Update: Chris ContiAn Enemy of the People

The Public Enemy is a Woman

In 1906 Fredrikke Nielsen, 69-year-old Norwegian actor and pioneer, travelled to Kristiania for the state funeral of Henrik Ibsen. Half a century earlier, Nielsen had electrified National Theatre audiences at Bergen in the role of Hørdis in The Vikings at Helgoland, the first of a string of Ibsen heroines she was to play for the next 25 years before joining the Methodist assembly in the US to fight from the pulpit for the rights of women and single mothers. Taking her place in the ten thousand strong funeral procession, Nielsen laid a wreath and gave a short speech thanking Ibsen for the gift of all those great female stage roles.

We can now thank Ibsen for giving us another. The female Dr Stockmann currently treading the boards at the Belvoir Street Theatre is no gimmick for the times; the times themselves have seen to that. If anything, Kate Mulvaney’s Dr Stockmann is timelier than one might wish. Waiting for the show to start in the theatre foyer, I pondered how a female Dr Stockmann would alter the balance of Ibsen’s contentious classic. Would the sibling rivalry be as fierce? Would Mrs Stockmann be missed? (Who else can ballast the ballooning ego of her eccentric husband, who, before his key insight into the listlessness of the liberal majority, comically imagines the townsfolk organising a parade in his honour?) Most critically of all, would the #Me Too movement loom too conspicuously out of the background, obscuring Ibsen’s message about the mindless me-tooism of public opinion?

Director Anne-Louise Sarks and scriptwriter Melissa Reeves have each given careful thought to questions in this line. A good adaptation is like a good translation: it works across the entire piece. And a female Dr Stockman is all of a piece with this translation of Ibsen’s nineteenth-century political drama into a contemporary Australian coastal setting. The iPhone only pops up when expected, as when Dr Stockmann receives the news that the spa baths on which the town’s livelihood rests are polluted. Or when daughter Petra turns her phone camera on the hecklers at the town hall meeting, the climax of the evening that casts the audience as the indifferent liberal majority. Mel Page’s set, a miked-up glass box with open foreground, draws us into the conversation in the doctor’s living room. All told, the Belvoir production has recreated another Ibsen classic for our complex and challenging times, keeping pace with productions in metropolitan centres everywhere in the last five or six years from Berlin to Beijing, Singapore to Istanbul.

A play so dominated by its central character as An Enemy of the People requires a strong lead, and Kate Mulvaney, herself a playwright, delivers it. If Christophe Gawenda played Stockmann as ‘an idealistic grad student,’ then Mulvaney is more middle-aged working mum, returning to her job as wellness consultant after the death of her husband. Leon Ford’s Mayor strikes the balance between political self-interest and loyalty to (or frustration with) his headline-grabbing sister. The male Dr Stockmann is not forgotten but quietly put to rest, as if he’d always belonged in the backstory. The gap in the cast created by Mrs Stockmann is split between the three female roles, with Nikita Waldron as bright-eyed Petra and Catherine Davies as sleepy-eyed Randine. Steve Le Marquand and Charles Wu convince as old and new versions of backflipping journalists Hovstad (‘Hoffie’) and Billing, while Kenneth Moraleda supplies the right dose of oily charm as Aslaksen, and Peter Carroll enough crustiness as Morten Kiil, to round out a strong ensemble performance.

The conflict between scientist and politician at the heart of An Enemy of the People is replete with allegorical suggestion. The play is, for this reason, easy to oversimplify as a tale of pristine scientific truth versus grubby government coverups. The Mayor says as much to Dr Stockmann when the bad news at the baths begins to break. The conflict is better characterised according to competing reactions to a truth already out in the open. In the age of the endless news cycle, Sarks observes in her Director’s Note, ‘the question is not so much will the truth come out – as what will we do about the truth that is already out in the open and known?’

Following his political instincts, the Mayor tries to manage the situation. He begins by framing it as a matter not just of science but of the town’s economic livelihood, wresting the issue from experts like Dr Stockmann. The Mayor is confirmed in his conviction that the threat facing the town is manageable, not existential, by long familiarity with the vanities of his grandstanding sibling, who, vexingly, shines brighter than he does in the public eye. His legitimate concerns shade into self-interest and denial, a situation with which Australians are all too familiar after six years of government by climate science deniers. His plan to fix the problem recalls the Direct Action Plan of the Abbott government. Governments can bank on indifference a good deal of the time. How much longer is one of the questions posed by this production, which is playing at the time of another dire warning from the IPCC that climate change impacts are worse than expected. The systemic change needed to prevent anthropogenic ecocide never looked more difficult.

