Adapting Ibsen for Our Times

Atmosphere and Adaptation

Along with opportunity, revivals of classic plays bring much risk.


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.

In October, at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre, director James Bundy, working with a limber new translation of An Enemy of the People by Paul Walsh, offered a traditional take, keeping the play in its 19th-century setting and properly exploiting its abundant humor. Ibsen structured the third of his five acts like a farce, replete with an impersonation, a person hiding, a silly chase, doors slamming, and, at the center of it all, Thomas Stockmann—a dupe who becomes more and more ridiculous. The pivotal scene is set at the newspaper offices, where Thomas is slow to catch on that the editors no longer support him. Up until this point, he’s been the ostensible hero, but his buffoonery makes audiences ambivalent toward Thomas—just before he turns more fully repellent in Act IV, as his righteous campaign for the truth curdles into a self-righteous crusade for recognition.

This spring, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, director Robert Falls worked from an 1888 translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling (Karl’s daughter) to craft a production that effectively straddled 19th-Century Norway and 2018 America, through some colorful abstraction in the set design (Todd Rosenthal), costume design (Ana Kuzmanic), and especially in the language. One doesn’t have to look hard to find in Ibsen’s text correlates for the pungent phrases Falls invokes: “drain the swamp,” “deplorables.” If the audience titters and claps, as they did the day I attended, when Thomas insists that people don’t get to choose whether to believe in facts—“It’s science, it’s irrefutable”—they are responding as much to a sense of Ibsen’s uncanny currency as to the values they uphold today. That common cause crumbles bit by bit in the fourth act as Philip Earl Johnson delivers Thomas’s nearly 10-minute speech in a the town-hall meeting he calls; the townspeople boo, heckle, and denounce Stockmann as their enemy. “No offense,” he tells them, “but you’re all a bunch of mindless cretins.”

For the brisk and biting version at the Guthrie (directed by Lyndsey Turner), the playwright Brad Birch has cut out both pivotal scenes—the farcical one in the newsroom and the town-hall meeting. He has streamlined those confrontations into smaller contests, mostly between Thomas and one other character. This Thomas—called Tom and played by Billy Carter in a finely calibrated performance—wins some applause from the Minneapolis audience when he says, “There’s no alternative fact.” Soon, though, he expresses his more cringe-worthy remarks about the masses’ unfitness to participate in democracy: “If they’re too stupid or self-interested to tell the difference between an uncomfortable truth and a convenient lie, fuck them,” he says—just warming up.

In this version, the public bath’s board financed its construction with help from Blackrock Capital, which used low-budget pipes, which leached copper into the water, and somehow faked or bought their way to passing inspection. It’s also Blackrock that kills the investigative journalism trying to bring truth to light. Tom is the primary source, and, as the cowed and terrified editor tells him, the financiers plan to come after him next with a “lawsuit that will never end…. They’re going to destroy you.” The mob need not throw rocks through this Tom’s windows as they do in the original play; they have ceded all power to finance. Tom’s brother-in-law—refashioned by Birch from the tannery-owning father-in-law into an investment banker—explains the futility of Tom’s struggle. “The Board didn’t choose the pipes, Tom. The market did…the same market that you’ve chosen to live in,” he says. “You chose those pipes too.”

By shifting the emphasis from an individual rejected by his community, whose truth-telling jeopardizes their material comfort, to an individual’s inability to be decent in an indecent world, Birch sacrifices some of Ibsen’s dramatic texture and much of his moral challenge to audiences. Tom pursues his ideals at the expense of his own family, and his wife, Kate, and his daughter, Petra, are substantially rewritten, likely in an attempt to give them more dimension than in the 136-year-old original. But Birch has replaced an unconditionally supportive cipher of a wife with a cold and distant one who might leave the husband whose mind and heart are focused elsewhere. Petra, originally a principled, progressive schoolteacher—a New Woman—has become a stereotypical snowflake who dropped out of college, can’t get through to her distracted parents, and complains that “everyone in this town is a Nazi.” In each of her scenes, Petra carries that symbolic balloon, and eventually, a bouquet of them. But not even that large bunch of balloons can lift Petra—or anyone else—out of the constraints of a world wholly governed by greed. Ibsen leaves his hero standing proudly with a twisted sense of lonely triumph. Birch leaves him—and us—in despair.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy