An Enemy of the People
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
An Enemy of the People, published in 1882, is Henrik Ibsen's response to the public reception of, and the critical assault upon, his preceding play, Ghosts (1881)—a play about sexual vice, moral corruption, and syphilis. Indeed, Ghosts turned Ibsen into a kind of enemy of the people. In Norway, the published edition of the play sold poorly and could find no theater to produce it. Ghosts was first performed by a touring company in Chicago and, when Ghosts opened in London, according to Peter Watts, writing in the Introduction to the Penguin edition of the play, reviewers called it "putrid" and an "open sewer." A reviewer in the Daily Telegraph is cited by George Bernard Shaw in The Quintessence of Ibsenism as calling Ibsen "an egotist and a bungler … A crazy cranky being." Thus, Dr. Stockmann, the protagonist of An Enemy of the People is a version of Ibsen himself. The playwright who uncovers social disease and corruption is represented as a physician who uncovers diseased water and social corruption, is vilified and yet persists in his mission to expose lies and corruption just as Ibsen continued to write probing dramas.
Although its plot so perfectly parallels Ibsen's own experience as the author of Ghosts, the plot of An Enemy of the People was actually based on several real and similar events. A Dr. Meissner was the Medical Officer at a health spa at Teplitz in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, in the 1830s. When cholera broke out
there, he issued a public warning and the guests, of course, all left. Rather than drawing praise, his action aroused the wrath of the townspeople. As in An Enemy of the People, they threw stones at his house. Meissner left the town. In 1880, a chemist in Norway's capitol, Oslo, then called Christiania, challenged the sanitary conditions of a steam kitchen, causing a public uproar and a meeting like the one in the fourth act of An Enemy of the People.
Ironically, unlike Ghosts, An Enemy of the People was a popular and critical success. An Enemy of the People is concerned not only with the problems of corruption and pollution but also with the problem of the relation between the individual and society; the tendency of a democracy to deteriorate into a mobocracy; and the likelihood for moral ideals to be pushed aside by the pressures of self-interest.
While there are several accurate standard translations of An Enemy of the People, many are somewhat stilted. In the edition referred to here, the play in a translation by Peter Watts is called A Public Enemy. It appears in Ibsen: Ghosts and Other Plays, published by Penguin Books in 1964. An adaptation by Arthur Miller can be found in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961, published by the Library of America in 2006.
Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in the small port town of Skien, Norway. His father, Knud Ibsen, was a prosperous merchant, his mother, Marichen Altenburg, a painter. The fortunes of the family took a downturn when Ibsen was around eight years old. Thus, Ibsen's childhood was marked by their poverty and the social ostracism they endured. When he was fifteen, Ibsen became a pharmacist's apprentice and began to write plays. At eighteen he fathered a child but abandoned both the woman, ten years his senior, and the child, and moved to Christiania, (now called Oslo) Norway's capitol city, in order to attend the university there. Instead, however, he dedicated himself to playwriting. His first plays appeared in 1850. Catiline was published under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme but was not performed. The Burial Mound, which also appeared in 1850, was staged unsuccessfully.
Between 1850 and 1865, when his play Brandt brought him to prominence, Ibsen wrote a number of plays, but gained no recognition. Of equal, if not more, importance for the education of the playwright, however, was the period of some dozen years beginning in 1851 that Ibsen served as a stage poet and stage manager at several of Norway's theaters. He wrote verse plays, not the realistic prose dramas he has become famous for, and he staged over 100 plays by other dramatists.
In 1858, Ibsen married Susannah Thoresen. Their only child, a son, Sigurd, was born in 1859. In 1864, Ibsen received a grant from the Norwegian government to travel and, with supplemental aid from the Norwegian writer, editor, and theater director Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), Ibsen left for Italy and remained abroad, living in Rome, Munich, and Dresden over the next twenty-seven years, returning to Norway sporadically.
Ibsen's most significant decision regarding his work occurred when he stopped writing psychological, philosophical, mythological and historical verse plays and began, with Pillars of Society (1877), writing prose dramas concerned with contemporary social issues, filled with gender, political and psychological conflicts. A Doll's House, a drama about a woman who becomes aware of the self-denial demanded of her—and all women—in the conventional Page 45 | Top of Article marriages of the nineteenth century, followed in 1879. Ghosts and An Enemy of the People were written shortly thereafter in 1881 and 1882, respectively. In 1884, Ibsen wrote The Wild Duck. After writing plays calling for dedication to honesty and truth, in The Wild Duck, Ibsen explored the problem of too obsessive a dedication to truth and honesty. Ibsen wrote seven more plays after The Wild Duck. They include The Master Builder (1892), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and one of the classic modern psychological dramas, Hedda Gabler (1890). After his last play, When We Dead Awaken (1899), a non-realistic meditation on the sacrifices an artist makes for the sake of his art, Ibsen suffered several strokes. The first impaired his ability to walk. The second, a year later, affected his ability to remember words. Watts recounts that Ibsen said to his son one day "Look what I'm doing," as he struggled with pencil and paper to write letters. "I'm sitting here trying to learn the alphabet—and I was once an author." Ibsen died in Christiania, Norway on May 23, 1906.
Within the comfort of a prosperous bourgeois household, dinner has been eaten and Dr. Stockmann and his two boys are out for an after-dinner walk. The table has not yet been cleared. Mrs. Stockmann is serving some cold roast beef to Billing, a reporter for the People's Herald who has stopped by. Peter Stockmann, her husband's brother and the mayor of the town, enters. Peter refuses Mrs. Stockmann's invitation to have something to eat. Mr. Hovstad, the editor of the People's Herald enters, hoping to discuss an article Dr. Stockmann had written for the paper, concerning the health spa that has just been built and the prosperity it is expected to bring to the town.
Dr. Stockmann returns from his walk with his sons Eylif and Morten, bringing Horster, a good-natured young ship's captain, with him. He greets his brother warmly and invites him to stay for a toddy. The mayor declines, saying he must go. Doctor Stockmann remains impervious to his brother's sourness and talks of the excitement of living in the bustle of a big city, especially after spending so many years in poverty in a small, out-of-the way town in the north. He asks his wife if the mailman has come yet. She says "no."
Peter turns the conversation to the Baths, remarking that Hovstad mentioned he was going to print Dr. Stockmann's piece on them. Dr. Stockmann recalls the essay and says that he would prefer that the piece not be printed yet. Peter accuses Dr. Stockmann of showing insufficient regard for Society and of stubbornly refusing to subordinate himself to Society. They argue and Peter leaves in anger. Mrs. Stockmann mildly rebukes her husband for angering his brother, but the doctor says he did not do anything to him to cause his temper to flare, adding that the mayor-should not expect Dr. Stockmann to "give him Page 46 | Top of Article an account of things before they happen." Mrs. Stockmann asks what there is to give an account of Dr. Stockmann does not answer but wonders why the postman has not come yet.
Hovstad, Billing, and Captain Horster emerge from the dining room, having finished their meal, and join Dr. Stockmann for conversation, cigars, and toddies. Captain Horster tells them he is sailing to America. Billing remarks that, consequently, he won't be able to vote in the local elections. Horster says he does not follow politics and knows nothing about them. Billing says he ought to vote anyhow because "Society's like a ship—every man must put his hand to the helm." Horster, the seafarer, retorts, "That might be all right on land, but it wouldn't work at sea."
Dr. Stockmann turns the conversation to tomorrow's edition of the People's Herald and Hovstad remarks that he intends to print the doctor's piece praising the baths. Stockmann surprises him by telling him he'll have to delay printing it without explaining why. Their conversation is interrupted when Stockmann's grownup daughter, Petra, enters. Amid greetings and offers of a toddy, Petra hands Dr. Stockmann the letter he is waiting for that she got from the postman as she was leaving that morning. Stockmann takes the letter and goes into his study to read it.
Petra is a teacher who dedicates her life to her work. Her younger brother Morten says that he has no intention of working when he grows up. Rather he will be a Viking. When his brother, Eylif, objects that he would have to be a heathen in that case, Morten agrees and Billing approves, much to Mrs. Stockmann's chagrin. Petra uses the contretemps to argue that their world is full of hypocrisy. "At home you have to hold your tongue, and at school you have to stand up and tell lies." When she says she wishes she had the money to start her own school, Captain Horster offers her the large empty dining room in his house for a school. Hovstad, remarks that she is more likely to be a journalist than a teacher and asks her if she has yet translated the English novel he intends to serialize in the paper. She says she has not, but will.