Dr Stockmann is typically pictured as a lone standard bearer of truth, mostly, it must be said, by himself. Ibsen mocks him at curtain fall by surrounding him with family when he boasts of standing alone. In fact, Ibsen was divided about his crusading hero. After seeing a performance in Berlin, he referred to Stockmann as ‘to some extent a grotesque kid and a hot-head.’ The illiberal sentiments Stockmann unleashes on a jeering crowd are often cut from the text, notably by Arthur Miller in his 1950 adaption against the backdrop of McCarthyism. Konstantin Stanislavsky noticed the tendency to idealise Stockmann earlier in the century, when An Enemy of the People became ‘the favourite play of revolutionists’ after his identification with Emile Zola’s liberal stance in the Dreyfus Affair. Playing Stockmann for Petrograd’s Moscow Arts Theatre in 1905, in the shadow of the Kazansky Square massacre, Stanislavsky was met with hundreds of outstretched hands when he uttered the famous line about not wearing one’s best trousers when going out to fight for truth and freedom. Each exuberant hand had to be shaken before the performance could continue. Dr Stockmann’s scorn for the masses was disregarded, Stanislavsky recorded in his memoir, because ‘Stockmann protested, Stockmann told the truth, and that was enough.’

Dr Stockmann’s intellectual elitism, then, has long been honoured in the breach. Sarks and Mulvaney keep the intellectual vanity—the weakness for the martyr pose—by reminding us how tiring idealists can be despite their admirable pluck. ‘Even when Tom died, it was all about you,’ the Mayor vents. The crusading Doctor’s imaginary parade is replaced with the promise of a little plaque, a vanity exposed when her support evaporates in the face of the true cost of change and she is egged by formerly adoring townsfolk. As the three women clean off the sexist insult graffitied on her house front, Mulvany quips: ‘What are they going to do to me now, burn me at the stake? Take away my library card?’ Petra (previously Daddy’s girl) and Randine (previously a punchline) rally around her. The old joke about forgetting the cleaner’s name is the same, but this time around Randine is given a role to remember: to remind us, not just the Doctor, of the latent political force she represents. ‘I don’t vote. Nothing changes,’ Randine says. ‘I like you. I like your brain,’ returns Dr Stockmann.

Tasking the neglected cleaner with an updated revolutionary message makes sense on a number of levels; class, sex, and ecology to name the obvious. The system is failing from below, sending toxic reminders back up the pipes. It also balances the debt incurred by tampering with a classic role, reassigning the reality principle borne by Mrs Stockmann. Randine reminds the forgetful Doctor that the establishment won’t be able to rely on docile workers forever. Sacked from her second job at the baths, Randine plays the choral role of the nation’s disenfranchised electorate, warning the Doctor—as the Doctor has just warned us—of the dangers posed by collective indifference to a swelling underclass, sleeping in their cars because they can’t pay the electricity bill (or keep down a job and deal with an ice addict in the family). Randine gives the Doctor a mandate to stay and fight on behalf of those most in need of protection from the status quo ante, as if she were the first underprivileged pupil of Dr Stockmann’s new school. Without jobs or political representation, ‘no job, no money, nothing to lose,’ says the revolutionary-in-waiting, ‘we can cause havoc.’

Speaking out against vested interests is a dangerous occupation at any time. The conglomeration of power across the business and media landscape has little trouble making a public enemy of the truth; and ‘when the ‘enemy’ is a woman,’ Sarks notes, ‘the professional response is different, the media’s response is different, the community’s response is different.’ The verbal and physical menace directed at a female Dr Stockmann is different to what a male Dr Stockmann might attract. The difference is marked on several occasions, most memorably in the town hall meeting. Anyone who can recall the second Trump v Clinton presidential debate will not mistake the inspiration for Ford’s menacing use of his height to tower over Mulvaney as she appeals to the public. Trump’s stalking of Clinton was described by some as upstaging and others as a pre-assault indicator. The audience gasps when Mulvaney is egged, but Ford’s skulking presence behind her as she speaks reminds us of the special threat reserved for women who dare to speak out.

