“Work on this play has been a pleasure, and now that I am done with it, I feel a sense of loss and emptiness. Dr. Stockmann and I got along famously together; there are so many things we agree upon; but the doctor is much more chaotic than I am. Moreover he has other qualities that allow him to say a number of things which would not be tolerated quite so well if they were to come from my lips.”
—Henrik Ibsen, in an 1882 letter to his publisher
By the time he wrote An Enemy of the People, Ibsen was well acquainted with the controversy his plays triggered. His 1879 work, A Doll’s House, sparked riots in the streets of Copenhagen when its central character, Nora, left her husband and children at the end of the play. Ghosts, in which the characters openly discuss syphilis, left audiences and critics reeling: British critic Clement Scott referred to it as “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly.” Ibsen, now revered for his then-controversial tendency to shine light on society’s dark corners, felt angry that his frank discussion of what he considered important issues went unappreciated. While 19th century mores dictated that the underbellies of marriage, sex and middle class society remain unexamined, Ibsen was determined to scrutinize them as a scientist would. Partly in response to his critics, Ibsen created the protagonist of An Enemy of the People: Thomas Stockmann, a doctor who discovers that the public baths in his small Norwegian town are polluted with illness-causing bacteria. He shares his findings with the mayor and fellow townspeople, believing they will laud him as a hero and remedy the problem immediately, regardless of cost. But just as critics derided Ibsen for pointing out an inconvenient truth, Dr. Stockmann’s cohorts respond not with adulation but with a complicated mix of resentment and antipathy, and a desire to protect their own self interests.
Though his name is nearly synonymous with Norwegian playwriting, Ibsen spent much of his adult life outside of his native land. Born in Skien to a well-to-do merchant family, Ibsen spent his early childhood enjoying the comforts of upper middle-class life. When he was seven, however, his parents’ finances faltered, and the family moved permanently to their small summer house outside the city. After leaving school at age 15, Ibsen was apprenticed to a pharmacist. He began to write plays in his late teens, and left pharmacology to work at Det Norske Theater in Bergen, where he was involved in the production of 145 plays. He moved eventually to Oslo (then Christiania) to work at the Christiania Theater, and continue to write. But Ibsen had grown disenchanted with his homeland, having spent much of his young adulthood in poverty. He moved to Italy in 1864 at age 36; though no one had specifically compelled him to leave, Ibsen often insisted that his exit was forced, writing later that “everybody was against me.” His whole life he harbored a sense—justified or not—that others failed to grasp the merits of his work and see the world through his eyes. The alienated writer spent 27 years abroad, penning his most famous works from his adopted homes of Italy and, later, Germany.
Like Ibsen, Dr. Stockmann possesses a keen eye for society’s problems. In an era in which germ theory—that is, the idea that diseases are caused by organisms invisible to the naked eye—was not widely accepted or known by the common population, Dr. Stockmann ferrets out truth. Like middle class society, the water in the baths appears clean and respectable to the casual viewer. A closer observation finds that both are fetid. But in addition to their noble truth-seeking attributes, the two men also share a disdain for people. Both are so pessimistic about human nature that they fear democracy can never work because it depends on the populace to elect adept leaders. In Robert Falls’ adaptation, when Dr. Stockmann’s arguments are threatened, he declares, “The might of the majority does not make right, and you know it! Right is on the side of people like me. Of the enlightened few, of the great intellects of the visionaries, who see and understand the truth.” Ibsen, in an 1882 letter, wrote “the minority is always right.” While this disdain might spur Ibsen and Dr. Stockmann’s work, it also alienates them from the very individuals they endeavor to educate.
From Italy (and later, Germany), Ibsen continued correspondence with Scandinavian theaters, who produced his work even in his absence. During the decades of his self-imposed exile, his worldwide reputation improved considerably as the 19th century drew to a close and old morals gave way to new. Now often referred to as the “Father of Modern Drama,” Ibsen is applauded for exposing society’s issues—and indeed, modern audiences and critics consider social critique to be a hallmark of fine art. History has shown us that the minority, in this case, was right. But even if Ibsen stood on higher moral ground than his critics, did he have the right to consider himself superior? Might the townspeople have accepted Dr. Stockmann’s ideas more readily had he not insulted them? Is it better to possess great knowledge, or the ability to communicate it?