January 19, 1998: Ibsen, An Enemy of the People

Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, in a new version by Christopher Hampton; National Theatre / Olivier.

The huge, deep stage of the Olivier and its great revolve are pressed into full service in this vigorous, well-focused revival with Ian McAllen as Doctor Stockmann. Our vantage point was high in the circle, but the complex polyscenic structure on the stage sometimes seemed as tall as we were high. The scenes represented included the Stockmann house — both parlor and dining room, the newspaper office, and the hall where the public meeting is held late in the play. In fact, these scenes are structurally related physically; the action moves with exceptional fluidity from exterior to interior and back again, the revolve sometimes moving slowly as the scene progresses. The background of multiple roofs of townhouses, set just below the rim of high hills, and with a sky full of constantly moving, sometimes menacing clouds, gave an unparalleled sense of unity to the whole production. This was a living, breathing town, whose inhabitants were all thrown together and whose individual actions could not but affect everyone around them.
The play moves with steadily mounting effect. The central, driving force is of course Doctor Stockmann himself, played by an actor seemingly ideally suited for the role. McKellan’s Stockmann is always at full throttle, intense, articulate, and as clear-sighted about issues of moral integrity as he is near-sighted about his own character and the impact it has on other people. The translator, Christopher Hampton, points out the frequency with which the Norwegian word “tøre” — to dare — is used in the play (even more so than in Hedda Gabler). The most daring person here is Stockmann, who is ready to risk all he holds dear, including wife and family, in the service of a socially useful truth. By comparison, the rest of the townspeople, including the elders and the Mayor himself, Peter Stockmann, the brother of the central character, do not dare at all: they dare not go against public opinion. And when they encounter someone who does dare so, their vindictiveness and vengefulness are swift and merciless — and catastrophic. Stockmann  seems constantly surprised at the constantly emerging cowardliness and craven capitulation of his fellow townspeople; this is a measure of his naïveté, but also of his idealism. Once he has discovered that the baths, a public facility for which he himself had the original idea, are being fed by bacteria-infested water likely to make people sick whether they drink it or bathe in it, it is simply a matter of common sense to him that this fact be announced to townspeople and that appropriate measures (whatever expense they might entail) be taken to clean things up. He cannot anticipate the great extent to which vested interests in the baths’ financial well-being might be opposed to the revelation of facts that might result in the closure of the baths for upwards of two years while extremely expensive measures are taken to rid the waters of the bacteria they are carrying. And so Stockmann plunges in, full steam ahead, and is morally outraged when the newspaper editor and the elders and even his own brother the mayor rise up in opposition to him, and then do all in their power to bring him down and silence him.
But Stockmann, for all his naïveté and rampant idealism, has both the physical courage and moral courage of his convictions. He stays the course and does not go to America or even leave town.
Ibsen wanted to call the play a comedy; one thinks it may pass for comedy in Norwegian theaters. But there is an authentic, if thoroughly Ibsenite, happy ending. Stockmann, his family still around him, moves from the ruins of his vandalized house to the very top of the scene structure, in a kind of do-it-yourself apotheosis, and there proclaims his tireless determination to stick things out. His is an indefatigable spirit, and we sense that he may at length prevail. Meanwhile, Ibsen’s theme has played itself out. Stockmann has said to his brother, in one of the more climactic moments late in the play, “You are the most despicable scum I have ever encountered.” We feel the truth of this, even if we smile a little inwardly at how long it has taken Stockmann to assess his own brother’s character correctly.
The acting is strong and articulate throughout. The acoustics in the Olivier are far superior to those of the Barbican, with the result that almost every word is legible, even in the reaches of the Circle. I especially liked Lucy Whybrow as the Stockmann’s daughter Petra, and Ralph Norsek as Morten Kill, the tannery owner and Katerine Stockmann’s foster father, who mercilessly puts the screws to Stockmann when he is already at almost his lowest point.
You can see what a brilliant craftsman Ibsen is in this, how carefully planned the dramatic action is, and how ruthlessly carried out. Play and production serve one another here as total allies: everything is clear, swift, compelling, and as “natural” as Ibsen himself might have wished. I have a vivid image of Ian McKellan in my mind, hair flying, arms waving, body turning in passionate indignation at yet another bit of evidence of the perfidy, hypocrisy, and craven conformity of other men. It will be a long time before I forget this production And at the moment I feel moved to buy a copy of Hampton’s text and compare it with Arthur Miller’s version of some half a century back, to see what points in common it might have.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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