An Enemy of the People – A narrative discourse on time and space

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In this presentation, I will first spell out how and why I consider An Enemy of the People as a strong play which is still relevant both in the West as well as in other parts of the world, 125 years after it was written. The focus will be on how the play has been interpreted in the form of translations, adaptations and transcreations. I will argue that Arthur Miller’s adaptation from 1950 strengthened An Enemy of the People as a political play. I will further focus on the film Ganasatru from 1989 by the Indian film maker Satyajit Ray who partly used Miller’s adaptation but transcreated it to fit into Indian conditions, particularly West Bengal. In the presentation I will also touch on some other productions, especially examples of An Enemy of the People which emphasise the political aspects of the play.

The fact that two of the most successful and creative personalities within the fields of theatre and film,  Arthur Miller – one of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights – and Satyajit Ray, an Oscar-awarded filmmaker and screen playwright, chose to work on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, says a lot about the power and strength of the play.

It is worth to note that both of them saw the relevance of Ibsen’s text within the frame of the prevailing political situation in their respective countries during their own time period. For Miller, the backdrop was the McCarthy period in USA, and he adapted the play in order to focus more strongly on the conflict between authorities and individual freedom of expression. Ray, on other hand, focuses on “temple politics” – how water, in the name of religion, becomes part of the local economic and political power game.  The film can be seen as a strong political expression against the Hindu fundamentalist party (BJP) that gained substantial strength in the Indian parliament after the 1989 general elections as well as a satire of the communist-led Left Front that had ruled the state of West Bengal since 1977.

The reason why An Enemy of the People can be used under so different circumstances is that Ibsen’s text contains different political issues and metaphors which are emphasised differently and reinterpreted to fit into the various socio-political and cultural conditions. In other words, the openness of the play gives opportunity to playwrights and theatre and film directors to focus on those aspects of the play which are most relevant in their particular setting.

An Enemy of the People is to me essentially about power politics, and it contains a variety of political issues.  Some are related to the social and economic structure of society such as economic interests, social stratification, and taxation, and others are about the role of certain groups within that structure such as the role of the bureaucracy and the media and the middle class character. Other issues are stemming from the fragile ideological foundation of society such as hypocrisy, double standards, misuse of power, corruption, and blackmailing. Finally, there are issues dealing with the status and role of the individual such as freedom of expression, victimising of dissidents and whistle-blowing.

An Enemy of the People also contains several conflicts, notably individual vs. authority, self-interest vs. common good, majority vs. minority, ideology and values vs. behaviour, and truth vs. lies.

The crisis of the play is related to contaminated water.

The action line centres on the two brothers, Dr. Thomas Stockmann and Peter Stockmann who is the town’s magistrate and head of the police. Peter Stockmann is also Chairman of the Board of the local baths, the main source of income of the town.  Dr. Stockmann is employed at the baths. Whereas Peter Stockmann is representing the establishment and social stability, his younger brother represents the search for truths and ideals.

Against this background, I will now proceed to different interpretations of the play. Arthur Miller’s adaptation is at the centre of the presentation. I would in this connection like to underline that my discussion is based on the primary sources, that is, a comparison between Ibsen’s and Miller’s texts in terms of contemporary political relevance.

Before entering into Miller’s adaptation, it is important to keep in mind that An Enemy of the People is one of Ibsen’s most frequently performed plays in the world today, especially outside Europe. It is further my clear impression that most of the productions are based on Miller’s adaptation. The reason for staging the play is that the political issues dealt with are still prevalent in most parts of the world. The frequent preference for Miller’s adaptation is that this script is well edited and therefore contains a sharper political line than the original. However, when staged also Miller’s text is often adapted or transcreated to fit better into their own socio-political conditions. It is thus interesting to note that there is a continuous process, implying that the play is very much alive.

Let me now turn to Miller’s adaptation:

In his adaptation from 1950, Miller transformed into An Enemy of the People contemporary daily language and trimmed the dialogue in order to focus on what he in the Preface to the adaptation sees as the central theme of the play, notably:

“— the question of whether the democratic guarantees protecting political minorities ought to be set aside in time of crisis”.

