“Adaptation” is a tricky term when applied to a great work of theatre, particularly when the original work is in a language that is inaccessible to most readers. While a skillful translation and careful editing can certainly draw a contemporary audience into the significance of a classic, too much tampering with the original can distort and destroy the very qualities that make it great and relevant. Such is the case with the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”
MTC has chosen “a new version” by a respected British playwright, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, that reduces Ibsen’s four-act drama to just over two hours running time (including an intermission) with a text that is an awkward blend of late 19th century thoughts that are expressed in early 21st century language. While Ms. Lenkiewicz has been careful to preserve the basic plotline of Ibsen’s play, what remains loses the original’s complexity and ambiguities, the very features that make a classic worth reexaming.
And there is little doubt that this play is worth reconsideration in light of our 21st century world. On the surface, “Enemy” is a political drama. A small bucolic town in Norway has developed a thriving economy based on tourists visiting a set of therapeutic baths. Two brothers take credit for this prosperity, one a doctor who claims to have identified the potential of these natural resources and the other, the mayor of the town, who has managed the interest groups that have emerged as the town evolved into a modern economy with tradesmen, home owners, and the inevitable “moneyed-class” who own shares in the baths. But “there is trouble in River City;” the doctor discovers that waste seeping into the ground from a tannery (owned by his cantankerous father-in-law) is polluting the bath waters and causing serious bodily harm to the very people who flock to the baths for restoration.
What follows is a 19th century version of 21st century issues related to global climate change and, more directly, the controversies around fracking for natural gas. The man of science is compelled to make his facts public and is convinced that truth shall win out. The man of politics is determined to use his influence in a socio-economically diverse town to preserve the source of the town’s prosperity by any means necessary, including destroying his brother’s career and family.
The doctor recognizes the challenge he faces in correcting this wrong – convincing the town to ignore the economic impact and do the right thing. First he turns to the publisher of the local newspaper and his staff who give every appearance of being “radical liberals,” committed to empowering the people, guided by truth and science. But as the mayor plays politics, threatening to raise taxes on the working middle class to pay for “repairs to the infrastructure,” these “radicals” realize that their struggling paper relies on the support of the very people the doctor threatens, and they become the instrument for suppressing the truth. When the doctor ignores the pleas from his brother and wife and calls a meeting of the town to discuss his findings, the meeting is taken over by the mayor and his surrogate leader of the tradesmen and homeowners associations. He is branded “an enemy of the people” and driven from his home by rock-throwing members of his own community.
If the depth of Ibsen’s drama went no further, Ms. Lenkiewicz’s adaptation would be a reasonable facsimile of the original. But Ibsen was a much deeper thinker and his realistic dramas were entwined in the richest and most complex philosophical ideas of his time (and, to a certain extent, our time). Ibsen had a deep sense of the changes taking place in society. The emergence of democratic rule, the breakdown of traditional values, the evolution of new class systems, and the rejection of traditional belief systems are recurring themes in his plays. More significantly, Ibsen was clearly influenced by the German philosopher Hegel, who asserted that history and thought evolve out of the dialectical interaction of opposites, not unlike the clash between the man of science and the man of politics in this play.
MTC advertises this production as a “fast-paced, two-hour thriller,” a rather odd description for any Ibsen play. Ms. Lenkiewicz’s adaptation certainly tries to reduce the work to a simple conflict between good and bad in which both characters have their flaws and the “good-in-the-bad” and “bad-in-the-good” are revealed. But Ibsen does not write melodramas; in fact, he is widely credited with laying the groundwork for modern serious drama in which characters evolve and change. He rejects the presentation of characters as stark representations of good and evil, right and wrong. Ibsen’s people are subjected to competing forces and the play is a dramatization of their evolution into a new force.
As the doctor faces the tyranny of the majority, he experiences a Hegelian dialectical transformation. He starts out seeing himself as the champion of the people, the protector of their interests and friend to progressive thinkers. But as self-interest transforms “the people” into “the enemy,” he questions the very tenets of the society he thought he was protecting. In a more literal translation of the play, faced with an angry mob, stirred by misrepresentations and appeals to their personal interest by their local leaders, the doctor insensitively proclaims to his neighbors:
The doctrine you inherited from your forefathers and proclaim thoughtlessly far and wide – the doctrine that the public, the crowd, the masses, are the essential part of the population – that they constitute the People, — that the common folk, the ignorant and incomplete element in the community have the same right to pronounce judgment and to approve, to direct and to govern, as the isolated intellectually superior personalities in it.
