Thank goodness for Netflix, for it is there that you can be treated to a 1966 televised adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s must-see 1882 play, An Enemy of the People.
The play both reflects, and predicts, what happens when a Liberal majority takes hold of society.
The play’s conceit is simple. A small Norwegian village is about to become a world-class resort as it opens its therapeutic natural springs. However, scientist Dr. Thomas Stockmann discovers the water is being poisoned by runoff from the local tannery. He initially finds support to shut the springs down, yet the idealistic scientist is later ostracized, and his family destroyed by the town – primarily the crony capitalist mayor and the radical media.
The unfolding of the drama provides for crackerjack storytelling. Ibsen presents us with a scientist dedicated to facts. He spent many years penniless in the north, providing physician services to remote villages. He has a devoted wife, a daughter who teaches at the school, and two young boys. He now lives a comfortable, if not extravagant, life. He has a distant relationship with his brother, Peter, the town’s mayor.
When Stockmann discovers the springs are poisoned and must be shut down, he initially receives support from the town’s newspaper. We learn its editor is a radical, devoted to sticking it to the town’s fat cats. The paper’s publisher is a moderate, and represents the town’s small businessmen and homeowners. He’s most concerned with not upsetting anyone.
Ah, but then the Mayor gets involved. The report must be suppressed. Repairing the springs will mean raising taxes, which the homeowners won’t like. If the paper prints the report, the people will stop buying the publication. So both the Publisher and Editor back down.
Stockmann announces he’ll give a lecture, but nobody will rent him a hall. A neutral party – the town’s ship captain – offers his home. Yet that night, the Mayor usurps the lecture, turns it into a meeting, and Stockmann is shouted down. The next day, Stockmann loses his job, so does his daughter, his kids are beaten up, and his home vandalized. He is formally proclaimed “an enemy of the people.”
The play’s parallels to American society under the Obama Administration are striking. Crony capitalism. Radical media. The Establishment that just wants to hold on to what little they have. And of course, not only does the truth get shouted down, it is literally proclaimed an enemy.
Even the neutral sailor is punished – just for holding the meeting. He loses his ship, and cannot even sail the Stockmann family to safety in America. It is ultimately the tyranny of the majority that Ibsen is criticizing, with all parties save Stockmann held at their mercy. When that majority rejects the truth, it is the individual that is crushed.
The original play even makes a point that the radical paper is dependent upon the “masses that are not freethinkers,” and that freethinkers can rarely act on their opinions because the majority will not permit it.
However, in a remarkable parallel to the late Andrew Breitbart, the defiant Dr. Stockmann chooses to remain in the town. He embraces his title, “enemy of the people,” and proclaims in the play’s famous final line, “The strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.”
Words to live by.