Emerging from his study Dr. Stockmann waves the letter excitedly and proclaims that he has "news that'll surprise the town." His hunch has turned out to be true. He wishes Peter were there to hear what he has learned. A sample of the water from the Baths that he sent to the university laboratory to be tested, just as he expected, shows the water is contaminated. That accounts for the several cases of illness that broke out among visitors to the baths last year. Polluted waste water from the tannery just above the Baths seeps into the stream that provides the water for the spa. Mrs. Stockmann says, "What a blessing you've found it out in time!" Stockmann points out that the conduits will have to be re-laid to channel the water to avoid the tannery. He had been silent until he had sure evidence, he explains, because he did not want to cause a panic. Now he feels vindicated by the report because he had argued, against his brother, that the conduits originally ought to have been laid as he now sees they must be. Hovstad promises to print an article in the paper about the discovery. Dr. Stockmann gives his paper arguing that dangerous infusoria contaminate the springs to Petra to have their maid deliver it to his brother. Stockmann is heady with the excitement of being the savior of the town and imagines all the glory that will be his because of his discovery.
The next morning Mrs. Stockmann hands her husband a letter from his brother. The mayor writes that he is returning the article and that he is coming over. Mrs. Stockmann is worried about how Peter will take the news of the discovery, fearing he will be jealous that it was Dr. Stockmann and not himself who found out that the water is contaminated. She advises her husband to share the honor of the discovery publicly with his brother. Dr. Stockmann agrees, saying that it does not matter to him, "as long as I can get things put right."
Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law, having heard the news about the baths from Petra, stops by. He does not believe that what Dr. Stockmann says about the baths is true, but is delighted, nevertheless, believing that Dr. Stockmann is playing a trick on his brother and the other leading citizens of the town. As Morten Kiil is leaving, Hovstad enters, and Kiil is even more delighted. He thinks that Hovstad is in league with Dr. Stockmann and that Stockmann has the power of the press behind him. For Hovstad, the corruption of the purity of the water is a metaphor for the corrupt politics of the town's governing clique. Hovstad hopes to bring the clique down through the scandal that will ensue regarding the mismanagement Page 47 | Top of Article of the construction of the baths and help put his own party, the Liberals, in power. Dr. Stockmann defends the governing circle, arguing that the town owes them a lot. Hovstad concedes that, and assures Dr. Stockmann that when he writes against the bureaucrats, he will acknowledge that, but that he is motivated in his campaign by his belief in democracy. Hovstad wishes to help "emancipat[e] the humble, down-trodden Masses!"
Aslaksen, the paper's printer, enters. He has come to offer Dr. Stockmann his support. It will be a good thing, he says, for Dr. Stockmann to have "a solid majority" behind him. Stockmann is grateful but also a little puzzled. He says that redoing the Baths ought to be a routine matter. Aslaksen advises him that the authorities may bristle at taking suggestions from "outsiders" and offers to "arrange a little demonstration." Aslaksen says the small tradesmen support Dr. Stockmann because the Baths are important to the town as the source of its economic prosperity.
When Aslaksen leaves, Hovstad expresses contempt for his moderation and promises that his support will be defined more sharply than Aslaksen's. Hovstad promises to use the paper in case the mayor resists Dr. Stockmann's attempt to re-engineer the baths. Under those conditions, should he face opposition, Dr. Stockmann agrees to let Hovstad print his report about the danger of the baths. Hovstad leaves.
Dr. Stockmann is feeling a sense of security and pleasure at being "in complete agreement with one's fellow-townsmen" and of "doing something of such great practical value." In this spirit he greets Peter. The mayor is not in the same high spirits as his brother. He talks of the expense of reengineering the Baths. The project will take two years. Surrounding towns will use the bad publicity to establish themselves as tourist attractions for those who seek curative waters. Above all, the mayor declares, he is not convinced by Dr. Stockmann's report. The doctor, as usual, Peter asserts, is exaggerating. Rather than painting Dr. Stockmann as a hero, Peter warns his brother that he will be responsible for the ruin of the town. Dr. Stockmann counters that Peter is upset because he is responsible for where the conduits for the baths were laid, having ignored Dr. Stockmann's advice. The mayor concedes there is some truth in that, but quickly reverts to arguing that maintaining the appearance of his authority is necessary for the good of the town, as is opening the new spa. The mayor accuses his brother of not being motivated by devotion to the truth but by a warped personality. He says that Dr. Stockmann is not able to respect authority, that he is constitutionally rebellious. He warns his brother that pursuing his course will have damaging effects on his wife and children, that he will be dismissed from the board of directors of the Baths and that his reputation as a doctor will be tarnished. He orders Dr. Stockmann not to release his report and demands, since he has already released it to the newspaper, that he write another report stating that after further and deeper investigation, he has reached the conclusion that his earlier report was mistaken and that he has full confidence in the board of directors of the Baths to take any steps necessary to deal with whatever minor problems might exist. Dr. Stockmann refuses. The mayor reiterates that there will be terrible consequences for Dr. Stockmann and his family if he continues in his opposition. But the mayor's assertions only harden the doctor's resolve. Petra supports her father wholeheartedly. Mrs. Stockmann, although she knows her husband is right, is frightened, reminds him that the world is full of injustice, that they will again have to live in poverty. But the doctor, citing responsibility to his two boys, says he will not back down.
In the newspaper office Billing and Hovstad agree that Dr. Stockmann's report on the danger of the water strengthens their campaign against the mayor and they will keep at it until "the whole of this privileged class comes crashing down." Dr. Stockmann enters and tells them to go ahead and print his report on the danger of the baths. Since his argument with his brother that morning, the issue, although still centered on the baths, has taken on greater scope for him. It has become a matter of overturning corrupt practices and replacing entrenched power with fresh ideas.
The newspaper men's motives in supporting Dr. Stokmann are tainted with self-interest. Aslaksen is afraid of offending the authorities. He limits his criticism to cautious banalities. Billing, despite his rebellious stance, is trying to get a political position for himself. Hovstad is willing to compromise his ideals for the sake of the paper's circulation and to make the paper's Page 48 | Top of Article politics acceptable to its readers by serializing an English novel with the simplistic attitude that God rewards those who do good and makes the works of evildoers end badly. When Petra returns the book, refusing to translate it because it is reactionary, he defends his duplicity. His support for her father, moreover, is largely motivated by his attraction to her. Petra leaves the newspaper office in anger. Aslaksen comes into Hovstad's office to inform him that the mayor has entered the offices by the back door so as not to be seen and wishes to speak to him.
As it did the last time the mayor appeared, the direction of the play changes. The mayor's confrontation with his brother redefined and sharpened the conflict between them. Now, he will subvert the wills of Dr. Stockmann's allies. He will get them in his power and make an alliance against Dr. Stockmann in order to counter the idea that the baths are contaminated. He explains that it will be expensive to re-engineer the baths, that in order to do it, as mayor, he will "raise a municipal loan" and tax the working people, the shopkeepers, and the small homeowners since the shareholders of the baths refuse to give any more money for the baths. To support Dr. Stockmann's report under those circumstances, the newspaper would have to support raising of taxes. Realizing that reporting that the baths are unhealthy will hurt the town and themselves financially, the three agree that Dr. Stockmann's report may be incorrect and that Dr. Stockmann himself is in the wrong for promoting it. They agree to print the mayor's statement about the safety of the baths rather than Dr. Stockmann's scientific report explaining their toxicity. As the mayor is fishing in his pockets for his statement, Dr. Stockmann returns to the newspaper office as he said he would to read the proofs of his article.
Peter hides in another room, leaving his ceremonial mayor's hat and cane in plain sight in the office. Dr. Stockmann finds that Aslaksen and Hovstad, who had previously been cordial to him, are cold and dismissive. They say they are busy and haven't had the time to set his article yet. He volunteers to come back later, still believing he will be seen as a popular hero when his essay is printed. Before he can leave the office, his wife enters, having come to prevent his article from being printed for fear of the repercussions, but Dr. Stockmann dismisses her concern. About to leave, he notices Peter's mayoral hat and cane. He understands that Peter has come to sabotage him and win their support. He puts on the hat, and opening the door to the room where Peter is hiding, exposes him. Peter reenters, enraged at being discovered and mocked by his brother. The doctor's triumphant moment is short-lived. Aslaksen and Hovstad explain they will not print his report in the paper, that they do not dare to, no matter what, because it would offend public opinion if they did. Seeing the injustice, Mrs. Stockmann overcomes her anxiety about the consequences to her family and voices support for her husband. He pledges that he is not defeated, that if the paper will not print his essay, he will issue it as a pamphlet, or, better, he will rent a hall in town and read his paper publicly.
The setting is a room in Captain Horster's house. Dr. Stockmann is to give a public reading of his report. A group of townspeople have arrived early and gossip, revealing that they already believe Dr. Stockmann is in the wrong, particularly because no one in town except Horster would make a room available to him for the meeting. Slowly the room fills. Billing comes from the paper to cover the meeting, and Dr. Stockmann's whole family is there, too, to support him. The mayor is also present. As Dr. Stockmann begins to mount the platform to begin his reading, Aslaksen interrupts him saying that before they proceed they ought to elect a chairman for the meeting. Dr. Stockmann says there is no need, but Peter says there ought to be a chair, and the consensus is with him. Dr. Stockmann objects, pointing out that he has called the meeting only to read his paper. But the mayor argues that reading the paper "might possibly give rise to differences of opinion." Dr. Stockmann, not yet aware of the extent of the sabotage, capitulates.
