Saturday, January 18, 2014

Simplified Premise, Great Idea: An Enemy Of The People!

The Good: Good plot, Decent characters, Themes
The Bad: No truly incredible lines, Underdeveloped characters, Rushed feeling
The Basics: Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play about societal pressure is smart but underdeveloped in An Enemy Of The People.

As I work at night, I use my breaks to read. Ironically when I picked An Enemy Of The People off the shelf (I’ve had the book since college, but not yet gotten around to reading it), I had no idea how relevant it would be to my life at work. An Enemy Of The People is essentially about how economic pressures cause a whole town to turn against a single man. As managerial issues came up at work, I actually took comfort in reading An Enemy Of The People.

An Enemy Of The People was my first experience with a work of Arthur Miller. Ironically, my first experience with Miller is not one of his original works. Instead, Miller adapted the play from a work of Henrik Ibsen. The book of An Enemy Of The People is only 125 pages and the three act play is a fast read. Unfortunately, the duration of the play An Enemy Of The People is indicative of a lack of sophistication. The concept of An Enemy Of The People is very simple and the characters never truly develop; the protagonist starts and ends the same way with a bunch of people talking about him for most of the play. That makes An Enemy Of The People far less compelling than it otherwise could be.

Doctor Thomas Stockmann and his family live in Kirsten Springs in Norway, a small village that is on the verge of incredible growth because of the health properties of the water in the town. Thomas’s brother is the mayor of Kirsten Springs and they have an amicable relationship . . . until the day that Dr. Stockmann gets test results he sent away for on the water. University scientists confirmed for Dr. Stockmann that runoff from a nearby plant is poisoning the rejuvenating water of Kirsten Springs. Getting the support of the local newspaper to print the article on the water situation, Thomas believes he will be hailed as the savior of the village.

But, when Peter Stockmann learns about Dr. Stockmann’s plan to expose the water problem, he begins a smear campaign against the scientist. Mayor Stockmann tells the newspaper owners that if the Kirsten Springs spa project is torpedoed, he will have to levy a massive tax to fix the problem which will destroy the local economy. Attributing a sinister motive to his brother, Peter turns the newspaper against Thomas and works to ensure that none of the halls in town will host Thomas speaking about the problem. When one of the town’s few free speech activists allows Thomas to hold a symposium on the issue, Peter hijacks it and turns the town against Thomas before the doctor can even present his argument.

An Enemy Of The People is essentially about how politicians work to protect their own interests often at the expense of the truth to maintain their power. What is billed on the back of the book as a play about the strength of the truth is a bit of a misnomer; An Enemy Of The People focuses so little on Dr. Stockmann’s pursuit of the truth and so much more on Peter Stockmann’s machinations to discredit him. Peter works the newspaper staff and manipulates the townspeople with procedural issues as opposed to the substance of the argument Dr. Stockmann has.

In fact, the frustrating aspect of An Enemy Of The People is how Dr. Thomas Stockmann has motives assigned to him and he pretty much rolls over on that. Everyone else in authority in the town accepts the biased motive Peter assigns to Thomas as well. That’s frustrating to see and it also diminishes the characters that surround the protagonist and antagonist. I get that Miller/Ibsen is trying to illustrate that people are sheep, but in An Enemy Of The People they are put at such absolutes that the play is frustrating to read and the characters do not pop. The newspapermen do not bother to stand up to Peter and they are not smart enough to question Peter’s accusations. They have empirical evidence delivered from a University and yet seem to forget that in face of Peter making one statement about why he thinks Thomas is accusing the Springs of being poisoned.

The result is that there is remarkably little conflict; An Enemy Of The People has a quick revelation and reversal and the rest of the play is just Dr. Stockmann and his family being persecuted. Lacking extensive clever lines, An Enemy Of The People is a great idea, but a mediocre execution. It might be worth reading once, but it’s not a play I’m likely to keep in my permanent collection.

For other plays I have reviewed, please visit:
A Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Eugene O’Neill
The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare


For other book reviews, please visit my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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