Any theater artist will inevitably confront the genius of 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Often dubbed “The Father of Modern Drama,” Ibsen wrote plays that differed from his forerunners’ in both style and subject matter. Portraying life “just as it is” had never been a goal for playwrights in previous eras: the ancient Greeks incorporated song, dance and masks into their performances; Shakespeare’s characters spoke in verse; and 19th century melodramas embraced sensationalism and sentimentality. Ibsen, a keen observer of human behavior, wrote dialogue that mimicked real speech, aiming to showcase a slice of life in his plays. He also never hesitated to expose society’s problems, and often bucked against middle class Victorian era norms—writing frankly about women’s roles in his 1879 play A Doll’s House, and venereal disease in 1881’s Ghosts.
When critics widely panned Ghosts, Ibsen felt at once stung and superior. He viewed himself as a truth seeker and teller, and quickly wrote An Enemy of the People, in which the central character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, views himself the same way. Dr. Stockmann discovers that his small town’s public baths are contaminated by illness-causing bacteria—but when he unveils his finding, he, like Ibsen, suffers backlash from critics. Intriguingly, both Ibsen’s and Dr. Stockmann’s grievances go far beyond the particular topics they address.
Although I have read and admired Ibsen’s work for most of my life, I have rarely staged it. The lone exception was my collaboration with the Chicago-based Rebecca Gilman on her adaptation of A Doll’s House, set in Lincoln Park in the early 2000s. That adaptation, along with the other plays in Rebecca’s distinguished body of work, demonstrates her interest in social issues—a trait that can be traced to Ibsen. I have also often directed the work of Arthur Miller, another major American writer who was influenced by Ibsen’s plays; in fact, Ibsen’s lineage is so pervasive that one need not produce his plays in order to celebrate it. In choosing to adapt and direct, An Enemy of the People for our 2017/2018 Season, I was compelled both by our country’s political tumult and by the play’s complex treatment of myriad topics—from how we view our fellow humans, to public good vs. individual rights, to the pitfalls of democracy. Though it was written more than 130 years ago, I find the play’s themes remarkably fresh, and the questions it raises just as perplexing as they must have been to 19th century audiences.
I invite you to join me in examining and enjoying this timeless—and timely—classic.