Aslaksen is elected chair and then prevents Dr. Stockmann from reading his paper, calling on the mayor, instead, to address the assembly. Peter inflames the crowd, arguing that no one "would consider it desirable that unreliable or exaggerated statements as to the hygienic condition of the Baths and of the town should be spread abroad." He concludes, consequently, that Dr. Stockmann should not be allowed to read the report. He is followed by Hovstad, who repudiates his support for Dr. Stockmann. When Stockmann is finally permitted to speak, it is with the proviso that he say nothing about the condition of the Baths.
In his address, Stockmann does refer to the pollution of the Baths, but only in passing, as a way to move on to what he says he considers a worse problem, namely the opinion of the majority. Dr. Stockmann argues that the majority is never right. The minority of people, those who can see beyond what the mob can see are, in fact, in the right. Public opinion, Dr. Stockmann argues, is a coercive, ignorant, and destructive force. People, he argues, must be educated, must cultivate their reason and intelligence in order for valid democracy to exist. His fundamental condemnation is that his townsmen are willing to build their fortune on the fraud that the baths are safe when they are not. This position angers the crowd and they condemn Dr. Stockmann and censure him as a public enemy or enemy of the people. He is reviled by all, by those like Billing who have enjoyed his hospitality and those like his father-in-law, Morten Kiil, who utters a vague threat to the doctor because Stockmann has revealed that Kiil's tannery is one of the worst sources of pollution. The members of the audience on stage have become a mob and the act ends as they talk about storming Dr. Stockmann's house and breaking his windows.
It is the next morning in Dr. Stockmann's study. The windows are smashed. Dr. Stockmann is gathering the stones the mob has lobbed into the house. He will keep the stones and bequeath them to his sons, he tells his wife. The glazier will not come to repair the windows; the landlord sends a notice that the family is being evicted. Stockmann and his wife talk about moving but he says that mobs determine policies everywhere. Unexpectedly Petra returns home from school. She has been fired because the head of her school received three letters of complaint about her and her "advanced opinions." The only person not cutting the family is Captain Horster, who stops by to see how they are and to tell them that because he let Dr. Stockmann use his house for the meeting and saw him safely home afterwards, he has been removed from his position as a ship's captain. One thing common to all the rebuffs that have been suffered is that glazier, landlord, headmistress, and ship owner all said they regretted acting as they did but that they dared not act otherwise because of public opinion or their party affiliation.
As Captain Horster is telling the Stockmanns that he has an idea where they may go should they wish to leave the town, Peter Stockmann knocks at the door and is invited in. The doctor points out with bitter humor that it is chilly in the house and the mayor disingenuously apologizes "that it was not in my power to prevent the excesses of last night" when he was, after all, their architect. As if to prove his insincerity the mayor presents his brother with a notice of termination from the Board of Directors of the Baths and informs him, furthermore, that "the Householders's Association has drawn up a manifesto which they are circulating from door to door, urging all reputable citizens to refuse to employ you." The mayor advises his brother to leave town for six months and then return and tell the townspeople that he has taken time to weigh the matter carefully and wishes to apologize for his error regarding the Baths. Peter admits that would serve him and his cronies well and that he would be able to manipulate fickle public opinion in his brother's favor under those circumstances. Dr. Stockmann refuses to cooperate. The mayor says he has no right to jeopardize his family, but Dr. Stockmann counters that he has no right to participate in dirty and deceitful dealings.
Peter mentions that Mrs. Stockmann's father, Morten Kiil, is a very wealthy man and will be leaving a considerable amount of money to his daughter and grandchildren. Dr. Stockmann says he did not know his father-in-law was that rich but he is glad that his family will be provided for despite his own impoverished circumstances. The mayor tells his brother not to count on Kiil's fortune because he can change his will. Stockmann retorts that that is unlikely to happen since Kiil is delighted that Stockmann has given the directors of the Baths so much trouble. This remark affects Peter more profoundly than Stockmann would have expected. Something makes sense to Peter and he leaves, entirely severing his ties with the doctor. Morten Kiil enters, and it becomes clear what had incensed the mayor.
Since the Baths are said to be dangerous to health rather than curative, their value has collapsed. Morten Kiil has spent the morning buying up the shares in the Baths cheap with the money intended for his daughter and grandchildren. Everyone else has put pressure on Stockmann to recant, and he has resisted. Now Page 50 | Top of Article it is his father-in-law's turn. Since the polluted water comes mainly from his tannery, Kiil hopes to force the doctor to recant so that his (Morten Kiil's) name will be cleared. If Stockmann persists in his insistence that the Baths are unhealthy, the shares will have no value. If, on the other hand, he recants, the shares will become valuable. Thus the financial future of Dr. Stockmann's wife and children hinge on his decision. Kiil gives Stockmann until two o'clock to decide.
Hovstad and Aslaksen enter. Seeing Kiil, they assume that Dr. Stockmann's condemnation of the Baths was merely part of Kiil's scheme to lower the value of the shares in the Baths. They want a piece of the action. If Dr. Stockmann comes to terms with them and promotes the Baths, they promise to put the newspaper at his disposal and turn public opinion in his favor. Stockmann asks them what is in it for them and they tell him that the paper's financial health is shaky. They want him to subsidize the paper. If he refuses they will continue to vilify him. Enraged, Dr. Stockmann takes up his umbrella and brandishes it at them. His wife comes in, subdues him, and Aslaksen and Hovstad manage to make their escape from the house.
Dr. Stockmann sends a note to Morten Kiil refusing to participate in his scheme. He tells his wife that they will not leave the town, that he will write, using his pen against the corruption he has uncovered. Captain Horster offers to let the Stockmanns live in his house. As for his medical practice, Stockmann points out that he will still have his poor patients, the ones who do not pay and who most need his care. Vigorous with the righteousness of his cause, when his sons are sent home from school because other boys fought with them because of their father, Dr. Stockmann proclaims that they shall not go back, that he will teach them himself. He will grow them into "decent, independent men." He will open a school with Petra in Captain Horster's dining room where the meeting took place, and he will get other students, not from the middle class but from the poor, the street urchins. His wife, although she supports him, is nervous about the future. His daughter, Petra, has nothing but admiration for him. He himself feels unbeatably strong because he is standing alone, true to right principles, not swayed by corrupt self-interest or public pressure.
Aslaksen prints the local newspaper, People's Herald. He considers himself to be progressive politically but believes that radicalism must be tempered by moderation in all his opinions and actions. Aslaksen views the matter of the baths as a political issue rather than as a matter of public health, and he frames it as one needing his sober backing against the authorities, whom he believes must be moved to cooperate but must not be offended. He is, above all, however, entirely self-interested; he abandons Dr. Stockmann and supports opening the Baths, and suppressing the evidence of their bacterial infestation, when his self-interest is threatened. He serves as the chairman of the meeting at which Dr. Stockmann is vilified.
Billing is a reporter for the People's Herald. He is first a supporter of Dr. Stockmann but, like his colleagues on the newspaper, turns against Stockmann when his own self-interest is threatened. Billing presents himself as a disinterested outsider politically but he is actually positioning himself to secure a place on the town council.
Horster is fired from his job as the captain of a ship after he provides Dr. Stockmann with his house to use as a meeting hall. Although he claims to be an unpolitical man, Horster is independent and is guided by a sense of right and wrong. After the Stockmann family is left homeless, he offers to let them live in his house and after Petra is fired as a teacher, he offers to let her use his house as a school.
Hovstad is the editor of the People's Herald. At first, he supports Dr. Stockmann, but out of self-interest Hovstad later turns against him. Like the other newspapermen, Hovstad is a hypocrite. Hovstad reveals that he is willing to compromise his ideals for the sake of the paper's circulation and to make the paper's politics acceptable to its readers by serializing an English novel with the simplistic attitude that God rewards those who do good with success and makes the works of evildoers end badly. When Petra Stockmann returns the book, refusing to translate it and showing him its faults, he defends his duplicity. Page 51 | Top of Article Hovstad's support for her father is largely motivated by his desire for her.
Morten Kiil is Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law. He is the owner of the tannery responsible for polluting the waters. He is a spiteful man who buys up shares in the Baths at discount rates, after Dr. Stockmann's report of their unhealthiness has deflated the value of the Baths's stock. Kiil uses the money that was to be his daughter's inheritance to purchase the shares, and he hopes to force Dr. Stockmann into recanting his opposition in order to clear Kiil's own name and reputation for having been the source of the pollution. His initial delight in Dr. Stockmann's discovery of the pollution was the result of his desire to be revenged on the members of the town council for excluding him from sitting on it. The extent of his depravity is evident from the fact that he initially believes that Stockmann was simply inventing a hoax. Kiil projects his own disreputable character onto others.
