy to read. I'm not sure it would work so well on the stage, since readability and performability are two quite different things.

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