Miller continues:

“The play is concerned with the inviolability of objective truth. Or, put more dynamically, that those who attempts to warp the truth for ulterior purposes must inevitably become warped and corrupted themselves”.

Although Miller lets the story takes place in Norway and during the same time period as in the original text, it is clear that McCarthyism heavily influenced his adaptation, implying that his version of the play is clear-cut and with a strong focus on political issues that typically existed in USA during the McCarthy period. In Miller’s own words:

“… through the guise of Ibsen — I have managed to say things I wouldn’t dare say alone”.

It is thus my assumption that Miller adapted An Enemy of the People as a broadside against McCarthyism because the prevailing situation in USA at that time did not permit him to write his own play on political suppression of the time. It is in this connection interesting to note that Miller refers to Ibsen’s name in two descriptions inserted into the text of his adaptation. For me it is difficult to see other reasons for this than that he wanted to hide himself behind Ibsen to avoid censorship and questioning by the authorities.

It should be recalled that during the period lasting roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, there was an intense communist suspicion in the United States, and there were many committees and panels in federal, state and local governments as well as private agencies looking into indications of “un-American activities”. During this time, often referred to as the McCarthy period after the Congress hearings on “un-American activities” conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathisers and become the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning. Many people suffered loss of employment, destruction of their career and even imprisonment. McCarthyism was supported by a variety of groups and seems to have had quite much popular support. In 1947, the major studios in Hollywood issued a statement saying that they would not knowingly employ a communist or member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government. This marked the beginning of the unofficial Hollywood blacklist. Similar blacklists were at work in many fields. Arthur Miller was one among many famous people being blacklisted.

In terms of the structure of the play, Miller transformed the five acts of the original into three acts, without omitting the situations in any of the original acts. He did thus adjust the structure so that

  • acts 1 and 2 in Ibsen’s text go under Miller’s act 1 but are divided into two scenes
  • acts 3 and 4 in Ibsen’s text go under Miller’s act 2 but are divided into two scenes
  • act 5 in Ibsen’s text goes under Miller’s act 3.

The advantages of the new structure is in my view are that he created a new action line and that the pace of the play became faster.

With regard to content, Miller removed or changed dialogues that are ambiguous or blurred the main messages of the original play in order to make the play more contemporary:

Firstly, Miller removed the dialogue “There is no established truth that can remain true for more than seventeen, eighteen most twenty years” as this runs contradictory to historical facts.

He further removed all references to “aristocracy”. As Miller explained:

“In light of genocide, the holocaust that has swept our world on the wings of the black ideology of racism, it is inconceivable that Ibsen would insist today that certain individuals are by breeding, or race, or ‘innate’ qualities superior to others or possessed the right to dictate to others.”

Secondly, the dialogue “The majority is never right” in act 4 of Ibsen’s text is rewritten to “The majority is never right until it does right” which is much more “eatable” than Ibsen’s phrasing for those believing in democracy.

Similarly, the dialogue in the last part of act 5 of Ibsen’s text “The strongest man is the one who stands most alone” is omitted, and the focus is moved from the lonely man standing alone to a group of people fighting for the truth. This change plays down the importance of the egocentric aspect of Dr. Stockmann’s character. It is also more in line with contemporary views on social change, and does further give the end of the play a more optimistic and positive political flavour. The play does thus end with Dr. Stockmann saying to his family and captain Horster while an angry crowd is heard outside:

“Remember now, everybody. You are fighting for the truth, and that is why you’re alone. And that is what makes you strong. We’re the strongest people in the world… and the strong must learn to be lonely.”