See Peter Stockmann
Eylif is Dr. Stockmann's thirteen-year-old son. He seems to be more conventional than his brother, noting when his brother says he would rather not work and become a Viking, that he would then have to be a heathen.
Mrs. Katherine Stockmann
The doctor's wife, Mrs. Stockmann, is aware that her husband's ethical stand endangers his livelihood and, consequently his family's welfare. Although she tries to restrain him, when the town turns against him, she supports him. She is a generous housekeeper and is accustomed to feeding visitors at her table whenever they stop by.
Morten is Dr. Stockmann's ten year-old son. Both his boys are attacked by other boys because of their father's stand, and both are told to stay away from school for a while until the issue cools off. Morten seems to be more adventurous than his brother; he states that he does not wish to work when he grows up but to become a Viking.
Dr. Stockmann's brother, Peter Stockmann is the mayor of the town and the police chief. He is one of the major supporters of the baths despite their hazard to the patrons' health. He argues that there is no hazard, that his brother is just a crank. Peter is unscrupulous in his actions. He seems to be jealous of his brother. He is puritanical and miserly. Nevertheless, he has given the doctor financial help, but rather than out of the goodness of his heart, it was to keep up the family's appearance. He himself follows a frugal regimen and disapproves of his brother's generosity and the hospitality he provides to others. Although Peter actually sets himself above the good of society and manipulates others in order to achieve his will, he accuses his brother of being unable to subordinate himself to the social good.
Doctor Stockmann's daughter, Petra, is a school teacher. She strongly believes in her father's principles and stands up for him. She is fired from her teaching job for her loyalty to her father. She refuses to translate an English novel she considers reactionary. She seems to have been named after her uncle Peter, but she is unlike him; in contrast, she is steadfast, principled, and virtuous.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann
Dr. Stockmann is branded a public enemy when he discovers that the waters of the baths are polluted and poisonous and then insists that the baths cannot be advertised and reopened for clients. He is a good-spirited and generous man. He is a scientist whose loyalty is to the truth rather than to any political party or ideology. He has been poor and has had to struggle in order to feed his family. When the play opens, he is in a more comfortable position than he had been in in the past. Stockmann lives in town and his idea to build the Baths has given him a salary as a member of the board of directors of the Baths. He also has a good private practice. Despite fierce threats against his family's fortune and safety, he persists in following the path of truth and honor. By nature, he is open, trusting, and ebullient. When Peter disparages his way of living, he returns his grouchiness with cheerful rebuttals. Even in his anger, when he learns Peter has subverted his supporters, he expresses his rage with mockery, putting on Peter's mayoral hat. When the windows of his house are smashed, he makes a joke about the draftiness of Page 52 | Top of Article the house. Stockmann also can show solid determination. He is strengthened by his ordeal and is dedicated to replacing corrupt ideas with fresh ones. He sees that not only the waters of the town are polluted—so are the ways the townspeople think.
The townsfolk who appear at the meeting in act 4 can be seen as a character. They represent a mob and mob mentality. Rather than thinking about the issues at hand, they are swayed by the manipulative rhetoric of the mayor and actually become violent.
One thing that all Dr. Stockmann's opponents have in common is a firm dedication to their own self-interest even when it is at the expense of the common good, as it always is. The Mayor, Dr. Stockmann's brother Peter, is not the least bit civic-minded. He is concerned with his own reputation, with his power, and with his sense of his own virtue. The liberal newspapermen, Aslaksen, Billing, and Hovstad are all corrupt. What makes them corruptible is that their devotion to their own interests takes precedence over devotion to truth and concern for others. Morten Kiil attempts to discredit Dr. Stockmann's efforts and attempts to corrupt Dr. Stockmann's honor because he is offended that his good name and his father's good name before him will be besmirched by the news that his tannery is responsible for the water's toxicity.
Dr. Stockmann embodies the social responsibility that his opponents have replaced with self-interest. He is in some ways a vain man. He relishes the esteem he believes his discovery that the water is deadly will bring him. But vanity like that is different from self-interest. Dr. Stockmann's allegiance is to truth and right action. His pride is the result of the success he has in making a discovery. His daughter, Petra, is also motivated in all her actions and reactions by an unshakeable sense of social responsibility. Captain Horster's chief characteristic is his generosity. Mrs. Stockmann, fearful about the consequences to her family of her husband's actions, nevertheless overcomes that fear because of loyalty to her husband, and because he is right.
The foundation of the conflict in An Enemy of the People is the absence of any sense of honor in any of the leaders of the towns. Honor means dedicating oneself to the service of something true, good, or transcendent. That is not the calling of any of Dr. Stockmann's adversaries or of the common people represented in the meeting in act 4. They are shown to be a mob even before the Page 53 | Top of Article meeting begins, as they talk among themselves when they agree to see how Aslaksen responds to the events.
The force that Ibsen identifies as allowing social injustice to thrive is the force of conformism. One after another, Dr. Stockmann's fellow citizens refuse contact with him, they say, not because they wish to but because they "dare" not. The glazier will not fix his windows only because he does not dare not to conform to the general will. Petra's school superintendent, apparently, thinks of herself as progressive as Petra, but she dares not, she says, offend public opinion. Consequently she conforms her beliefs and actions to the low dictates of public opinion, stifling anything that differs from it. Conformity seems to be how the townspeople cope with divided loyalty. That split is caused by a conflict between what is the right thing to do and what social pressure demands. Loyalty to a narrow self-interest, and the wish to avoid ostracism or worse punishment, leads them to conform to policies they do not approve of but fear to oppose.
As the plot develops, the value of democracy becomes a central issue before which all the other issues—pollution, corruption, greed, jealousy—fall. Dr. Stockmann, once he is cast as the enemy of the people, begins to question the wisdom of the people or the good of a government by the people. The term Stockmann uses is the majority. The conclusion he reaches is that the majority is always wrong, that the few individuals who can see beyond the majority bear the truth and can indicate the right paths to follow. The two forces that Ibsen shows are able to subvert democracy are cowardice—which leads ordinary people to conform to mass opinion—and those few people, like the mayor, who can manipulate public sentiment. The mayor and others like Aslaksen and Hovstad, do this because of their own corrupt personalities and because of their skill in corrupting others.
The Fourth Wall
An Enemy of the People is a realistic play. That means that in it, Ibsen creates the illusion of realism, that what is happening on the stage looks like life as it really happens. The play proceeds as if it were happening in a room in which the fourth wall of the room has been removed and the audience, unknown to the persons of the play, is peering into their private spaces.
Ibsen thought of himself as a poet and he began his career writing in verse. His first great successes, plays that are still staged, such as Brand and Peer Gynt, were verse dramas. But with Pillars of Society in 1877, Ibsen abandoned verse and wrote plays only in prose, attempting to find the language of the middle-class of his time. Ibsen's poetry, once he began to write in prose, can be found in the rhythms of his plays and the depth of his imagination. Readers of Ibsen's plays in English are seriously disadvantaged since most of the translations of his works can seem stodgy and wordy, artificial and clumsy—problems his original Norwegian-language work does not suffer from.
Reversal and Recognition
The kind of dramatic plot that Aristotle favored in the Poetics involves a reversal of fortune and a recognition of something that had until then been hidden but that is of primary importance for the fate of the hero and in the creation of his heroism. Until the moment of the reversal's occurrence, the hero of the drama believes in both his good fortune and his clarity of vision. Once reversal and recognition occur, the hero realizes he has been blind to what really is and that his sense of his own superior fortune was mistaken, was vain, or was a fault that kept him from being able to know something it is essential for him to know. The way he faces that previously-hidden something, not his actions until then, determines his stature.
In An Enemy of the People, Dr. Stockmann is at first, although insightful in his hunches, blind to the social truth that is both his undoing and his opportunity to discover his real power. He expects to be rewarded for his discovery that the springs are contaminated. Instead he is reviled. Being reviled, however, illuminates for him the truth of the individual's vision and the spurious value of the majority's adulation. "Bred to a harder thing / Than Triumph," in the words the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, in his poem, "To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing," Page 54 | Top of Article Dr. Stockmann finds the power of his own individual strength. Being deprived of the opportunity to enjoy social and professional triumph, he emerges as the hero of what is, again in Yeats's words, "most difficult"—standing alone.
