The Enemy of the People

I thought I had taken a three day break from reading for Eid celebrations in my family. But then I found myself reading a play I saw in a High School English textbook lying around my sister’s library. I stole the textbook from my sister (yes, I did!) and read it on the drive home. I managed to squeeze in some reading time after all!

The Enemy of the People is a play written by Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. I first discovered Ibsen when I read his play Hedda Gabler as a part of my Master’s course in English literature. His style of writing and the issues he dealt with instantly appealed to me. This is because many of these issues are still problems here where I live – Pakistan. The plays seemed like a portrayal not of 19th century Norwegian society, but my own here and now.  

The Enemy of the People dealt with some of the larger issues we find in the world today. The problems in politics and the concept of truth. Truth, again is an important part of Ibsen’s dramas. Almost all of his plays have to some extent dealt with it. In The Enemy of the People, we are shown how a man struggles to keep himself clean from all the filth and lies around him; how truth is simply what the majority believes; and how people are easily manipulated and led by what they believe is the truth.

At the center of the play is the character Dr. Stockmann. He is an enthusiastic and idealistic man who works actively for his beliefs. When the play starts, Ibsen, in a few dialogues, manages to make his character known to us. In the dialogue below Dr. Stockmann speaks to his brother Peter who is also the mayor of the town. They refer to the baths that have become popular in their town as health spots.

Dr. Stockmann: Oh, you mustn’t take me too literally,  Peter. I am so heartily happy and contented, you know. I think it such an extraordinary piece of good fortune to be in the middle of all this growing, germinating life. It is a splendid time to live in! It is as if a whole new world were being created around one.

Peter, the stolid mayor who is out solely for his reputation and is somewhat jealous of his brother’s happiness, labels him thus,

Peter Stockmann: You have a restless, pugnacious, rebellious disposition. And then there is that disastrous propensity of yours to want to write about every sort of possible and impossible thing. The moment an idea comes into your head, you must needs go and write a newspaper article or a whole pamphlet about it.

The play deals with the antagonism between the two brothers. Peter realizes the value of money and how to lead the public whereas Dr. Stockmann, although naive, sees through the facade of the people in power, but lacks the composure and capability of a leading man. We are shown how the public is manipulated and how politics is all about a game of words. Power jumps from one person to the other depending on who has the money and who seems likely of coming out the winner. Basically, it’s still the same politics we see today!

I loved the play. One reason was its tackling of an important issue that many choose to avoid. Also, Ibsen is a master of characterization. Each and every character is seen for what he is through his dialogue alone. We don’t need description of any kind. Each Act starts out with a detailed description of the set. He was very famous for his realism, keeping nothing back and often touching upon tabooed subjects. The talented playwright portrayed life as it really was without embellishments to hide the truth. There it is again: truth. The word defines Ibsen’s plays.


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