Regarding the scene taking place in the newspaper office, act 3 in Ibsen’s text and act 2, scene 1 in Miller’s text, I would like to mention two important adjustments that Miller made:

Firstly, Peter Stockmann’s reference to his brother is substantially elaborated with the aim of creating stronger suspicion about Dr. Stockmann’s character and motives, thereby trying to manipulate the newspaper in order to prevent Dr. Stockmann’s article to be published:

“It (that is, increased taxes) happens to be a fact. Plus another fact – you’ll forgive me for talking about facts in a newspaper office – but don’t forget that the Springs will take two years to make over. Two years without income for your small businessmen, Mr. Aslaksen, and a heavy new tax besides. And all because – his private emotions come to the surface; he throttles the manuscript in his hand – because of this dream, this hallucination that we live in a pesthole!”

After Hovstad has argued that Dr. Stockmann’s article is based on science, Peter Stockmann continues to characterise his brother:

“This is based on vindictiveness, on his hatred of authority and nothing else. This is the mad dream of a man who is trying to blow up our way of life! It has nothing to do with reform or science or anything else but pure and simple destruction! And I intend to see to it that the people understand it exactly so!”

Clearly, Peter Stockmann’s attempt to create suspicion about Dr. Stockmann has a parallel in the suspicion towards political dissidents during the McCarthy period. This is still a relevant issue since the same kind of tactic is followed by authorities in many countries of the world also today.

Secondly, in connection with Petra’s refusal to translate a novel, Miller highlights the often dubious role of the media by making the dialogue between Petra and Hovstad stronger and more direct. In Miller’s version, it is made explicit that the novel deals with supernatural issues, a topic that would be assumed to be contrary to the newspaper’s liberal character as well as to Hovstad’s personal belief as a “free thinker”. Petra strongly points out that what is published is a matter of following own principles. The double standard of the newspaper becomes clear through Hovstad’s reply to Petra:

“Yes, Petra, but this is a newspaper, people like to read that kind of thing. They buy the paper for that and then we slip in our political stuff. A newspaper cannot buck the public –“.

To me, this part of Miller’s adaptation also serves as a satire of the so-called progressive media. The description fits well with the role of the media in South Asia today, a point also taken up by Ray in his film.

The change made by Miller also serves to highlight further the opportunistic role of the newspaper which is also dealt with in Ibsen’s text. It should in this connection be recalled that the newspaper changes from encouraging Dr. Stockmann to publish his article to refusing to publish it when threatened by authorities and when it emerges that Dr.

Stockmann will not be supported by the public.

The public meeting scene (act 4 in Ibsen’s text and act 2, scene 2 in Miller’s adaptation) is substantially rewritten by Miller. There is a new inner action line, most important implying that Peter Stockmann, as a representative of the authorities, has a much more prominent and political role than in the original and that Dr. Stockmann is formally declared as an enemy of the people through an open vote. Dr. Stockmann’s character is also made more definite and less emotional and with a strong personality. He does thus emerge as a more smart and intelligent type than in the original. In this way, Miller establishes Dr. Stockmann as a stronger protagonist than Ibsen presented him. The clownish and foolish elements of Dr. Stockmann’s behaviour are thus removed, and the play made more serious and political. In Miller’s version, the play is thus stripped of the comic elements in the original which seem to have confused Ibsen himself regarding the genre of the play. As Ibsen wrote to his editor:

“I am still a little uncertain whether to call it a comedy or simply a play: it has much of the character of a comedy, but there is also a serious basic theme.”

The stronger and more definite political aspect of the public meeting scene in Miller’s version is a major reason why I consider his adaptation of An Enemy of the People as a political play rather than as an idealistic social play as I would call Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

It might be argued that the public meeting scene is an echo of McCarthyism as many of the elements of that period are present in the scene and the whole meeting was conducted in a shadow-democratic atmosphere. The scene might thus give associations to the hearings on “un-American activities”. The following comparison between the situation under the McCarthy period and the public meeting scene in Miller’s version can serve as an illustration of the relationship:

