Tag Archives: Ibsen

An Enemy of the People – Ibsen

1999, Dover, 96 pages

Book Blurb

In this powerful work, Ibsen places his main character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, in the role of an enlightened and persecuted minority of one confronting an ignorant, powerful majority. When the physician learns that the famous and financially successful baths in his hometown are contaminated, he insists they be shut down for expensive repairs. For his honesty, he is persecuted, ridiculed, and declared an “enemy of the people” by the townspeople, including some who had been his closest allies.

First staged in 1883, An Enemy of the People remains one of the most frequently performed plays by a writer considered by may the “father of modern drama.” This easily affordable edition makes available to students, teachers, and general readers a major work by one of the world’s great playwrights.

Author Blurb

Widely regarded as one of the foremost dramatists of the 19th century, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) brought the social problems and ideas of his day to center stage. Creating realistic plays of psychological conflict that emphasized character over cunning plots, he frequently inspired critical objections because his dramas deemed the individual more important than the group.

An Enemy of the People as Risk Theatre

Most Ibsen plays fit the risk theatre mold well, and An Enemy of the People is no exception. In this play, Dr. Stockmann, as chief medical officer, investigates incidents of typhoid and gastric fever in a coastal Norwegian tourist town. Dr. Stockmann wants to keep the town safe. Risk theatre looks at the dramatic action as a gambling act consisting of three parts: temptation, wager, and cast. That the doctor wants to keep the town safe represents the “temptation” phase of the tragedy. His concerns motivate him to act.

Dr. Stockmann conjectures that the illnesses arise from the contaminated waters at the local municipal baths. When the test reports confirm his fears of an infusoria infestation, he takes action to rehabilitate the baths. He will publicize his findings in the local blue-collar newspaper, The People’s Messenger. The town authorities who skimped out on the design and implementation of the water supply to the baths (one of whom is Stockmann’s brother) will be in hot water. Reputations will be destroyed. But the doctor is an idealist:

Dr. Stockmann: Who the devil cares if there be any risk or not! What I am doing, I am doing in the name of truth and for the sake of my conscience.

So, according to the risk theatre model, Dr. Stockmann makes a wager: the town’s well-being and the reputation of some of the townsfolk for the truth.

Like most wagers in popular tragedies, Stockmann has a high degree of confidence that he will be successful. He will publish his findings in the paper. Some municipal officers will go down. But the baths will be repaired and lives saved. He has the support of the paper. He has the support of the working class folks, who secretly want to see the wealthy authorities pay. This is class warfare.

Dr. Stockmann has every expectation of success. But–you know the drill now–a low-probability, high-consequence event happens which upsets his best-laid plans. This happens when the mayor, his brother Peter Stockmann, turns the tables against him. Peter begins a fear campaign: if the news gets out, the lifeblood of the town will run dry. The repairs will be prohibitively expensive. The baths will be shut down for years. The local economy will tank. House prices will crash. The blue-collar workers will lose their jobs.

Peter’s fear campaign works. Instead of being called the town’s saviour, in a vicious town meeting, Dr. Stockmann is branded “an enemy of the people.” He is fired from his post as medical officer and loses his practice. His daughter loses her job as a schoolteacher. His two sons are suspended from school. His house is vandalized, all the windows are broken.

To be Free of Conflict You Need to Have No Friends / Family

Reading An Enemy of the People reminded me of a passage from Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. In this book Taleb talks about how whistleblower types are hindered by the risks to friends and family:

It is no secret that large corporations prefer people with families; those with downside risk are easier to own, particularly when they are choking under a large mortgage.

And of course most fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond don’t have the encumbrance of a family that can become a target of, say, evil professor Moriarty.

Let us go one step further.

To make ethical choices you cannot have dilemmas between the particular (friends, family) and the general.

Celibacy has been a way to force men to implement such heroism: for instance, the rebellious ancient sect the Essenes were celibate. So by definition they did not reproduce–unless one considers that their sect mutated to merge with what is known today as Christianity. A celibacy requirement might help with rebellious causes, but it isn’t the greatest way to multiply your sect through the ages.

Financial independence is another way to solve ethical dilemmas, but such independence is hard to ascertain: many seemingly independent people aren’t particularly so. While, in Aristotle’s days, a person of independent means was free to follow his conscience, this is no longer as common in modern days.