The Well-Made Play
Ibsen's realistic plays take the form of the well-made play, the theory of which was developed in France in the first part of the nineteenth century by a prolific playwright, librettist, and man of the theater, Eugene Scribe, 1791-1860. The well-made play is a play in five formally determined acts. Its development is logical. One action inevitably determines the next. It depends, moreover, on standard devices, like letters or documents that pass among the characters. In a well-made play, the first act presents relatively congenial action, but by its conclusion some kind of conflict begins to emerge. That conflict and the tensions it creates are developed in the second act and intensified in the third. The fourth act brings the business to a head in a scene crowded with characters on the stage. In that act, furthermore, the hero is brought to a low point. The fifth act presents the major characters once more in a series of encounters that resolve the conflict. Ibsen took this formal structure—often used for farcical social comedies of misunderstanding and reconciliation—and transformed it, as is obvious in An Enemy of the People, by the seriousness not only of his subject matter and his themes but also by the profundity of his dramatic intentions.
Reaction to Ghosts
An Enemy of the People was written as Ibsen's response to the acrimony with which Ghosts was met. Ghosts uses the biblical theme that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the sons to explore issues like sexual immorality and venereal diseases, which were shocking topics in 1881. Beyond that, however, Ghosts challenges the predominant Weltanschauung or world view prevalent when Ibsen wrote it. As offensive as writing about promiscuity and syphilis, the real offense in Ghosts resides in the fact that it is a story in which evil is not overcome and the good do not triumph and endure. The public outcry when Ghosts appeared was not merely in regard to the play. Ibsen himself was personally attacked and vilified in the basest terms.
The Emergence of the Era of the "Little Man"
Serious plays, such as the great Greek plays or those by William Shakespeare, were in general about members of the nobility. But Ibsen wrote during the second half of the nineteenth century when the social emphasis had been moved away from the nobility to the people, particularly the bourgeoisie—merchants, entrepreneurs, learned professionals. This shift stemmed from the American and the French Revolutions that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. Thusly, Ibsen took his heroes and villains from the middle class, from small town burgesses. Aslaksen, who shuns conflict and cowers behind "moderation" notes that he willingly would criticize the national government. It is the local officials he is loathe to criticize. He is not equipped for the drama of such a conflict. But conflict on that local level is the material Ibsen uses as he makes "little people," as opposed to aristocrats and royalty, the vehicles for presenting timeless conflicts. Themes and issues and twists of fate that affect Greek rulers and Shakespearean nobility are reinvented and reinvigorated as they are explored in small-town, middle-class, domestic contexts.
The Development of Science
The danger Dr. Stockmann discovers is the result of microscopic organisms, single cell creatures invisible to the naked eye. The existence of such life forms is hard to believe for people who can only believe what they can see, but lack the sophistication to deduce causes from effects. The 1880s, when An Enemy of the People was written, were a time of great advances in science, particularly in the realm of microscopy. In 1880, work with microscopes led to the discovery of the bacillus that is responsible for typhoid and of the parasite responsible for malaria. These discoveries were not universally accepted or acclaimed when they were first made. When Charles-Louis-Alphonse Laveran, for example, presented the findings of his microscope work on malaria to the Academy of Medicine at Paris, many were skeptical. An inability to accept the possibility of science as a way to discover powerful but invisible forces contributes to the general skepticism regarding Dr. Stockmann's discovery. Morten Kiil represents this position openly Page 55 | Top of Article when he scoffs at the idea that there could possibly be little animals, as he thinks of the deadly microorganisms, in the water.
According to F. L. Lucas in The Drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, the twentieth-century Italian playwright, declared that "after Shakespeare, without hesitation, I put Ibsen first." Richard Gilman, writing in The Making of Modern Drama: A Study of Büchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Handke, reports that the author James Joyce learned Norwegian just to read Ibsen's plays. Gilman states that Joyce wrote to Ibsen in 1901 to say how much he valued "your willful resolution to wrest the secret of life." But Ibsen was and often is seen, as Gillman characterizes it, as a "narrow, programmatic … social philosopher," or worse. His characters can appear to be stereotypes used to illustrate an idea or represent one side of a conflict. William Morris, the late nineteenth-century English poet, utopian anarchist, and designer of books, tapestries, and furniture wrote, Lucas reports, that he "hated" Ibsen's plays. Despite admitting that they were well written, Morris asserted they were "not literature." Lucas also states that the great psychological novelist Henry James called Ibsen "ugly, common, hard, prosaic, bottomlessly bourgeois." But James continued: "And yet of his art he's a master." Lucas goes on to note that what James found in Ibsen was "the presence and the insistence of life." It was not only these preeminent literary figures who found Ibsen troublesome. In 1881, as he was writing An Enemy of the People, just after Ghosts had appeared, Ibsen had been called "an egotist and a bungler," by an unnamed critic in the London Daily Telegraph and "A crazy fanatic" who is "Not only consistently dirty but deplorably dull," in the English magazine Truth. The English playwright, George Bernard Shaw, after citing both these and further condemnations of Ibsen and his admirers in his book The Quintessence of Ibsenism, goes on to treat An Enemy of the People as a drama of ideas developed inside political situations. Shaw reiterates and supports Ibsen's distrust of the majority and his reservations about the value of democracy as
an enlightened system of government. The American playwright Arthur Miller, writing in the preface to his 1950 adaptation of An Enemy of the People, argues that "Ibsen is really pertinent today," and adds that Ibsen embodies the principle that "the dramatic writer has, and must again demonstrate, the right to entertain with his brains as well as his heart."
The view of Ibsen as, above all else, a social playwright, a dramatist concerned with political and social issues, is indeed influential; but, it is also limiting. There is another view of Ibsen the dramatist, the view that his plays are "poetic fantasies which have a lyrical nuance uncommon in the history of the drama," as Maurice Valency argues in The Flower and the Castle: An Introduction to Modern Drama. In Valency's opinion, Ibsen is a romantic writer who uses social issues to engage the great romantic themes: individual liberty, the opposition between the individual and his society, and dedication to truth. In Ibsen's penetration of the varieties and vicissitudes of the human character, and in his concern for the values that transcend human circumstances, Ibsen defines the poetry of social drama.
Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In this essay, he argues that in An Enemy of the People Ibsen not only wrote a drama concerning social issues but one in which a man becomes a hero through his confrontation with adversity.
What makes An Enemy of the People a great play is its ability to portray several major themes simultaneously. It can be read as a well-made play that is concerned with specific social issues and that explores the larger conflict between morality and greed. It can also be read as a drama of human growth and the destiny that is implicit in character.
Dr. Stockmann is placed on one side of the social conflict when he asserts that the water for the Baths is contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The mayor, the newspapermen, and the rest of the town are on the other side of the issue, refusing to accept the scientific truth as truth because it threatens their self-interests. Dr. Stockmann's conflict is with them individually and collectively. He represents moral rectitude in his desire to prevent an awful epidemic. They represent what appears to them to be the good of their town, the forces of economic survival, and even prosperity for the town. Their short-sightedness, were it not so dangerous, might appear comic. But since it is deliberate, it can be seen as reprehensible or even evil. Once, after all, the Baths are opened, their deadly nature will be discovered. But that is something Dr. Stockmann's enemies refuse to consider. This willful blindness is as foolish as it is evil. The financial catastrophe the mayor and, ultimately, the entire town want to avert will come crashing down on them. Essential for the maintenance of their blindness is the vilification of Dr. Stockmann. His enemies can only indulge their self-interest if they can assert that Dr. Stockmann is a malicious troublemaker who ought not to be believed, rather than a concerned scientist and ministering physician. The theme of the townspeople's blindness and also of Dr. Stockmann's blindness, although of a different sort, gives An Enemy of the People a dimension beyond the well-made drama of conflicting social interests that the play obviously is.
An Enemy of the People has within it elements that make the great Greek plays of authors like Sophocles and Euripides the marvels that they are. In those plays, their authors describe the existential and psychological condition of men and women whom fate unexpectedly upsets and turns around. Although plays like Oedipus Rex or The Trojan Women probe the relationship between people and their environments, each play's profundity and depth of seriousness come from its exploration of its protagonist's relationship to his or her own character and actions. The heart of the drama in plays like those resides in the way the hero meets unwanted fate and the transformation the hero consequently undergoes. Usually the paradoxical situation is such that a character achieves transcendental greatness by being brought low. The blindness that a hero like Oedipus first believed to be clear sight comes to be recognized for the blindness it is. Attainment of the awareness of ignorance becomes illumination. The heroism of the hero is the result of the hero's recognition Page 58 | Top of Article of a former, characteristic blindness and of his or her acceptance of fate, especially accepting his or her complicity in that fate. Such acceptance is the precursor to, and the precondition for, a final transcendence of fate. The hero has the strength to bear the identity he or she discovers to be his or hers and, somehow, to triumph over fate while seeming to succumb to it.
