An Enemy of the People
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 6, 2008
[Note: Find a synopsis of An Enemy of the People at SparkNotes.]
The most insidious enemy of truth and freedom among us is the solid majority. Yes, the damned, solid, liberal majority.
These words, from the climactic fourth act of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (as translated by Rolf Fjelde, some 25 - 40 years ago), are very hard for Americans to hear. At least that's what this American felt, and I don't think I'm alone: the most fundamental proposition of our nationhood depends on the exact opposite, after all, and even after a week of parsing the political posturing at the Republican National Convention, what I cling to is not the notion that the majority might be wrong but that the majority will figure out what is right.
Arthur Miller thought so too; in his 1950 adaptation, the play's hero, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, says "I am in revolt against the age old lie that the majority is always right....Was the majority right when they stood by while Jesus was crucified? Was the majority right when they refused to believe that the earth moved around the sun....The majority is never right until it does right."
So while I am sure there are good reasons why Fjelde's are the words being spoken in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's current presentation of An Enemy of the People, I can't help wishing that Miller's (or someone else's) more tempered version had been selected instead. Because the important central idea of this play—that, to appropriate a contemporary coinage, an inconvenient truth will all too often be ignored by the masses—is one that Americans need to be reminded of; because the nobility of Stockmann's adherence to his cause at all costs—the thing that makes him heroic, and perhaps Quixotic as well—is something we could use some lifelike examples of, even if only on stage.
But Fjelde's translation—which is un-colloquial and badly dated in places (e.g., Stockmann at one point says "all the so-called men in this town are old women...they all just think of their families and never the common good")—detracts from Ibsen's intended message, and so that's problematic for a production that means to be resonant and relevant.
Maruti Evans's interesting set design, which places the Stockmann home in front of a sort of bas-relief backdrop of the small town, works extremely well, and many of the performances, under the pointed if sometimes languid direction of Amy Wagner, feel convincingly timeless and therefore timely. Perhaps the most accomplished work here comes from Michael Surabian, who plays Aslaksen, the eternally moderate head of the small businessman's association; we understand that his meekness comes entirely from a sharply developed survival instinct—that he is the kind of "ordinary citizen" who can be played upon by those with sufficient skill, called to action by hollow chauvinistic slogans or bullied and intimidated by fear tactics. Angus Hepburn's Kill (Stockmann's father-in-law) is splendidly pragmatic, and Josh Tyson's Billing (a rising young reporter at the town newspaper) is scarily on-target as the most insidious sort of hypocrite. Steady support in smaller roles is provided by Kelli Holsopple as Stockmann's daughter Petra, Laura Piquado as his wife, and Brian A. Costello as the young sea captain who is, eventually, his only friend.
John Lenartz, though, does not convince as Stockmann; he gives us a loose cannon rather than a solid and steady scientist, and I had trouble letting myself be persuaded by arguments that I knew, deep down, I was supposed to agree with.
But, again, the main problem with this Enemy is what he's been made to say. At the end, Stockmann decides to build his own school. In Fjelde he says "I'll teach you myself—by that, I mean you won't learn a blessed fact." In Miller, he says "We'll turn out not taxpayers and newspaper subscribers, but free and independent people, hungry for the truth." That's the sentiment I'm ready to rally around.