  1. The central theme under the McCarthy period was “un-American” – that is, anti-government – views and activities. Similarly, the theme of the public meeting is Dr. Stockmann’s anti-authority and anti-community views and behaviour.
  1. The obsession with detecting “un-American” views and activities during the McCarthy period meant that the freedom of expression was suppressed. Likewise, Dr. Stockmann was in Miller’s version refused to speak about the contaminated water. This happened at the initiative of the authorities as the Mayor proposed: “Mr Aslaksen, I move that Doctor Stockmann is prohibited from reading his report at this meeting!”
  1. During the McCarthy period, trials were often not fair and the outcome of the trials seem often to have been pre-arranged as indicated by the fact that many verdicts were later overturned, dismissals declared illegal and extra-legal procedures disputed. In Miller’s version, it is in various ways given very strong indications that the outcome of the meeting was pre-arranged: Peter Stockmann, the Mayor, controlled the meeting from the very beginning with support of Aslaksen, Hovstad and the crowd. The Mayor and Hovstad arrived at the meeting together with their supporters. In Miller’s version, Peter Stockmann plays a dominating and political role, and he gets the floor and establishes the rule of the game from the very beginning of the meeting.
  1. In the same way as blacklisting was a common weapon against dissidents and the hearings on “un-American activities” concluded with a verdict, the public meeting in Miller’s version formally adopted a resolution declaring Dr. Stockmann an enemy of the people:

“The people assembled here tonight, descent and patriotic citizens, in defence of their own town and their country, declare that Doctor Stockmann, medical officer of Kirsten Springs, is an enemy of the people and of his community.”

  1. During the McCarthy period, it could prove fatal to have the “wrong” contacts or opinions as this could lead to suspicion about “un-American” views and behaviour. Miller made the voting on the resolution to be done openly so that those supporting Dr. Stockmann could easily be identified. Moreover, after Dr. Stockmann had been declared an enemy of the people, Aslaksen made a strong warning against being in contact with Dr. Stockmann: “In the future, all dealings with him by descent, patriotic citizens will be on that basis”.
  1. Both during the McCarthy period and in the Mayor’s speech at the public meeting, “crisis” was used as the argument for setting democratic rights aside. In USA during the period in question, the crisis was the cold war.  In Miller’s version, a likely economic crisis in the local community was used as an argument for not allowing Dr. Stockmann to present his report. As Peter Stockmann said in his address to the meeting:

“Now there are a number of people here who seem to feel that the Doctor has a right to say anything he pleases. After all, we are a democratic country. Now, God knows, in ordinary times I’d agree a hundred per cent with anybody’s right to say anything. But these are not ordinary times. Nations have crises, and so do towns. There are ruins of nations, and there are ruins of towns all over the world, and they were wrecked by people who, in the guise of reform, and leading for justice, and so on, broke down all authority and left only revolution and chaos”.

The contemporary relevance and clear political message of Arthur Miller’s version of An Enemy of the People has encouraged many theatre and film director to make use of his adaptation. It should be noted that the play is not only staged within mainstream theatre but especially outside the West also as political theatre in the form of street theatre and community drama focusing on local issues and as part of theatre-in-education programmes. Some also use Ibsen’s text for their adaptations and transcreations. I will briefly give a few examples:

