An Enemy of the People

Schaubühne Berlin, directed by Thomas Ostermeier,adapted by Florian Borchmeyer

Melbourne Arts Centre, October 24, 2012

Make no mistake; this is a fundamentally political play in the Aristotelian sense. The ancient Greek philosopher called ‘man’ the political animal for his ability to act in accordance with the common good. Put differently, politics, for Aristotle, is about collective action in the pursuit of the good life, which necessarily places limitations on unfettered individual liberty. Of course, this is not a position that everybody accepts. The history of political science shows how difficult it is to reconcile freedom and authority, and we only need look at the hysterical anti-government rants of the Tea Party to confirm that the collective good is not a high priority for a lot of people, many of whom stubbornly cling to an impossibly romantic conception of the sovereign self — the self-serving, self-identical ‘I’. But let’s not celebrate communalism uncritically, either. JS Mill persuasively argued against the tyranny of majority opinion in his classic essay ‘On Liberty’ in order to underscore the dangers of accepting the popular opinion over the recalcitrant beliefs of a stubborn individual. In any case, politics must contend with the tension between the individual and the community, and, in broad terms, the left/right divide is often framed in terms of apparent opposition between collectivity and defiant individualism, an opposition that is increasingly untenable today.

 

Thomas Ostermeier’s interpretation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People unsettles this opposition by demonstrating how the individual and the collective are necessarily enmeshed and entwined. In fact, it’s difficult to avoid reading the play as a deconstruction of politics, and the sovereign subject. Before the performance begins, the audience is confronted with a quotation from The Coming Insurrection, a political manifesto posted on the Internet by an anti-capitalist group of French anarchists. The text, printed in large black type on a semi-transparent mesh that acts a curtain, analyses the advertising catch phrase ‘I am what I am’ used by Reebok in 2005. It points to the loss of critical distance in a world dominated by the what Guy Debord called the spectacle, the proliferation of images that literally give us our sense of identity. Capitalism, the quotation argues, has colonized the self. Our dreams, our wishes, our desires, our innermost feelings, our political convictions are shaped by the capital — the ‘I’ is a commodity given shape and substance by its patterns of consumption. I buy, therefore I am. So where does this leave the lone wolf, the crusading individual who rails against injustice, and seeks to bring the light of truth into the depraved and corrupt world of petty politics?

Dr Thomas Stockmann is the hero of Ibsen’s play. He is employed as the medical officer of the Municipal Baths in a small coastal town in Norway. He discovers that contaminated water is poisoning the Baths’ patrons, and embarks on a crusade to set things right. Unfortunately, the town’s economy is dependent on tourism, and the cost of finding an unsullied water supply is prohibitive. Stockmann’s older brother, Peter, is the town’s mayor, and while he initially appears to support the doctor’s plan to close down the Baths he quickly realizes that his life, and the lives of the vast majority of the townsfolk would be ruined by the revelation that the Baths are a health hazard. Similarly, Stockmann’s journalist friends lose the courage of their convictions when they, too, realize the scandal will ruin that their livelihoods and career aspirations. The play is a bit like the film, Jaws, which also presents a scenario that pits profit before public safety.

 

Ostermeier transposes Ibsen’s world to present day Germany, and remains pretty faithful to Ibsen’s text in most respects, but his detours from the Norwegian master, however, are significant, and constitute the most compelling and audacious moments in this thoughtful production. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is a stylish production in many ways — the set is simple, and consists of a various tables, chairs, and couches that are moved as the scene demands. The contemporary setting works for the most part. The Stockmann family comprise of the doctor, his wife and their infant child (a minor re-writing of Ibsen’s original text which gives the family two older children). They are ‘cool’ middle-class people, hipsters who play in a part-time band with their friends, journalists who work for the local paper. They have good taste in music, and we are treated to renditions of David Bowie’s ‘Changes’ and Jackson Brown’s ‘These Days’ among other tunes. The actors acquit themselves admirably as musicians, and establish a cozy, comfortable ambience, which is disturbed when a scientific report on the quality of the Baths’ water confirms Stockmann’s suspicions. One by one Stockmann’s friends and presumed allies back away from supporting his unpopular view, leaving him to fight the good fight by himself — he because the lone voice of reason, and Ibsen’s text makes him a laudable and sympathetic figure.

 

It’s easy to see why Ostermeier chose to stage this work. It resonates with so many topical issues. The reluctance of the town’s Mayor and journalists to accept Stockmann’s scientific findings is reminiscent of the attitudes held by today’s climate change deniers, and the pursuit of profit at any cost is also something that contemporary audiences can relate to easily. However, the power that Ibsen’s play attributes to the press has significantly diminished in the age of the Internet and Wikileaks, and pendants will wonder why Stockmann doesn’t send an email to Julian Assange. I don’t think these minor contradictions detract from the power of the play at all. It’s the issues that matter, and the company is not afraid to invoke big ideas, and name-check important thinkers. The blackboard-like walls of the set are decorated with sundry chalk drawings, slogans and names — the names Rousseau, author of the Social Contract, Hegel and Kierkegaard are grouped together; a slogan ‘If you see Buddha, kill him’ is scrawled on another part of the wall amongst many other bits and pieces. There’s a lot of visual information to for the audience to scan, and this task is made difficult by having to keep an eye on the surtitles (the actors speak German for the most part).

 

The play unfolds as expected until the town hall scene where the Stockmann brothers face-off in a pubic debate, each attempting to convince the townspeople of the merits of their respective positions. It’s at this point that things really get interesting. The house lights are turned on, and several actors walk through the fourth wall and into the audience, some take seats, others are placed around the perimeter of the area around the front stalls. At first, this move appears somewhat lame, a heavy-handed Brechtian set piece. Stockmann then delivers his speech, one of the most important monologues in the play, and here’s where the director takes the greatest liberty with Ibsen’s play — he substitutes extracts from the anarchist manifesto for Ibsen’s words. This has the effect of making Stockmann almost incoherent, for see seems to embody a series of contradictory positions. One the one hand, we have seen him as the embodiment of reason and reasonableness within a corrupt milieu — he is the only character seemingly committed to the truth and the long-term well being of the community. The ‘I am what I am’ speech turns him into a rabid demagogue. This transformation happens so quickly that it’s difficult to follow exactly what the character is actually arguing for in his heightened state of agitation. Let’s not forget that this is a German production, and Germans are especially sensitive to the power of inflated and misleading political rhetoric. Stockmann morphs into a little Hiter, but there’s more. At this point the actors ask the audience a series of questions about what they think of the speech and the character of Stockmann. Most importantly, we were asked to raise our hands if we supported Stockmann — almost everybody did. We were then asked if we realized what Stockmann was actually saying about his opponents, for his rant included a line about silencing his opposition. We were played like a piano, and made to feel a little foolish for making such a hasty judgment about the speech. Did Ostermeier flagrantly manipulate the audience? Sure, he did, but he had good reason because the ensuing discussion was the most compelling part of the play. We quickly moved from Brecht to Boal, and found ourselves involved in a form of forum theatre.

This gambit has the potential to fail spectacularly if the audience is docile. The audience on this particular occasion responded with passion, anger, enthusiasm and humour (one gentleman asked how much longer the play had to run because it was past his lunchtime). Some people didn’t like the insinuation that the middle-class is complacent when it comes to politics (the German actors had the audacity to ask the Australian audience whether they intended to vote in the forthcoming council elections). One actor made the point that politics is difficult — it’s easy to criticize, but not so easy to become involved and deal with competing claims and counter-claims about what constitutes the collective good.

I’m under no illusion about the play’s capacity to inspire its audience to raise a people’s army and overthrow capitalism. No work of art is directly revolutionary. However, I admire Ostermeier’s intellectual ambition — his theatre, like it or not, is one of complexity and contradiction. He appeals to the head because he knows only too well the price we pay for dwelling in the narcotic glow of emotions. The final scene of the play, in another significant departure from Ibsen’s text, has Dr Stockmann and his Wife contemplating capitulation. The lights go out before we learn of Stockmann’s decision. Does he go on with his crusade for the truth, which will result in his and his family’s destruction, or does he bow to the will of the majority? Ostermeier leaves the question open, unanswered, unsettled.

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