The drama of An Enemy of the People transports Dr. Stockmann from one sort of self-confidence to another. At the beginning of the drama, he is sure of his place within his community (mistakenly), of the community's good will towards him (which exists as long as he conforms to its requirements), and of his good will towards the community (which is qualified by his sense of duty to truth). To the extent that An Enemy of the People is seen as a play about political corruption, ethical choices, and the dangers of democracy, it is a vigorous and rigorous social drama. Dr. Stockmann, when the play is considered in that way, is an instrument to move forward the plot of the play, a vehicle to carry its issues. He is a catalyst to reveal the pollution in the government of the town as well as in the Baths, and of the pollution in people's natures that derives from opportunism. Fittingly, too, the play dissects how the possibility of democracy can be corrupted through the manipulation of public opinion by instruments of mass media run by people intent on shaping public opinion to their private interests—and thereby subverting democracy. The newspapermen, Aslaksen, Billings, and Hovstad, are contemptible just because they are not true to the highest values of their journalistic profession. They are for sale to the highest bidder. Dr. Stockmann is commendable because he is always true to his calling as scientist and physician. His action is never determined by his desire to serve his own interest. That puts him at odds with the rest of the town. His allegiance is to the truth, which it is his professional duty to discover and to defend. That ought to be the case with the newspapermen, too, but it is not.
Dr. Stockmann's awful burden is that he can only find his identity in his alliance with the truth. His identity as a human being depends, for him, upon serving what is right. That allegiance to the truth and to himself is tested and proven when his expectation that the community will honor his discovery of the plagued water is subverted and he is branded a public enemy rather than a savior of the community. The twist in the plot, whereby he recognizes that he is an outcast among venal men and that his comfortable status among them is no longer comfortable, and that he has suffered a serious reversal of fortune, despite—or in fact because of—his virtue, brings the play into a different realm from the one it seemed to inhabit. As in the great Greek works and as in Shakespeare, the matter of the play is not (or is not only) social issues and political struggles, but the constitution of the human character. Dr. Stockmann's response to his fall is not to be defeated but to be strengthened. He rises to a level of humanity higher than he had occupied before his fall. His strength comes not from the support of a majority, or from conforming to how things are, but from his own resolve to stand by himself as a herald of how things ought to be. Stockmann's condemnation of majority rule is not petulant or spiteful. Actually, it is not a condemnation of democracy, at all, but a condemnation of ignorance. After his sons are sent home from school because the other boys are picking fights with them because of him, and after his daughter is dismissed from her teaching job because of him, Dr. Stockmann turns those assaults into opportunity. His next step is to make a school of his own in which he will educate street urchins—lower class children whom he will rescue from ignorance and through whom he will create the strength of democracy. That strength, Stockmann maintains, resides in the intelligence of a citizenry able, in consequence of their education, to govern themselves justly and truly.
All Dr. Stockmann's major adversaries, Ibsen shows, are loyal not to the truth but to the advancement of their own projects and, fundamentally, to themselves. In order to be so, they must baffle their vision and become blind to the truth. The newspaper men represent this leaning towards blind self-interest. So does Dr. Stockmann's brother Peter. Peter represents a consciousness of things and values entirely different from his brother's. The newspapermen waver in their allegiance. Peter is steady in his. They are corruptible, ready to support whoever will reward them. Peter is corrupt, ready and quite able to subvert anyone who may block him. Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmann's proud and unscrupulous father-in-law, is a pure and even diabolical malevolence. He embodies the triumph of opportunity over morality and of self over other. While the newspapermen are weak in Page 59 | Top of Article virtue, Peter Stockmann and Morten Kiil are strong in vice. An Enemy of the People is not only about social issues but about the human beings who shape social issues and conflicts. The play, like the Greek tragedies it has transformed into bourgeois drama, shows how environment, conflict, and even fate are functions of character. The problem of the contaminated water exists, in the first place, because of Peter's willful and jealous insistence that the conduits be laid as they were despite his brother's considered advice to lay them upstream of the tanning factory. Because of his characteristic need to dominate, Peter erred, and his need to seem above criticism and reproach causes him to persist in his error and deepen it.
Even when he appears to be writing a realistic drama about social issues and conflicts, Ibsen is constructing the archetypal roles of human characters. That does not mean that his plays are not concerned with the issues they purport to be about. But they also use those issues to explore the fundamental aspects of character. Dr. Stockmann is not merely the instrument Ibsen uses to deliver a sermon, but a man who realizes his own potential. Dr. Stockmann's major discovery is not the danger lurking in the apparently innocent waters of the Baths or even of the political corruption of the town or the ability of his neighbors to be willingly misled. His discovery is instead the direction of his own disposition. Following that direction (as a teacher and a reformer) in the face of opposition transforms him from the protagonist of a play into the archetype of a hero.
Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on An Enemy of the People, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical analysis of Ibsen's work.
Hailed as one of the pioneers of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen broke away from the romantic tradition of nineteenth-century theater with his realistic portrayals of individuals, his focus on psychological concerns, and his investigation into the role of the artist in society. While initially utilizing conventions associated with the "well-made play," including exaggerated suspense and mistaken identity, Ibsen later used dialogue, commonplace events, and symbolism to explore the elusiveness of self-knowledge and the restrictive nature of traditional morality. Once writing that "I prefer to ask; 'tis not my task to answer," Ibsen did not establish distinct dichotomies between good and evil, but instead provided a context in which to explore the complexities of human behavior and the ambiguities of reality. Martin Esslin explained: "Ibsen can … be seen as one of the principal creators and well-springs of the whole modern movement in drama, having contributed to the development of all its diverse and often seemingly opposed and contradictory manifestations: the ideological and political theatre, as well as the introspective, introverted trends which tend towards the representation of inner realities and dreams."
Ibsen was born to wealthy parents in Skien, a lumbering town south of Christiania, now Oslo. The family was reduced to poverty when his father's business failed in 1834. After leaving school at age fifteen and working for six years as a pharmacist's assistant, Ibsen went to Christiania hoping to continue his studies at Christiania University. He failed the Greek and mathematics portions of the entrance examinations, however, and was not admitted. During this time, he read and wrote poetry, which he would later say came more easily to him than prose. He wrote his first drama, Catilina (Catiline), in 1850 and although this work generated little interest and was not produced until several years later, it evidenced Ibsen's emerging concerns with the conflict between guilt and desire. While Catiline is a traditional romance written in verse, Ibsen's merging of two female prototypes—one conservative and domestic, the other adventurous and dangerous—foreshadowed the psychological intricacies of his later plays.
Shortly after writing Catiline, Ibsen became assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theater in Bergen. His duties included composing and producing an original drama each year. Ibsen was expected to write about Norway's glorious past, but because Norway had just recently acquired its independence from Denmark after five hundred years, medieval folklore and Viking sagas were his only sources of inspiration. Although these early plays were coldly received and are often considered insignificant, they further indicated the direction Ibsen's drama was to take, especially in their presentation of strong individuals who come in conflict with the oppressive social mores of nineteenth-century Norwegian society. In 1862, verging on a nervous breakdown from overwork, Ibsen began to petition the government for a grant to travel and write. He was given a stipend in 1864, and various scholarships and pensions subsequently followed. For the next twenty-seven years he lived in Italy and Germany, returning to Norway only twice. While critics often cite Ibsen's bitter memories of his father's financial failure and his own lack of success as a theater manager as the causes for his long absence, it is also noted that Ibsen believed that only by distancing himself from his homeland could he obtain the perspective necessary to write truly Norwegian drama. Ibsen explained: "I could never lead a consistent life [in Norway]. I was one man in my work and another outside—and for that reason my work failed in consistency too."
Ibsen's work is generally divided by critics into three phases. The first consists of his early dramas written in verse and modeled after romantic historical tragedy and Norse sagas: Gildet paa Solhaug (1856; The Feast of Solhaug), Fru Inger til Ostraat (1857; Lady Inger of Ostraat), Haermaendene paa Helgeland (1858; The Vikings at Helgeland) and Kjaerlighedens Komedie (1862; Love's Comedy). These plays are noted primarily for their idiosyncratic Norwegian characters and for their emerging elements of satire and social criticism. In Love's Comedy, for example, Ibsen attacked conventional concepts of love and explored the conflict between the artist's mission and his responsibility to others. Brand (1866), an epic verse drama, was the first play Ibsen wrote after leaving Norway and was the first of his works to earn both popular and critical attention. The story of a clergyman who makes impossible demands on his congregation, his family, and himself, Brand reveals the fanaticism and inhumanity of uncompromising idealism. While commentators suggest that Brand is a harsh and emotionally inaccessible character, they also recognized that this play reflects Ibsen's doubts and personal anguish over his poverty and lack of success. In comparison to Brand, the protagonist of Ibsen's next drama, Peer Gynt (1867), while witty, imaginative, and vigorous, is incapable of self-analysis. Although this play takes on universal significance due to Ibsen's use of fantasy, parable, and symbolism, it is often described as a sociological analysis of the Norwegian people. Harold Beyer explained: "[Peer Gynt] is a central work in Norwegian literature, comprising elements from the nationalistic and romantic atmosphere of the preceding period and yet satirizing these elements in a spirit of realism akin to the period that was coming. It has been said that if a Norwegian were to leave his country and could take only one book to express his national culture, [Peer Gynt] is the one he would choose."