  • Tara Arts in London performed a production directed by Jatinder Verma meant especially for the Asian community under their Education Resource Pack.  The setting of this adaptation is British colonial India. In India water is not only necessary for daily life but also at the centre of belief and rituals. In this production “pollution” is used as a metaphor for modernity, and a central issue is how a custom-bound society feels being “polluted” by new, scientific ideas.
  • In Japan, a production by Rinkogun Theatre Company directed by Yoji Sakate was adapted to suit Japanese socio-political conditions. The director has expressed that he found An Enemy of the People well suited to portray the situation in present-day Japan, implying that people in general are passive spectators to problems like corruption scandals and the close connection between the social and political power and the law enforcing agencies like the police. It is interesting to observe that Dr. Stockmann in this production is a woman. Mr. Sakate has explained that many of the leaders of citiziens’ campaigns as well as the leader of the Social Democratic Party are women and that he wanted the production to be in tune with their contemporary situation also in this regard.
  • The company Stawberry Theatre Workshop in USA has in their production An Enemy of the People  directed by Greg Carter made a transcreation of Miller’s adaptation from a feminist perspective. Also in this production Dr. Stockmann is a woman, and there is a strong emphasis on the brother-sister relationship. The production is further made on the idea that the will to capital is masculine whereas the will to knowledge is feminine. Dr. Stockmann’s revolt is equated with a slave revolt.
  • When considering the relevance of a play, it is also important to look at it from how critiques and the audience receive it. In 2006 the Norwegian Theatre Director Kjetil Bang-Hansen directed An Enemy of the People for Shakespeare Theatre Company in USA. Although Bang-Hansen directed Ibsen’s text, representatives of the critiques and audience connected the play with contemporary American politics and saw President Bush in Peter Stockmann and Al Gore – in his capacity as environmentalist – in Dr. Stockmann.
  • Before entering into Ray’s film I will briefly mention the Norwegian film En folkefiende directed by Erik Skjoldberg. The text is modernised and the setting is present-day Norway. In this film, spring water has come into bottles, and the conflict related to economic interests is strongly emphasised along with how the economic power controls the entire community, including the police. It is interesting to observe that the sub-title of the film is “The strongest is the one who stays alone” whereas the film ends with Thomas Stockmann saying “I cannot bear up being alone”.

I will now turn to Satyajit Ray. During his lifetime Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) made 37 feature films, short films and documentaries. I consider his films in general to be political.

Ganasatru, India’s contemporary version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is one of his last films.  The major conflict in Ray’s film is religion vs. science. It is important to note that Ray himself was not religious. At various times he described himself as an atheist, an agnostic or most commonly a humanist. His personal belief is reflected in most of his films, including Ganasatru and the film Devi (Goddess) which is about ideological struggles between religion and rational reforms.

The religion vs. science conflict in Ganasatru takes the form of a conflict between those who believe that sanctified temple water cannot be harmful and the Dr. Stockmann character (Dr. Gupta) who discovers that an outbreak of jaundice in the community is caused by contaminated temple water. In the public meeting, Dr. Gupta is challenged by his brother, the intention being to attack him in the name of religion in order to create anger against him among the public:

Chairman:        “Do you consider yourself a Hindu?”

Dr. Gupta:       “Of course, I do but there are certain Hindu religious customs that I do not follow because of my scientific training. But I definitely call myself a Hindu.”

Chairman:        “Do you go to the temple? Have you ever been to the temple?”

Dr. Gupta:       “No, I haven’t. For the same reason – because I do not feel the necessity to go there. But I am not saying that you should never drink holy water. You should wait until it is decontaminated.”

Also issues like economic interests, corruption and manipulation of religion, people and politics are dealt with in Ganasatru. Under-current is also a satire of communist and other left-oriented people, especially through Hovstad’s character who throughout the film is wearing a red vest, red being the symbol of communists. As in the original, Hovstad is shown as a man of double standards.

Ray’s Ganasatru is partly based on Ibsen’s text and partly on Miller’s adaptation, the latter being used in the portrayal of Dr. Stockmann, in Ray’s film called Dr. Ashoke Gupta, and for the public meeting scene although no formal resolution was adopted. In my opinion, Ray is in general loyal to Ibsen’s text.

Ganasatru is Ray’s only film based on a non-Indian source. The film is largely made within the frame of a theatrical expression and with emphasis on dialogue as in the theatre. Most of the scenes are close-shots, and when medium long-shots are used, several characters are shown within the same frame. It is also important to note that no background music is used, only some precise sound effects.

As in Ibsen’s scene descriptions, the action line takes place interior except two brief shots showing pilgrims washing their hands at the Hindu temple. Although Hindu temples always contain images of gods and goddesses and rituals with music take place in a colourful atmosphere, Ray did not show the real temple life in the film. I see three reasons for this: Firstly, that he did not want to draw the attention of the spectators away from the main subject of the film – contaminated water. Secondly, his personal belief influenced the way he made the film. Thirdly, he used a montage as background for the public meeting scene which consisted of headless and incomplete images of gods and goddesses. This is a very strong metaphor for an imperfect society and its belief, an approach which in my view is reflected throughout the film. Since Ray wanted to use the headless and incomplete images of Gods and Goddesses to convey his message, he could obviously not also present complete images of temple life.

