Petra Stockmann is a party girl. Sloshed and sardonic and holding a bobbing balloon, she slurs a song into a mike while her parents’ friends circulate at a party for her father, who has yet to arrive. The image, which opens a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (running until June 3), suggests a world out of joint, where a young woman looking for moral ballast has nothing to grab onto but a rubbery bag of air on a string. And it signals, too, that this bracing production of Ibsen’s 1882 social comedy will be the most radically altered version of the various productions of Enemy of the People that have played in major regional theaters across the country this season.
Ibsen, the 19th-century Norwegian playwright–typically regarded as the father of modern dramatic realism, though his oeuvre includes sweeping poetic dramas, and even his most conventional works contain self-conscious references to the machinery of the well-made play–regularly shows up in the American repertoire. But particular works surge onto season rosters when the social issues that suffuse their atmospheres acquire new pungency in our own.
An Enemy of the People traces the downfall of a town’s would-be savior, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who discovers toxins in the local public baths, the town’s central source of revenue. When he reveals these scientific findings, the investors, then the press, then the whole community—all of whom stand to lose money if his solution is pursued—turn on him. Complicating matters, and powering them within the framework of a tight narrative drama, Thomas’s brother, Peter, is the town’s mayor as well as the head of the baths, and his father-in-law owns one of the upstream tanneries causing the pollution.
In the United States, the play seems to regain political traction whenever corruption threatens democracy and disdains its citizens. Arthur Miller famously adapted Enemy in 1950 in response to the blacklists; he viewed the play as concerned with “the crushing of the dissenting spirit by the majority, and the right and obligation of such a spirit to exist at all.” More recent versions, directly addressing issues of contamination—literal and political—include one in Flint, Michigan, last year, and another, just this winter, at A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago, in which a science teacher discovers that the charter school drawing affluent families back to a dying suburb has been built on ground saturated with lead. An Enemy of the People is finding widespread resonance today, and not just because Trump has revived the title phrase.
As in any production of a classic, timely parallels can be subtly suggested without tweaks to the text; winked at more pointedly through colloquialisms in the translation; or vigorously hammered home in a full-on revamping that can emphasize, discard, or reshape characters, relationships, and events according to the adapter’s own priorities. All these approaches can reveal the original play, flatten it, create something wholly new—or some combination of all three.