Ibsen wrote prose dramas concerned with social realism during the second phase of his career. The first of these plays, De Unges Forbund (1869; The League of Youth), a caustic satire of the condescending attitudes of the Norwegian upper class, introduced idiomatic speech and relied upon dialogue rather than monologue to reveal the thoughts and emotions of the characters. Written, as Ibsen declared, "without a single monologue, or even without a single aside," The League of Youth evidenced Ibsen's shift from an emphasis on grandiose plot structures to characterization and interpersonal relationships. During his stay in Munich, when he was becoming increasingly aware of social injustice, Ibsen wrote Samfundets Stotter (1877; The Pillars of Society). A harsh indictment of the moral corruption and crime resulting from the quest for money and power, this drama provided what Ibsen called a "contrast between ability and desire, between will and possibility." The protagonist, Consul Bernick, while first urging his son to abide by conventional morality and become a "pillar of society," eventually experiences an inner transformation and asserts instead: "You shall be yourself, Olaf, and then the rest will have to take care of itself." Ibsen's next drama, Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Doll's House), is often considered a masterpiece of realist theater. The account of the collapse of a middle-class marriage, this work, in addition to sparking debate about women's rights and divorce, is also Page 61 | Top of Article regarded as innovative and daring because of its emphasis on psychological tension rather than external action. This technique required that emotion be conveyed through small, controlled gestures, shifts in inflection, and pauses, and therefore instituted a new style of acting. Gengangere (1881; Ghosts) and En Folkefiende (1882; An Enemy of Society) are the last plays included in Ibsen's realist period. In Ghosts Ibsen uses a character infected with syphilis to symbolize how stale habits and prejudices can be passed down from generation to generation; An Enemy of Society demonstrates Ibsen's contempt for what he considered stagnant political rhetoric. Audiences accustomed to the Romantic sentimentality of the "well-made play" were initially taken aback by such controversial subjects. However, when dramatists Bernard Shaw and George Brandes, among others, defended Ibsen's works, the theater-going public began to accept drama as social commentary and not merely as entertainment.
With Vildanden (1884; The Wild Duck) and Hedda Gabler (1890), Ibsen entered a period of transition during which he continued to deal with modern, realistic themes, but made increasing use of symbolism and metaphor. The Wild Duck, regarded as one of Ibsen's greatest tragicomical works, explores the role of illusion and self-deception in everyday life. In this play, Gregers Werle, vehemently believing that everyone must be painstakingly honest, inadvertently causes great harm by meddling in other people's affairs. At the end of The Wild Duck, Ibsen's implication that humankind is unable to bear absolute truth is reflected in the words of the character named Relling: "If you rob the average man of his illusion, you are almost certain to rob him of his happiness." Hedda Gabler concerns a frustrated aristocratic woman and the vengeance she inflicts on herself and those around her. Taking place entirely in Hedda's sitting room shortly after her marriage, this play has been praised for its subtle investigation into the psyche of a woman who is unable to love others or confront her sexuality.
Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 and there entered his third and final period with the dramas Bygmester Solness (1892; The Master Builder), Lille Eyolf (1894; Little Eyolf), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and Naar vi dode vaagner (1899; When We Dead Awaken). In these final works, Ibsen dealt with the conflict between art and life and shifted his focus from the individual in society to the individual alone and isolated. It is speculated that The Master Builder was written in response to Norwegian writer Knut Hamson's proclamation that Ibsen should relinquish his influence in the Norwegian theater to the younger generation. Described as a "poetic confession," The Master Builder centers around an elderly writer, Solness, who believes he has misused and compromised his art. Little Eyolf, the account of a crippled boy who compensates for his handicap through a variety of other accomplishments, explores how self-deception can lead to an empty, meaningless life. The search for personal contentment and self-knowledge is also a primary theme in John Gabriel Borkman, a play about a banker whose quest for greatness isolates him from those who love him. In his last play, When We Dead Awaken, subtitled "A Dramatic Monologue," Ibsen appears to pass judgement on himself as an artist. Deliberating over such questions as whether his writing would have been more truthful if he had lived a more active life, When We Dead Awaken is considered one of Ibsen's most personal and autobiographical works.
After completing When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen suffered a series of strokes that left him an invalid for five years until his death in 1906. Although audiences considered Ibsen's dramas highly controversial during his lifetime because of his frank treatment of social problems, present scholars focus on the philosophical and psychological elements of his plays and the ideological debates they have generated. Ibsen's occasional use of theatrical conventions and outmoded subject matter has caused some critics to dismiss his work as obsolete and irrelevant to contemporary society, but others recognize his profound influence on the development of modern drama. Haskell M. Block asserted: "In its seemingly limitless capacity to respond to the changing need and desires of successive generations of audiences, [Ibsen's] work is truly classic, universal in implication and yet capable of endless transformation."
Source: Gale, "Henrik Ibsen," in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2007.
F. L. Lucas
In the following essay, Lucas considers Ibsen's promotion of individualism and the attacks that his views first encountered.
Ibsen had been prepared for a storm over Ghost. But he was certainly not prepared for the tornado that actually blew up. He was not daunted. But he was very angry. And, like Luther, he found anger inspiring. An Enemy of the People was his counter-defiance; and he completed it with what was, for him, unusual speed.
He seems, indeed, to have begun thinking of this play as early as the spring of 1880, provoked by the far milder outcry over A Doll's House. That summer, however, he turned to meditating Ghosts, published in December 1881. Finally, further exasperated by the abuse of Ghosts, he finished An Enemy of the People in the following summer of 1882; whereas from 1877 to 1881 and from 1882 to 1896 each new play regularly took him two years. Further, as Gran points out, An Enemy does not show any trace of Ibsen's usual recastings and redraftings.
It cannot be doubted that, though the poet assumed an air of icy indifference, the reception of Ghost left him really furious. To his friend Hegel he wrote, when he was already thinking over An Enemy (16/3/1882):
‘All these withered, decrepit figures who have thus fallen upon my work, will one day receive a crushing verdict on themselves in future literary history. People will find out how to identify the anonymous poachers and footpads who have pelted me with filth from their lurking-place in Professor Goos's delicatessen-shop newspaper and other like localities.’
But Ibsen was in no mood to wait for the literary historians of the future. He would vindicate himself, here and now. So he sat down and wrote An Enemy of the People. He might ironically describe it as ‘a peaceful work, that can be read by wholesale-merchants and their wives’. But this description might have left the wholesale-merchants considerably astonished.
What particularly angered Ibsen was the abuse from the ‘liberal’ Left. Natural enough that, on the Right, bigoted clerical conservatism should lift up its many heads and bray; but he had not expected this chorus to be so loudly joined even by professed democrats. Accordingly in An Enemy he kept some of his sharpest cuts for so-called radical journalists who were anxious, not to civilize public opinion, but merely to trot behind it. ‘I am more and more convinced,’ he wrote to Brandes, ‘that there is something demoralizing in all contact with politics, or adherence to parties. Never, under any circumstances, shall I be able to join any party which has on its side the majority. Bjørnson says the majority is always right. As a practical politician, I suppose he must. But I, on the contrary, feel compelled to say—the minority is always right.’
An Enemy of the People is based, like A Doll's House, on episodes of real life. Ibsen had heard of a certain Dr Meissner at Teplitz whose house was stoned in the thirties, because he reported an outbreak of cholera, and so ruined the spa's season. Also a certain Thaulow (1815-81), an apothecary in Christiania, who had a long feud with the Christiania Steam Kitchen, after publishing in 1880 a pamphlet called The Pillars of Society in Prose, had been howled down at a meeting in February 1881; and died a fortnight later. Further, Dr Stockmann appears to contain elements of Georg Brandes, Bjørnson, Jonas Lie, and Ibsen himself. The very name Stockmann is taken from the home of Ibsen's childhood at Skien.
The plot is simple. A small Norwegian town sets up as a spa, largely thanks to the energy of a certain Dr Stockmann. But its penny-wise town-council has laid the pipes too cheaply; and Stockmann's analysis confirms his fears that the water now teems with microbes. The patients are less likely to be cured than poisoned. So the pipes must be relaid—at great expense.
Dr Stockmann, being a simpler, much more sanguine and muddle-headed person than Ibsen, expects this vital discovery of his to be hailed by his fellow-townsmen with shouts of gratitude. For he is saving them from a scandal and a disaster that might have cost many lives. Still worse, it might have cost the town itself, in the long run, a lot of money. Little he knows the blinding potency of wishful thinking.