Working from a translation by May-Brit Akerholt, Melissa Reeves does a fine job of pressing Ibsen’s Dano-Norwegian into the rugged dress of Australian speech. While ‘the delicate task of transplantation’ often seemed ‘like doing an impossibly hard jigsaw puzzle,’ Reeves saw how Ibsen’s theatre demanded appreciation of ‘where the great disciplines of history and philosophy and politics sit, hopefully lightly, alongside character, narrative structure and style.’ Her stint at the Centre for Ibsen Studies at Oslo has paid off, including as it did a study of past productions by Arthur Miller (not namesake Henry, as mistakenly noted in the program), Satyajit Ray, and Frank Castorf. She does not mention Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne production, which played at the Melbourne Festival in 2012 on its feted world tour. With his now self-evident observation that Ibsen’s hero is theatre’s first whistle-blower, Ostermeier gave us a public enemy for the age of surveillance capitalism: Dr Stockmann with the hounded look of Edward Snowden. A performance for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013 not only upstaged a frockcoated Broadway production in the same season, but the Hollywood thriller The Fifth Estate, which bombed with Benedict Cumberbatch on board as the white-haired Julian Assange. (As The New Republic put it, ‘it’s hard to know whether to be happy or sad that a long-dead Norwegian has much more to say to us than the political thriller in Hollywood.’) Just last month, authorities in China shut down the Beijing premiere of Ostermeier’s Ibsen because, as one local blogger put it, of ‘the resemblance between the story and this country’s reality.’

Sarks, too, has taken note, following Ostermeier’s involvement of the audience in the climactic crowd scene, praised by Michael Billington as a ‘rowdy version of BBC Question Time.’ Sarks’ actors bring the audience into the action with orchestrated disruptions of Dr Stockmann’s entreaties. The truth no one wants to hear is watered down with mayoral equivocations pitched at the small business lobby and finally drowned out with hollering and vicious putdowns. ‘You want to shut the spa, you want to shut the tanneries; is there anything you don’t want to shut?’ moans Hoffie. ‘Her legs!’ shrieks Billing. The good Doctor has long been thought a bit mad, but ‘a mad bitch’ is easier to silence than an eccentric. Slut-shaming discredits women and muzzles the truth. Reeves and Sarks want us, among other things, to feel disgust at its ongoing success. Rather than find truth in isolation, the female Dr Stockmann, unsettled by vicious sexist abuse, finds strength in the support of the women around her: Petra, who has had to fend off the groping hands of Hoffie and insults on the school website, and Randine.

Ibsen’s original dialogue, with its oathing protagonist, is well suited to translation into Australian vernacular, which can keep pace with coarseness in any language. To take offence at the liberal airing of the F-word in this piece is to forget how often oaths fly not just in our speech but in the original text. An Ibsen-era Norwegian swore much like Ginger Mick, but ‘God strike me dead!’ lost its edge a way back. Some of the best insults in the original are fired off by Dr Stockmann. His compulsive swearing is an aspect of the play’s comic dimension often downplayed in favour of high drama. Sarks points the profanities at Dr Stockmann, lowering the tone just enough for us to feel the mood of the crowd as it turns ugly.

After the interval, as the audience return to their seats, Petra props the microphone like the organiser of a council meeting and circulates posters warning of imminent public health risks and urging action to ‘sort the resort.’ The hecklers, led by Billing, turn the mood from cheery to nasty, rolling from jovial intrusion (‘What’s she on about?’) to spoiling tactics (‘Yeah, right!’) and verbal abuse (‘Know-all arrogant bitch!’). It’s great fun for the audience, even as the atmosphere is cut with enough spite to remind us of the mob mentality in even the politest of crowds. The old Dr Stockmann made jokes about the stones that break his windows. Here she jokes about witch-burning, but only after we see her rattled by the hatred stirred up against her. The silent majority does not take kindly to being roused from its slumber. ‘It’s over,’ she tells Petra and Randine, as they scrub the graffitied slur from the house front. ‘No one cares anymore.’

An Enemy of the People has long been stranded somewhere between political comedy and high drama. Ibsen admitted as much to his publisher: ‘I am still a little uncertain whether to call it a comedy or simply a play; it has much of the character of a comedy, but there is also a serious basic theme.’ The ambiguity stems from Ibsen’s divided attitude to his hero, a division long reflected in the criticism and restated in plain terms: does Ibsen approve of Dr Stockmann or not?

