“an enemy of the people”

Last week a reader sent an email to Columbia news, views & reviews; the writer asked us to write more about the dilapidated condition and general disrepair of certain residential and commercial properties in Columbia. Specifically, the writer identified residential properties which were identified as “rental properties.” This same issue was surfaced at last week’s borough council meeting by a councilor and a citizen. Each was impassioned about the appearance and condition of properties; each identified the problems of property decay and the ultimate result of allowing that to happen.

Perhaps the more ominous foretelling of a community that refuses to recognize and accept truths came from a line in the email we received: “This town reminds me of the play written by Henrik Ibsen, ‘Enemy of the People.’” We are unabashed when we tell you that we had not known of (certainly, not read) this work. But since receiving the email, we have read the play and we think the writer of the email has made a valid observation.

So here is the essence of the play, “An enemy of the people.”

An Enemy of the People – by Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906)

Synopsis:

The action takes place in the late 19th Century in a small town on the southern coast of Norway. The town expects to prosper as a health resort, thanks to its new municipal baths.

The spa represents the town’s leading citizens and their followers. Although it appears wholesome and healthful, it contains unseen contaminants. The mayor and his followers pass themselves off as upright citizens but are really corrupt at heart. The spa water undergoes a test that reveals it polluted.

In reporting the results of the test, the doctor says, “The whole Bath establishment is a whited, poisoned sepulchre, I tell you–the gravest possible danger to the public health!” The citizens also undergo a test – the crisis precipitated by the  report – that reveals them unethical and unscrupulous, just as “poisoned” as the baths.

Themes:

  1. Truth must not be hidden, diluted, or altered even when it goes counter to the wishes of the majority.
  2. Shiny apples are sometimes rotten at the core. The baths appear safe and salubrious, but poison befouls their waters. In like the manner, the town’s leading citizens are outwardly attractive but inwardly repulsive.
  3. It doesn’t matter what everyone thinks or wants; what matters is what is right–even when only one person is willing to defend what is right. In Act I, Mayor Stockmann frowns on assertion of the individual will in society, saying, “The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community–or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare.” In so doing, he sets up the clash later in the play with his brother, who indeed asserts his will.
  4. Seemingly upright citizens will compromise their morals when their wallets and livelihood are threatened. In other words, the love of money is the root of all evil. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The past month’s news from Washington lends credence to the premise that these three … money, power and sex … ultimately corrupt.]

Plot Summary:

A coastal town in Norway is on its way to becoming a major health resort thanks to its new municipal baths. In anticipation of an influx of tourists in the coming summer season, property values are rising, business is picking up, and unemployment is decreasing.

At the modest home of Thomas Stockmann, an idealistic physician, the spa and its benefits make for lively conversation between Mayor Peter Stockmann, the brother of Dr. Stockmann, and Hovstad, editor of the local newspaper, both of whom arrived for a visit just after the Stockmanns finished supper. With Hovstad is an assistant named Billing.

Dr. Stockmann is out for a walk with his sons, Ejlif and Morten.

“Mark my words, Mr. Hovstad – the baths will become the focus of our municipal life!” the mayor says. “Think how extraordinarily the place has developed within 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.”

Hovstad mentions that he plans to run an article about the health resort – written by Dr. Stockmann, the medical director of the baths–in the spring, the right time to generate interest in the new community asset. The doctor, who came up with the idea for the baths, has been an untiring promoter of their potential benefits.

Peter Stockmann reminds Hovstad that he, as mayor, played a “modest” part (really meaning the most important part) in making the baths a reality. It was the mayor’s practicality and business sense, he hints, that were the driving forces behind the project.

When Dr. Stockmann returns from his walk with Captain Horster, a seafarer, he is in a cheerful mood. Everything is going right for him and his family, he says, and he now has enough money to afford a few little luxuries, like the roast beef they had for dinner. When the mayor inquires about the article his brother wrote, Dr. Stockmann says he has decided to withhold it for the time being, but does not say why.

Suspecting that his brother is keeping something from him–possibly something about the spa – the mayor accuses the doctor of withholding important information, then says: “You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way, at all events; and, that is almost equally inadmissible in a well ordered community, The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community – or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare.”

After Mayor Stockmann leaves, Dr. Stockmann’s daughter, Petra, a schoolteacher, arrives and joins in the conversation. An idealist like her father, Petra says, “There is so much falsehood both at home and at school. At home one must not speak, and at school we have to stand and tell lies to the children.” Captain Horster offers to provide a room for the school in an old house he owns.

Dr. Stockmann then opens a letter he received, then waves it before Hovstad and his wife, announcing a remarkable discovery: The baths are contaminated. The doctor speaks in a triumphant, jubilant tone, for he believes he has done a great service for the public welfare. He says several cases of typhoid fever and gastric fever the previous year aroused his suspicion about the spa water, so he took samples of it and sent them to a university for analysis. The letter he holds contains the results of the analysis: The spa is a cesspool of disease. It seems that tanneries in the town leached impurities into the water.

Hovstad – seemingly idealistic, like Dr. Stockmann – promises to publish news of the discovery and says his printer, Aslaksen, a prominent citizen, will back the decision, as will a homeowner’s association.