Consequence—a sharp lesson in practical psychology. The Doctor's brother Peter, Page 63 | Top of Article Mayor and Chief of Police, is furious. Nothing so horrid can possibly be true. Not a word more of it! The Doctor's rich and cunning old father-in-law, Morten Kiil (whose own tannery is poisoning the Baths) takes the whole story for a clever trick of the Doctor's to discredit his brother the Mayor. Hating the Mayor, old Kiil is delighted. He promises, if the Doctor proves right, a gift of twenty—no, on second thoughts, ten pounds—to charity. Hovstad, editor of the local left-wing paper, is equally delighted—for the moment. What a chance to ruin the town-council! But when Hovstad comes to realize also the expense and unpopularity involved, he at once rats to the side of the Mayor.
At a public meeting Dr Stockmann is howled down, and voted a public enemy. His windows are smashed. His post is taken away. His daughter is dismissed from the school where she teaches. His landlord gives him notice. And his father-in-law blackmails him by investing the money that Stockmann's wife and children would inherit, in the condemned Baths. Indeed, if the Doctor will not recant, old Kiil will leave all to charity. (Stockmann's father-in-law is a great fellow for charity!)
Such are the rewards of serving humanity. But Stockmann, like a Voltaire or an Ibsen, remains undaunted. He realizes, at last, what Ibsen himself, in his more resolute and less sceptical moods, so passionately believed:
‘The strongest man on earth is he who stands most alone.’
Or as Matthew Arnold had put it:
Alone the sun arises, and alone
Spring the great streams.
Ibsen never wrote a prosier play. But this is not a condemnation. Comedy can quite well dispense, on occasion, with poetry. Yet how many authors would have dared write a play about anything so prosaic as—drains? Curiously enough, this prosaic work was immediately followed by one of the pieces where Ibsen most deeply infused his prose with hidden poetry—The Wild Duck.
But if Ibsen never wrote a prosier play, he never wrote one more breezy and more boisterous. Perhaps its unusual dash and high spirits were helped by the unusual rapidity with which its author's anger tossed it off. An Enemy of the People becomes, in my experience, even more amusing than one might expect, when acted and produced with vigour. For here, as so often, comedy gains by being seen rather than read; whereas tragedy, unless superlatively staged, is often better read than seen.
The most effective thing in the play is its hero; who seems mainly a mixture of the hopefully pugnacious Bjørnson (who had dared to defend Ghosts), and the grimly pugnacious Ibsen. Dr Stockmann, said his creator, ‘is in part a grotesque, hare-brained fellow’. But, he also said, ‘Dr Stockmann and I get on splendidly; we agree so well in many ways; but the Doctor has more of a muddle-head than I, which may make things more tolerable from his mouth than they would be from mine.’ In short, the tight-buttoned Ibsen could here, for once, let himself go; with a freedom that, when he spoke in his own person, his self-critical reason usually (not always) checked and inhibited. Further, the human jackals and crocodiles that the Doctor hunts, are quickened by Ibsen's angry hands into a very grotesque and lively variety of game.
One of the play's main themes may seem trite—‘Honesty is the best policy’. Yet it has been objected by one Ibsen-critic (whom it really would be unkind to name), that Stockmann ‘brought a calamity on his native place by his awful propensity for blabbing out the truth’. This wisdom seems worthy of Peter Stockmann himself. Would a hundred cases of typhoid have been less of a calamity?
But not all the ideas behind the play are so simple. Ibsen has here travelled a good deal towards the Right since the days of Catiline. ‘Ha! ha!’ cries Hovstad. ‘So Dr Stockmann has turned aristocrat since the day before yesterday.’ Applied to Ibsen himself, that would be only a half-truth. For he remained a liberal. But he had come to feel that there is no real progress for communities without progress in the individuals composing them. Hence his warning in 1885 to the workers of Trondheim that democratic liberty required, also, an aristocratic element ‘of character, of mind and will’. We have not moved much nearer that goal in our age of totalitarian tyrannies, and a world still further plebeianized by mass-standards and over-population.
An Enemy of the People then, has by no means lost its point. Its first audiences seem to have been favourable, but not swept away. A generation later, however, in 1905, on the day of the massacre in Kazansky Square, the play was performed, says Stanislavsky, at the Moscow Art Theatre. At the moment when Page 64 | Top of Article Dr Stockmann remarks, ‘Onemust never put on a new coat when one goes to fight for liberty and truth’, such a pandemonium of applause burst from the delighted theatre that the performance had to stop. The audience stormed towards the footlights. Hundreds of hands were stretched out to Stanislavsky who was playing the Doctor. And many of the younger, more agile playgoers jumped on the stage to embrace him. Little their Russian exuberance guessed that all their revolutionary ardour was only to exchange the tyranny of Czars for the tyranny of Commissars; that Peter the Great was to be succeeded by a series of Peter Stockmanns.
Norwegians are by nature less effusive than Russians: but Gran similarly tells how in 1915 Dr Stockmann's denunciations of stupid majorities were cheered by a packed Norwegian theatre; long sickened of political claptrap and intrigue.
However, as Dr Stockmann says, truth itself does not stand still. ‘Truths are by no means wiry Methusalehs, as some supposed. A normal truth lives, say, as a rule seventeen or eighteen years—twenty at most—seldom longer.’ Since then, though ‘the damned compact majority’ can be stupid and tyrannical as ever, we have come to suffer also from another curse, the damned compact minority that makes up for numbers by fanaticism and organization—the Party, Fascist, Nazi, or Communist, which can bludgeon the masses into pseudo-majorities such as Ibsen never dreamed of, where 99.9 per cent. vote the ‘Yes’ of slaves. Under such régimes the Dr Stockmanns of our age have found, to their cost, that though in civilized societies he may be strongest who stands most alone, that truth holds true no longer under the brutality of police-states. Such men ended in the Lipari Islands, in the Lubianka Prison or Siberia, in Sachsenhausen or Dachau, or in the grave. Fortunate the man who, like Pasternak, was merely gagged, and reviled as, precisely, ‘an enemy of the people’. Which suggests that, as one would expect, the Russian propaganda-machine has forgotten Ibsen—or it would hardly have chosen the very phrase which Ibsen's play has left so charged with ridicule.
Small wonder then if Russian Marxist critics like Plekhanov or Lunacharsky had little use for the individualism of An Enemy of the People, with what Lunacharsky called its ‘laughable tirades’. For even writers who should have retained some traditions of freedom, like Hugo von Hofmannstal, could come in this century to write: ‘Our time is unredeemed, and do you know what it wants to be redeemed from?… The individual … Our age groans too heavily under the weight of this child of the sixteenth century which the nineteenth fed to monstrous size.’ Ibsen would have smiled pretty grimly.
If we had a National Theatre, it could hardly do better to educate the public than perform An Enemy of the People every single year.
Source: F. L. Lucas, "An Enemy of the People (1882)," in The Drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, Cassell, 1962, pp. 171-77.
Gilman, Richard, The Making of Modern Drama: A Study of Büchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Handke, Da Capo, 1974, pp. 50-51.
Ibsen, Henrik, An Enemy of the People, in Ghosts and Other Plays, translated by Peter Watts, Penguin, 1964, pp. 103-220.
Lucas, F. L., The Drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, Cassell, 1962, pp. 295, 299.
Miller, Arthur, Preface, in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1944-1961, Library of America, 2006, p. 261-63.
Shaw, George Bernard, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Hill and Wang, 1913, pp. 92-97.
Valency, Maurice, The Flower and the Castle: An Introduction to Modern Drama, Macmillan, 1963, p. 123.
Watts, Peter, ed., Introduction, in Ghosts and Other Plays, Penguin, 1964, pp. 11, 16.
Yeats, William Butler, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Macmillan, 1962, p. 107.
Adler, Stella, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, edited and with a preface by Barry Paris, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
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Stella Adler, who died at the age of ninety one, in 1992, was known as one of the great acting teachers of the twentieth century. This book is a collection of her lectures. The five that are devoted to Ibsen consider him as a pioneer of modern theater who tore down and reconstructed the way dramas were created. Adler's lectures focus on Ibsen's plots, his themes, his values, and the demands that his plays make on actors as well as the opportunities they offer.
Beyer, Edvard, Ibsen: The Man and His Work, translated by Marie Wells, Condor/Souvenir Press, 1978.
Beyer offers an account of Norway in Ibsen's lifetime and its literary environment. Then the book goes on to trace the development of Ibsen's career, his art, and his thought.
Gosse, Edmund, Henrik Ibsen, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907.
Gosse, 1849-1928, was an English poet and critic who wrote this literary biography shortly after Ibsen's death. Gosse shows how Ibsen's life and work were understood by one of his younger contemporaries.
Sage, Steven F., Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2006.
Sage asserts that Dr. Stockmann's acts and pronouncements were formative in shaping the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's ideology and the course of his ascent and rule.
Tennant, P. F. D., Ibsen's Dramatic Technique, Bowes & Bowes, 1948.
This is a compact and well-focused study of Ibsen as a dramatist, his approach to constructing stories for the stage, as well as his approaches to presenting stories on the stage, and for methods of creating roles for actors.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420900014