Monday, April 14, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "The Man Who Stands Alone" (on Ibsen's An Enemy of the People)

the man who stands alone

by Douglas Messerli

Henrik Ibsen An Enemy of the People, translated from the Norwegian by Rebecca Lenkiewicz / L.A. Theatre Works, at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater, the performance we attended was a matinée on April 12, 2014

The actors in this production were all competent stage, television, and film actors, including Gregory Harrison (as Peter Stockman), Richard Kind (Dr. Thomas Stockman), Rosalind Ayres (as Stockman’s wife, Catherine), and the veteran Alan Mandell (Morten Kiil, Catherine’s aged father). But the L.A. Theatre Works does stage their plays, but rather presents them as radio broadcasts, and the declarative mode of such productions has always left me cold, and the actors, speaking into microphones, often read their lines as if they were pronouncements instead of interactions and conversations between the play’s characters. I’ve noticed this tendency in numerous radio productions, even with the Orson Welles Theater group, who on film are quite brilliant, but over the booming microphone sound like they performing in a high school speech contest. Perhaps it is only “mode” of acting that a good director might rid his actors of; certainly I have attended wonderful “readings” of plays that did not involve radio broadcast. But, this production seemed, at times, as if each actor was trying to outshout the others.     

    If nothing else, however, such radio productions do give a strong sense of the drama’s actual structure and the clear expression of the lines the actors speak. Although I had a few qualms with the new translation of Rebecca Lenkiewicz—at times she translated the language of the 1880s Norway in a contemporized English that made the play a little “folksy” for my taste—basically the English language version served the original well.

      The character of Dr. Thomas Stockman is a rather complex one, since he begins the play as a rather naïve would-be hero, who believes his discovery of the pollution of the town’s major tourist attraction, the local curative baths, will be feted by all, including his conservative brother, Peter, the town mayor. At first, he seems to have the strong support of the local newspaper in the form of its editor, Hovstad (Josh Stamberg) and his young assistant, Billing (Jon Matthews). But when the mayor becomes determined to ignore his brother’s report, he also quickly changes the minds of the supposedly radical newsmen by explaining to them that a reconstruction of the water source of the baths will cost taxpayers thousands of kroners and will surely close the baths themselves—the town’s major financial resource—for at least three years!

     I’ve always felt that the sudden transition of those who appear to be some of the most open-minded men of the city from the Doctor’s supporters to his enemies creaked a bit. True, the mayor’s logic—that if the city were to accept his brother’s allegations, it would go bankrupt—is compelling; but their traitorous turn, from rabble rousers to men who would, like everyone else, play it safe, is difficult to accept. But then, so too is Thomas Stockman’s private belief that to the town may even celebrate his dire news with a parade in his honor! All the characters except for the single-minded mayor and Catherine’s old father—the town’s curmudgeonly wealthy tannery-owner (the major source of the pollution)—quickly become figures perfectly willing to throw away their stated values with the news of Stockman’s discovery,. Even the doctor, who fights for his beliefs to the very end, gradually shifts from a man completely involved with his community and its people to an isolated figure who proclaims Ibsen’s somewhat disturbing declaration that the “majority if always wrong,” and that only a special few have the vision to perceive the truth.

      Ibsen’s Nietzsche-inspired statements seem, at times, dangerously close to fascism and, in particular, to the later German postulates of their superiority as a race. While certainly we sympathize with the Doctor for his failed attempts to tell the truth and his attempt to keep his ability to look his sons and his family in the eyes, it is also hard not condemn him for his strong sense of self-righteousness. And the nightmarish series of events, including the loss of his job, his home, his children’s legacy, and his daughter’s job becomes, in the end, a kind of choice he has purposely made, abandoning everything else in his life for his vendetta against those who will not accept his truth.

       In any community of denial, one has to also comprehend why the deniers refuse what appears so obvious to the truth-tellers. Yes, it stems, often, from ignorance, lack of education, bureaucracy, greed, and self-interest; but that does not mean that these issues can be easily categorized or ignored. If the Doctor ends the play, as he declares, as the strongest in the community because he “stands alone,” “the enemy of the people” is still just that, a suborn enemy who will unlikely convince anyone else. And there is a true danger that he may, years later, become a bitter outsider like his father-in-law. And, in that sense, Ray’s film version, where the Doctor ultimately takes his news outside of the community in order to effect change within, is far more plausible. Ibsen’s Stockman may be determined to stand his ground in the small community which he once loved, but without any political savvy, he may simply be starving himself and his family—both intellectually and physically—from the necessities they need in order to survive. It is almost, in Ibsen’s vision, that through Stockman’s isolation, the rest of the world does not exist; it is important to remember that the Doctor has severely complained to the northern outpost where he served before returning to his beloved hometown. Even Hamsun’s hungry writer in Hunger perceived that he may have leave the country in order to survive. Thomas Stockman’s “strength” may also be his greatest weakness. Just as the newspaper typesetter, Aslakan (Tom Virtue) always preaches “moderation,” the good Doctor of An Enemy of the People always preaches a kind of extremism. There are times when you can’t save a society that doesn’t want to be saved. And we, outside the play, know that, in the end, the truth will out; after the baths sicken future tourists, both the spas and tannery will surely be abandoned and closed.


Los Angeles, April 13, 2014

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