Intellectual and ethical freedom requires the absence of the skin of others in one’s game, which is why the free are so rare. I cannot possibly imagine the activist Ralph Nader, when he was the target of large motor companies, raising a family with 2.2 kids and a dog.

An Enemy of the People reminded me of this passage because Dr. Stockmann has to ultimately decide not between his welfare and his principles (he can willingly die a martyr to truth), but has to decide between the welfare of his family and the truth. His family is the weak point.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres they.re playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.

Peer Gynt by Ibsen (Translated Peter Watts)

Finally, a post that.s not in the ‘Watercooler’ section where it seems that I.ve been spending all my time! After thoroughly enjoying Ibsen.s The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, and the one and only Hedda Gabler (who, I.m not afraid to say, I find sort of attractive), I decided to tackle Peer Gynt. According to the blurb on the back of this nice Penguin edition:

Peer Gynt, his greatest play in verse, was also to be Ibsen’s last. After its publication in 1867 he abandoned poetry to concentrate on realistic plays in prose. However, with its predecessor, Brand, it established Ibsen’s reputation as a playwright. Its relaxed gaiety complements the harder-hitting earlier work, and may be seen as a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life.

The irresponsible, lovable Peer is based on a semi-legendary character of the mountains. Norwegian folklore, with its malevolent and ugly trolls, plays a larger part in his adventures that satire: social comment is present–the caricatures of types and nationalities are self-evident–but it is as light hearted and genial as the rest of the play.

The cover art, which shows Forest Troll by Kittelson is fantastic as well. Since I always like to reward diligent readers with pictures, I slaved away to find an image:

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Did you know that most of my knowledge on art is from looking up artists on Penguin editions whose images catch my eye? Isn.t the technique superb? Not technically demanding but imaginatively demanding to have come up with the concept: a visual representation of the pathetic fallacy. Simple but ingenious.

Okay, so I got away from the watercooler to do some real reading related to Doing Melpomene.s Work. But unfortunately not much happens in this play. What?–‘It covers Peer Gynt.s whole life’, you say, ‘how could you say that not much happens?’. Well, you are correct diligent reader! Let me put it another way. I don.t understand much of what.s happening. Well, did I understand anything? You can be the judge.

So Peer Gynt is one of the character.s from Asbjornsen.s Norwegian Fairy Tales. I get that. He spends a lot of the time in the woods. The trolls he encounters are interesting. If you are in Greece and in the woods, you will likely encounter, Pan, drunken satyrs, centaurs, and other sort of jolly creatures. If you are in Britain and in the woods, you will likely encounter dainty fairies, little pixies, and other sorts of things you.ve read about in Midsummer Night’s Dream. They.re not usually drunk but they practice magic are are very often clever and mischievous. Well, it so turns out that the Norwegian woods are populated by trolls. They are ugly, have claws, and are cannibals. Well, maybe not cannibals if they are a different species than humans. But they do eat humans. And from Peer.s interactions with the Woman in Green, maybe they are not an entirely different species! So, it strikes me that what is out there in the woods can be taken as a reflection of national character. Someone smarter than I am can figure out what this signifies. Why would Mediterranean wildlife be half-animal and half-human and fond of drink, British wildlife be magical and fond of mischief, and Norwegian wildlife be ugly and brutal?

The troll world must be some sort of counter-humanity, a perspective from which humanity can be judged (seeing that it is hard to judge and you.re part of the thing that.s judging):

Old Man: What is the difference between trolls and men?

Peer Gynt: As far as can see–none at all. Big trolls will roast you, and little trolls claw you; and we’d be the same–if only we dared.

Old Man: True; in that, and in other respects, we’re alike. But morning is morning and evening is evening, and one huge difference stands between us…I’ll tell you, now, what the difference is: Outside among men, where the skies are bright, there’s a saying ‘Man, to thyself be true’; but here among trolls, the saying runs: ‘Troll, to thyself be–enough.’

