I first read An Enemy of the People when I was in high school and I can recall being quite moved by it. Since the phrase “enemy of the people” has been bandied about in the news lately, I thought this would be an excellent time to revisit the play. Would it be as poignant as I remembered, or would I discover that the brain of a teenager is too unsophisticated to appreciate Norwegian drama and that I’d missed the nuance?
The plot is pretty much as I remembered. Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the Medical Officer of a small town’s Municipal Baths, a tourist spot that drives the local economy. Dr. Stockmann discovers that the baths are actually polluted due to run-off from the town’s tannery and thinks the town and the mayor (Stockmann’s brother) are going to be relieved and grateful that he’s discovered the problem before any serious damage has been done. Peter Stockmann, the mayor, sees this discovery as a major threat to the town’s economy and pressures Dr. Stockmann to retract his statements. When Dr. Stockmann refuses, the mayor effectively turns the town and the press against him, designating him “an enemy of the people.”
Seems pretty straightforward: industry and economics vs. science and health. In Act I, mayor Peter Stockmann boasts about how the Baths will become the focus of the town’s municipal life, “Money has been flowing in. . .Houses and landed property are rising in value every day.” “And unemployment is diminishing,” adds Hovstad, the editor of The People’s Messenger, the local newspaper. Enter Dr. Stockmann to burst their bubble and declare their pride and joy a pest-house, “The whole bath establishment is a whited, poisoned sepulcher, I tell you–the gravest possible danger to public health! 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 shores too.” The doctor certainly isn’t mincing his words!
Initially it seems that the press is going to stand behind Dr. Stockmann (“The liberal-minded independent press is going to see that you do your duty”), but once they learn the fiscal impact of the situation–that the baths will have to close for two years to repair the damage, to the tune of thousands of dollars in municipal funds–they start questioning whether they maybe backed the wrong horse. Dr. Stockmann then appeals directly to the people, who are also more persuaded by the economic collapse of the town than they are the idea that maybe some tourists will get sick. Dr. Stockmann ends up an outcast, though he vows to stay in town and do all he can to fight the system. The little guy is crushed but he won’t stay down!
Well, yes and no. Perhaps instead of big oil vs. environmentalism, which is the most obvious modern-day parallel, Ibsen may have actually been playing up pragmatism vs. idealism. I’ll admit I’m idealistic at heart, but the way Dr. Stockmann approaches this situation is maddening. Imagine a conservationist walking into Exxon Mobil offices and saying, “Great news, guys! We found out that your product is poisoning millions of people, but don’t worry we can fix it and it will only cost you $8 trillion!” (Wait, has that happened already?)
Dr. Stockmann has no sense of how the world works, which is his downfall. At one point he pleads with his friends to make sure there isn’t too much fuss over what he has done for the town–no big dinners or celebrations in his honor, please! (Exxon Mobil guys, no need to thank me! All in a day’s work!) And then there’s Dr. Stockmann’s screed against the masses, in which he questions whether “the common folk, the ignorant and incompetent element in the community, have the same right to pronounce judgment and to approve, to direct and to govern, as the isolated, intellectually superior personalities in it?” He doubles down by comparing the intellectual elite to pure-bred animals, “Do you not think the poodle’s brain is developed to quite a different degree from that of the cur? Of course it is!” Holy eugenics, I didn’t see that coming! How did I miss that in high school? To be fair to myself, it’s possible I had read a version adapted by Arthur Miller, in which the American playwright cleaned up some of Ibsen’s less democratic ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, overall I do support Dr. Stockmann and his dedication to what is right and true vs. what is most convenient to the economy of the town. But idealism without pragmatism will never get very far, I’m afraid. There’s a modern lesson in that for all of us idealists.