You can certainly connect the inflammatory rants of Rick Santorum with this speech. “We will never have the elite smart people on our side,” declared the presidential candidate with an MBA and a JD, “they want to tell us what to do.” In the original translation, the doctor declares:
It is absolutely inexcusable to proclaim the false doctrine that it is the masses, the crowd, the compact majority, that have the monopoly of broad-mindedness and morality – and that vice and corruption and every kind of intellectual depravity are the result of culture, just as all the filth that is draining into our Baths is the result of the tanneries.
In the current production, the doctor stands on a table yelling “the strongest men stand alone,” appearing to be possessed by a fatal case of self-aggrandizement. Indeed, he is possessed and that is a tragic flaw, just as the short sightedness of the general public is a major flaw that will most certainly bring terrible consequences to their town and to each individual in that town.
In the MTC version, we are left seeing the doctor as a misguided idealist and his foes as maniacally self-interested manipulators. But Ibsen does not see this as the triumph of bad over good due to the shortcomings of individuals. He sees this as an inescapable clash of dialectally opposite forces that produces a new reality. In the original final scene in the play, the doctor talks about starting school with twelve boys in whom he can develop a new consciousness of truth and societal values by confronting the dialectal forces that shape modern society. In this production, his children have been harassed at school and the good doctor, like Rick Santorum, professes his commitment to home schooling for his offsprings.
Ms. Lenkiewicz has been successful in transforming Ibsen’s play into a reflection of contemporary politics. Her dialogue is filled with anachronisms and catch phrases that resonate with a contemporary audience – the newspaper editor drops his radical stance and admits that “the people buy the paper for the schlock on the back pages;” the tradesman type-setter for the newspaper evokes the spirit of Willy Loman explaining his cherished place in the community: “I am well liked.” But in the process, Ms. Lenkiewicz has lost the true value of Ibsen’s complex and rich text. We leave the theatre pitying the doctor and castigating the “democratic” mob. The doctor considers moving to “the new world” of America. But “it’s probably no better in America,” he professes to the amusement of the well-heeled Broadway audience, “the majority rules there, too” (producing a self-conscious laugh in the theatre). At the curtain call, the audience jokingly boos when the turncoat members of the newspaper staff take their bow.
Ironically, the title of the play, as presented in the printed program, holds the key to the production’s weakness. “An ENEMY of the PEOPLE.” These capitalizations and bold letters reflect the dialectic opposites that are at the core of Ibsen’s drama. His play is about the interactions of those forces and the evolution of a new reality that will produce a new norm that, in turn, posits its opposite causing the evolution of yet another new reality and its opposite. This is not a melodrama that pits the People against its Enemies. The people are their own enemies and the enemies are their own salvation. And that is tragic and insightful.
The MTC production labors to fully realize the adaptor’s intensions. Boyd Gaines gives an engaging portrayal of a reasonable man of science “losing it.” Richard Thomas is a perfect champion of the status quo as the foundation upon which democracy is founded. For some strange reason, Ms. Lenkiewicz has chosen to edit several of the interchanges between the doctor and his wife as manifestations of 19th century misogyny –“you take care of the home, Catherine,” says the doctor, “I’ll take care of society.” “Enemy” was written just three years after Ibsen’s controversial (and frequently misinterpreted) application of dialectal realism to the role of women in society entitled “A Doll House” (not “A Doll’s House”). When Ibsen’s richly nuanced and complicated perspective is reduced to a “fast-paced, two-hour thriller,” we may have a viable replication of contemporary political-economics, but we lose his profound reflections on the interactions of forces that affect the individual and the societies to which we belong.
Ibsen is neither a proponent nor an opponent of democratic rule. He does not see science as a victor over belief. He knows the individual is inextricably tied to — and the victim of — society even as his protagonist declares, “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.” His plays can be paired down to melodramatic social dramas: Nora in “A Doll House” as a woman searching for liberation against the stultifying restrictions of her culture; Hedda Gabler caught in a web of bad decisions fostered by her perception of her place in society. But it is the interaction of disparate forces on the individual and society that makes Ibsen’s work profound and helps us see its relevance to our contemporary experiences.
Adaptation certainly has a place in our theatre. Rethinking, even rewriting a classic play to speak to a new audience has produced many compelling theatre experiences. But adaptation must be done with a purpose beyond simply making the work more palatable or less challenging. It needs to show us things we might have missed or otherwise ignored. It can offer a new perspective or reinforce the original intent. This production of “An Enemy of the People” seems intent on demonstrating its relevance to our time, but relevancy is a beginning, not an end unto itself. The controversies surrounding the initial productions of many of Ibsen’s plays speak to their relevancy in his own time; the plays themselves have much more to say for our time.