“An Enemy of the People”
A modern tragedy.
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Many plays have been written throughout history that aren’t just for entertainment but deal with the deep issues of the human condition. This genre of theatre is called tragedy. Greeks were among the first to write plays and a good number of them were tragedies. The art form progressed until humanity lost touch with the idea of God near the end of the 19th century. Scholars said it was impossible to write a modern tragedy but Henrik Ibsen proved them wrong when he wrote “An Enemy of the People” in 1882. While some say he killed the tragedy, others, like myself, say that it was just the most recent reinvention of the tragedy. There are at least seven reasons why “An Enemy of the People” can be seen as a modern tragedy but I will only explore three.
One way in which “An Enemy of the People” can be classified as a modern tragedy is that it deals with the fall of a great man. Dr. Stockmann is the chief medical officer for the Baths in a small but prospering Norwegian village. He is respected by his fellow citizens and even by the mayor, who happens to be his brother. He has a particularly good relationship with the publisher of a local newspaper who says, “You are a man who deserves to be supported, Doctor.” (pg. 36) This all falls apart in a span of 24 hours when Dr. Stockmann tries to publicize the information that the waters that feed the Baths are poisonous and unhealthy. After the mayor convinces the editor that it would be bad for the town and for his paper circulation, they turn against Dr. Stockmann. Hovstad the editor says, “I am not going to print it. I cannot and will not and dare not print it.” (pg. 48) When the Doctor tries to rent a public meeting hall to tell the public in person, no one will rent to him. A friend finally lets him use his house but the people refuse to listen. By the end of the night, they turn into a mob and go so far as to stone his house. The next morning his Father in law tells him that he is taking away his wife and children’s inheritance on top of everything. Dr. Stockmann went from a respected man with a good job to a man who lost his job, his family ties, and his place in society. Certainly that is the fall of a great man.
Ibsen’s theme of having a “poisoned city” is another main reason why “An Enemy of the People” can be considered a tragedy. The main source of income for the town is from the Baths. The mayor says, “Think how extraordinarily the place has developed in the last year or two! Money has been flowing in, and there is some life and some business doing in the town. Houses and landed property are rising in value every day.” (pg. 3) Visitors come from all over to bathe in the restorative waters that “bless” this small hamlet of Norway. The good Doctor took it upon himself to investigate why some of the towns’ patrons were getting sick. Just like Oedipus Rex in the play of the same name by Sophocles, who had to investigate a murder to cleanse his city, this modern “noble” sought to heal the unseen wound that was laying siege to his town. “I have investigated the matter most conscientiously…unquestionably, it is due to that poisonous morass up at Mölledal.” (pg. 19) Later, the Doctor changes his story. “I have made lately—the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” (pg. 56) This is similar to the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare in which Denmark was plagued by an incestuous monarchy that was built upon a lie. There was no physical place of poison but a moral dilemma. The Doctor goes on to say, “The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority.” What he means is that no one can speak their mind or have new ideas for fear that the general masses will disagree with them as evidenced by this passage:
The Mayor: The moment an idea comes into your head, you must needs go write a newspaper article or a whole pamphlet about it.
Dr. Stockmann: Well, but is it not the duty of a citizen to let the public share in any new ideas he may have?
The Mayor: Oh, the public doesn’t require any new ideas. The public is best served by the good, old-established ideas it already has.
Dr. Stockmann is fighting conformity, the true poison in “An Enemy of the People.”
There are some reasons why people may say that this play is not a tragedy at all. First and foremost, there is no involvement of a deity or anything of the metaphysical sort. This flies in the face of both Greek and Elizabethan tragedy where such interaction between people and a higher power was often pivotal to the plot as in “Oedipus Rex.” Secondly, Dr. Stockmann is an ordinary member of society. In a traditional tragedy, the tragic hero is always royalty: King Oedipus, King Creon, Prince Hamlet. Lastly, there is no death at the end of the play. Many people would say that this is reason enough to disqualify it as a tragedy. No one dies; it can’t be that tragic. Oddly enough, this is also proof that it still is a tragedy. It sticks to the Greek definition where the tragic hero stays in pain, living with the consequences of his actions. At the end, having been stripped of everything, Dr. Stockmann boldly makes a stand against everyone who oppose him. Ready to brave a new life armed with the knowledge of who he is and the purpose of his existence.
A final reason that “An Enemy of the People” is seen as one of the first modern tragedies is that the main character searches for truth. This is a major theme of the Greek tragedies. They believed that a person led a successful life if they accomplished any of these three things: a social obligation to one’s city or fellow citizens, being able to understand the universe and one’s place in it, and knowing oneself. I believe that Dr. Stockmann tried to accomplish the first one and succeeded at the last two. When talking about his discovery of the poisoned water, he says, “I feel tremendously happy. It is a splendid thing for a man to be able to feel that he has done a service to his native town and his fellow citizens.” (pg. 15) As we have seen, he tries to alert the town to this fact but they turn against him and his family. In doing this, he comes to understand his place in the universe: “I will go so far as to say that now I am the strongest man in the whole world…I have made a great discovery. It is this, let me tell you—that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.” (pg. 82) After going through the horrible ordeal of losing everything for an idea, I believe he truly knows himself and what he can withstand. Throughout the play Dr. Stockmann makes a stand for truth. “Because a man has a wife and children, is he not allowed to proclaim the truth?… Do you imagine you can silence me and stifle the truth! …I do not believe there is any other well-ascertained truth except this, that no community can live a healthy life if it is nourished only on such old marrowless truths.” (pg. 48-49, 60) He tirelessly defends the truth, but more importantly, the ability for anyone to proclaim that truth to the benefit of the public. “An Enemy of the People” is about one man’s search for truth against a society of mass ignorance and intolerance.
Henrik Ibsen wrote “An Enemy of the People” to be the first modern tragedy.
The tragic hero Dr. Stockmann is a great man who falls from the towns’ graces. They bring about his downfall when he tries to tell them about how their main source of income is poisoned. This search for truth leads to his family nearly getting run out of town but in the end, they stand firm. This play is not just about a small Norwegian village in the 1880’s but about society in general and that is what makes it a great standard of literature. The past presidential election is a perfect example of that. The Liberals thought that they had it in the bag with John Kerry but the compact majority headed by George “Doubya” Bush suddenly turned out in full force and said “No” to new ideas like gay marriage. I think we can all learn from what happened in that small village and press on to make a brighter future for all of us.