I do thus not agree with those who have explained Ray’s frequent use of close-shots in Ganasatru with Ray’s bad health condition. Rather I see it as a conscious choice made with the view of focusing on the political message that he wanted to convey, in a way so that the spectators can watch every action of the film from close.

Ray’s transcreation implies that the setting has been changed to contemporary India, specifically the town of Chandipur in West Bengal. The time period is the 1980s. Although largely loyal to Ibsen’s text, the transcreation implies that some changes are made which are worth noticing.

Regarding the characters, it should be noted that the Peter Stockmann character, Nisith, is Dr. Gupta’s younger brother. The reason is the role of seniority in Indian society, implying that it would be difficult for Dr. Gupta to oppose his brother if he had been elder to him. Nisith Gupta is the elected Chairman of municipality, that is, a politician – not an administrative head as in Ibsen’s text.

The Billing character, called Biresh, has in Ray’s version been transformed into a positive and honest character who is sticking to his principles throughout the entire film.

Moreover, several secondary characters have been eliminated and a couple of others included. The most important new character is Ronen who appears from the very beginning and throughout the film. He is a young progressive man who frequently visits the home of Dr. Gupta and his family. Ronan is the one who mobilises support for Dr. Gupta at the end of the film. As I see it, Ray introduced this young character, because he wanted to convey an optimistic view with regard to the future.

Another important change, clearly motivated by communist dominance in West Bengal, is that the local newspaper is run by marxists.

There is also an extensive use of symbols in the form of clothes and props to give the characters a definite shape within the particular West Bengal setting. One prop which is worth mentioning is the cigarette. In the Indian sub-continent smoking in front of elders or socially superiors is considered as an act of disrespect and should thus not happen. In the newspaper office scene when the Chairman understood that he would manage to get the newspaper people to go along with him, he smoked in front of Dr. Gupta, his elder brother. This is clearly an expression of superiority in terms of power and a sign of disrespect.

In terms of the action line, Ray’s film opens with Dr. Gupta’s telephone call to the local newspaper warning about the risk of an epidemic. There is also no final confrontation between Dr. Gupta and his brother, merely a brief phone call in which the doctor learns that he will be fired unless he withdraws his previous statement.

The major transcreation in the film is in the last scene. Recalling that Miller in this scene shifted the focus from the individual to the collective and ending up in an optimistic way, Ray provides a definite happy ending. At the moment of deepest despair, Dr. Gupta’s situation suddenly changes when a series of positive occurrences reverses the previous setbacks. The Billing character, Biresh, comes to Dr. Gupta’s home and announces that he has resigned from the local newspaper. He offers to publish Dr. Gupta’s article in a Calcutta newspaper. Ronen, who arrived with Biresh, reveals that Dr. Gupta’s article will be printed as a pamphlet as distributed door to door. Simultaneously, a group of progressive young people is heard outside, chanting “Long live Dr. Gupta!” – a type of political slogan coming from China (“Long live Chairman Mao!”) and which was in common use in the communist-ruled West Bengal. I would argue that the meaning is that the young people declared him a political leader. The film ends with Dr. Gupta happily proclaiming:

“I am not alone – though I may be an enemy of the people, I have many friends.”

Ganasatru has been well received in West Bengal as well as in Bangladesh. People of various social classes still like to see the film because the content in the film is still considered relevant for their own situation.

Concluding, An Enemy of the People is still an important and frequently staged play in most parts of the world. As a political play, I find it most relevant outside Northern Europe, that is, in societies with substantial shortcomings in terms of governance. However, I consider elements of the play, like the issue of double standards and the conflict between self-interest and common good, are also relevant in Northern Europe.


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