In the days immediately following the discovery, Mayor Peter Stockmann discovers it will cost an enormous sum in tax dollars to make improvements, including laying new pipes to handle the leachate, which his brother says are necessary to eliminate the pollution. So he decides to challenge his brother’s findings as faulty and asks him to renounce them.

The doctor – viewing himself as the guardian of the common weal, a savior – refuses.

Meanwhile, Hovstad, fearing the wrath of the taxpayers, decides not to publish Dr. Stockmann’s article. At a town meeting in a large room provided as a goodwill gesture by Captain Horster, almost everyone lines up against Dr. Stockmann – Mayor Stockmann, Hovstad, Aslaksen, the homeowners, ordinary citizens – and shout him down when he attempts to explain the problem and alert the town to the danger. One citizen wonders whether he has an alcohol problem. Another suggests insanity runs in his family. Still another thinks he is getting even for not receiving a salary increase as the spa’s medical director.

All agree that he should be labeled “an enemy of the people,” one bent on destroying the town. When Stockmann and his family leave the meeting, the crowd hisses and boos, then begins chanting “enemy of the people,” “enemy of the people.”

The next morning, the Stockmanns discover broken windows and rocks littering the floor. The doctor piles the rocks on a table, saying he will save them as heirlooms for his children. A letter arrives in which the landlord gives Dr. Stockmann notice of eviction. It doesn’t matter, Stockmann tells his wife, for he and his family will cross the sea and resettle in the New World.

Then Captain Horster arrives and announces his employer has fired him. The mayor enters and announces that the citizens are circulating a petition pledging that they will no longer seek the medical services of Dr. Stockmann. The mayor advises his brother to leave town for a while, then return and confess his error in writing. Such a move might earn him reinstatement as medical director of the spa. Dr. Stockmann says he will never admit that he was wrong – never, never – under any circumstances.

After the mayor leaves, another visitor arrives. He is Morton Kiil, the father of Dr. Stockmann’s wife, Katherine. Kiil is the owner of polluting tanneries. In his will, he had stipulated that a handsome sum be bequeathed to Katherine and the Stockmanns’ children.

However, he tells the doctor that he invested the bequest in stock in the tanneries. Furthermore, he is going around town buying up all the remaining stock in the tanneries. Thus, if Dr. Stockmann sticks to his story – that is, if he refuses to recant – the stock will become worthless and his wife and children will inherit nothing. Kiil tells the doctor that he has until 2 p.m. to change his position.

When Kiil leaves, Hovstad and Aslaksen arrive. They think Dr. Stockmann is involved in a scheme to inflate the value of the stocks and want in on the scheme. But Stockmann dismisses them, raising an umbrella as if to strike them. They hurry out.

Captain Horster invites the Stockmanns to board at his house during the winter. The doctor expresses his gratitude, then says he will focus his medical practice on the poor and educate his children himself. In fact, he says, he will start a school of his own to teach the town’s guttersnipes. He is feeling upbeat, cheerful as he looks ahead.

“I am the strongest man in this town,” he says.

Then he announces he has made another important discovery. Gathering everyone close to him, he says “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.”

Questions and discussion topics:

  1. Because Dr. Stockmann’s discovery of contamination in the town spa threatens to undermine the town’s economic future, the mayor and his supporters attempt to silence the doctor and keep his discovery secret. In your own community, do you recall any instance in which a local government, business, factory, school district, hospital, day-care center, newspaper, or another entity attempted to withhold vital information from the public?
  2. Under what circumstances does a government have a right to withhold information from the public?
  3. In their attempt to refute Dr. Stockmann at a town meeting, citizens suggest that he has an alcohol or a mental problem or may be seeking revenge for not receiving a pay raise as the spa’s medical director. In a good dictionary, look up the Latin term ad hominem (referring to a rhetorical tactic used in an argument to discredit an opponent). Next, decide whether the citizens’ accusations are ad hominem attacks. If you believe they are, explain why they can be categorized as such. In addition, decide whether these attacks are fair or whether they are simply ruses to condemn Dr. Stockmann while obscuring the truth.
  4. Newspapers today pride themselves on their willingness to print the truth. But do they always print the truth? Or do they sometimes bow to the same forces that pressured Hovstad to abandon publication of Dr. Stockmann’s story?
  5. What about you–do you frequently change your opinion after yielding to pressure from your peers?
  6. Which of the following is most responsible for what goes wrong in the spa town: (1) capitalism, which fosters economic competition and a desire to make money; (2) democracy, which allows citizens to elect leaders, such as Mayor Stockmann; (3) propaganda, which often uses unscrupulous tactics in attempts to persuade people to accept a particular viewpoint; (4) unethical and dangerous environmental policies of the tannery operation; (5) spineless citizenry; (6) inability of Dr. Stockmann to communicate the seriousness of the problem the town faces.
  7. If you were an attorney arguing to close the town spa, you would need evidence that the spa water is indeed contaminated. How would you obtain this evidence?

(SOURCES: By Michael J. Cummings – © 2003 – http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/. The complete text (script of play) is available here:  http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/2/4/4/2446/2446.txt)

One comment

  1. That was a very informative story that will fly right over the heads of the people in the area. But it was a nice try thanks.

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