Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen ****

The last in Ibsen's trilogy that includes A Doll's House, this one also attacks hypocritical Norwegian (yea, all) society, but unlike the first two plays, it does not focus on the role of women. Here, the centerpiece is a doctor who discovers that a town's main tourist attraction--its baths--is polluted by sewer water that is causing various diseases. Confronted with this truth, he lets others in town know. He starts with the leadership, who reject his charges on the basis that the town depends too much on the baths, and any bad publicity would turn tourists away and it would cost too much money and time to fix them.

The press, however, is very ready to jump on the doctor's side. However, those involved with the paper have their own agendas, whether power, money, or love. When these motivations prove not to look to bear any fruit when taking the doctor's side, the press quickly turns on the doctor to uphold the interests of the townspeople. After all, who wants to pay higher taxes to fix a problem or see less revenue from tourism?

With leadership and the press squarely backing a do nothing philosophy, the doctor is shunted by all. He loses his job, because he refuses to retract his report regarding the baths. His family loses its home; his children are kicked out of school and lose their jobs; his wife loses her inheritance. The situation is hopeless. What's more, rumors are rife that the doctor is in on a deal for himself (his father-in-law has bought shares in the baths at cheap prices and now insists his son-in-law retract his report so that he can make a killing in the market, and some dubious members of the press insist they want a cut of the profits--or the doctor's name will be mud). So what does the doctor do? He chooses to help the poor.

The latter is the doctor's heroic end, but is it realistic? The family may now have a "job" to do, but where exactly is it going to get the money to pay for the food and clothes?

I like to see a person of great virtue stand up to society, but as the play brings out, it's a rare person that does so. Even the so-called moderates prove unwilling to really sacrifice for the common good. However, I guess the play is a bit more optimistic than I am about people and about the human race. Were this something I'd have written, the doctor would have eventually buckled, justifying his compromised actions with lame excuses and feeling guilty the whole way. And if the doctor had remained true? He'd have ended up like Corey at the end of Arthur Miller's The Crucible--defiant but crushed dead beneath a set of stones.

This play hits hard at situations that, as adults, we face all too often. Remaining true to convictions inevitably comes up against everyday living, and often pits one conviction or concern against another (supply for family or refuse to be silent regarding an evil). Money makes the world go round. You can read the play for yourself here.

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