The outside saying of ‘Man, to thyself be true’ reminds me of the ancient Greek injunction to ‘know thyself’ (gnwthi seauton). Well, it strikes me that part of ‘knowing oneself’ is to know one.s own appetite. So it leads to both wisdom and excess. The troll saying to ‘be enough’ seems a clarion call for simplicity, especially as the Old Man follows up by extolling a simple and homely way of life. This hits home for me in this age of excess. McMansion houses, faster cars, endless consumption: what is ‘enough’? Have we forgotten the word ‘enough’? How we would make our lives so much richer by saying ‘enough’! I was reading a Credit Suisse 2014 Global Wealth Report. Net income is what you have if you were to take the value of all your assets (house, car, book collection, etc.,) and subtract all your liabilities (mortgage, line of credit, etc.,). Assiduous readers love games. So let.s play a game. How much net income do you think you would need to have to be wealthier than 50% of the world.s population? The answer is $3650 USD. That.s really not very much. Let.s continue. If you wanted to be in the top decile of the world (top 10%) of wealth how much do you think you would need? No cheating. $77,000 USD is what you.d need. Anybody close. Okay, to be the in the top 1%. Three guesses. If you said $798,000 USD you got it. Everyone I know is doing better than 50% of the world.s population. Most of the people I know (let.s say 80% or 4 out of 5, same as the number of dentists that recommend Trident gum) have a net worth of over $77k. And maybe one out of twenty people I know is in the top 1% of the world with net worth north of $798k. But everyone I know says they don.t have enough. Well, I wonder what the rest of the world would say to us?

A hint at the ending comes during the episode with Anitra. Peer Gynt at this stage in life (he goes through many changes) become, of all things, a prophet. With one of his devotees, Anitra, he misquotes the last words of Goethe.s FaustTeil Zwei, saying ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns an’ (the Eternal-feminine leads us on) instead of ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan’ (the Eternal-feminine draws us higher’. Of course, Peer Gynt is getting duped by Anitra, who runs away with all his wealth. But at the end, he is saved from the diabolical Button Moulder by the love of Solveig, whom he had abandoned years earlier. Sort of like how Gretchen or Margaret redeems Faust at the end of Goethe.s play. So, Ibsen is doing something interesting here. But since this is only my first impressions of the play, I haven.t much more to say. Only that it.s piqued my curiosity! But perhaps you know the secret… Someone out there probably knows! Odds are there are people who have written their theses on this topic and staked their entire careers on defending their positions!

What else did I notice? Well, the blurb on the back that I quoted mentioned something about the play being ‘a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life’ (it strike me that this statement could appear just about on the back of any book). Well, as you know, I.m sensitive to drama as being an exploration of how much our values cost. The exploration of the cost of happiness in Master Builder was one of that play.s most enchanting themes. It was good to see it on display in Peer Gynt as well:

How lavish is Nature, how mean is the spirit;

how dearly man pays for his birth, with his life.

The very opposite of the spirit of entitlement that rages across the first world today. I like it.

Reading this play, I.m reminded of Glenn Gould who loved Bach. He loved the inventions, counterpoint, fugues, and canons. But the free formed fantasias he loved less, or not at all. Peer Gynt is like a free flowing fantasia. It is on a huge scale: the life of a man. It is not so much held together by form or dramatic unity as by the character of Peer Gynt. It must have been an incredible challenge for Edvard Grieg to find a musical idiom and form by which to set the play to music in his Peer Gynt Suites.

Reading Peer Gynt has been a humbling experience. Although I.m used to reading drama, it reminds me of how, if I read outside tragedy (which is very familiar), I can easily lose my way. In fact, unless one is familiar with a genre (history, romance, comedy, biography, and so on), it.s in general hard to understand what one is reading. Certainly, you understand the words. But reading is more active than comprehension. You have to anticipate where the author is taking you. And, for me reading Peer Gynt, I was absolutely unprepared for what was to come. So, I understood the words. But the greater meaning is still dull to me. It.s like if I were to read a medical textbook. Certainly I.d know the words. But it would be hard comprehending the unity of the the author.s message. Maybe one day I.ll return to Peer Gynt. It takes about five or six readings of even simpler plays to really begin to ‘get it’. But there.s so much more out there that I.ve never read. Even from Ibsen When We Dead Awaken and Enemy of the People are sitting on my bookcase silently awaiting the right moment.

There you have it, dear readers: my first impression of Peer Gynt. Until next time, I will be doing what I know how to do best. So, regardless of whether my best will be good enough, until next time I am Doing Melpomene.s Work.