The plague Dr Stockmann wishes on both houses of politics has often seemed to threaten the liberal sympathies of his creator. Stockmann’s great spiritual discovery that the truth is not progressive or conservative but individual has all the uncompromising force of anti-political politics, recalling the impractical idealism of his precursor, Brand. The vitriolic attack on Ghosts had left Ibsen angry with the Left, whose commentators had more in common with the reactionaries they deplored than they ever cared to admit. The systemic change needed could never begin with the habitual airing of liberal sentiments.

Ibsen’s impatience with politics as usual and willingness to risk liberal disfavour gives this play its clout, but the style of its attack on democracy has troubled interpreters. After announcing his great discovery, Dr Stockmann tells us a bit about his life up north before the action of the play begins:

DR STOCKMANN: There I sat for years in that hole up north. When I met some of the people who lived there, they looked so stunted I thought they needed a vet not a doctor.

Nervous laughter from the crowd—does he mean us? His great discovery is then couched in an analogy between human culture and animal breeding, equating the difference between a mongrel dog and a pedigree poodle to ‘poodle humans’ and ‘mongrel humans.’ Riled by the crowd, he rants about a ‘lie-ridden community’ deserving destruction: ‘All those who live a lie should be eradicated like vermin!’ It’s only now the crowd brand Stockmann an enemy of the people; in the face of this wild claim, they may be right to.

Dr Stockmann’s speeches allowed Ibsen to vent about the corruption of the body politic by upstream pollution of the gene pool. Stockmann’s insistence on the need to separate poodle humans from mongrel humans took on sinister hues as the eugenics movement developed from the speculations of Sir Francis Galton to the racism of William Davenport, from the idea that technology could improve the stocks of the human race to the racist idea that undesirable qualities could be bred out of the gene pool. The defeat of Nazism finally discredited the eugenics movement in the US, though not soon enough for Arthur Miller, who could only find a seat for Ibsen on the liberal side of politics by cutting Dr Stockmann’s speeches.

Sarks and Reeves, too, streamline the message with an elegant swerve around an old problem. Distilling Dr Stockmann’s attack on the liberal majority into the key phrase ‘our democracy is not working’ hits the right note. It’s a shrewd reworking that gives robustness to the production as a whole. Indications as to how the problem might be squared conceptually, however, can be found in eco-critical accounts of the play as a comedy of survival. Stockmann is a bit of a crank, but the superman thesis inspiring the Nazis is nowhere to be found in Ibsen.

As Greg Garrard pointed out, Dr Stockmann’s two discoveries make a link between physical and spiritual health, stressing the environmental conditions of human flourishing—nurture rather than nature. A well-looked after poodle will produce a better animal than a half-starved street dog. If we don’t want to end up like the miserable folks up North, then we have to smarten up and clean the baths. Dr Stockmann’s ambition to start a school to make free men of ‘street urchins’ and ‘guttersnipes’ is, Gerrard notes, consistent with Darwin’s conviction that acquired characteristics can be inherited.

Eco-critical accounts of the play can thus countenance the Doctor’s eugenic thinking. They can also dispense with the device of allegory. Comparison between the public response to the poisoning of the baths and our response to global warming hits home without it. The Mayor is any politician whose career has been built on climate change scepticism. He realises that ignoring Dr Stockmann’s advice on where to lay the pipes implicates him, even if no single individual is to blame. He tries to silence the whistle-blower then offers his own modified plan to fix the problem. The reaction of Hovstad, Billing and Aslaksen resembles our reaction to climate change and complicity with all compromised measures to fix it—we want the problem solved, so long as we don’t have to pay for it.

Ibsen expressed comic fatalism about our acceptance of environmental pollution. Dr Stockmann’s refusal to be cowed keeps the emphasis on muddling our way through rather than apocalyptic politics. How much time on the clock is left for muddling, 140 years after Ibsen’s play, is the thought that worried me as I exited Belvoir Street with my teenage daughter, flushed with delight at her first experience of genuine theatre.

An Enemy of the People runs at the Belvoir Street Theatre until 4 November. Details here

Works cited

Greg Garrard. ‘Poodles and Curs: Eugenic Comedy in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.’ In Culture, Creativity and Environment: New Environmentalist Criticism, ed. Fiona Becket and Terry Gifford. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007.

Henrik Ibsen. A Doll’s House and Other Plays. Trans. Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016.

Michael Meyer. Ibsen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.