A lot of people believe that Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen penned An Enemy of the People with a big old chip on his shoulder. He wrote the play directly after Ghosts, which got all kinds of nasty criticism in the papers for its talk of taboo subjects like syphilis and assisted suicide. Dr. Stockmann, the protagonist of An Enemy of the People, harshly criticizes just the sort of liberal media that had talked smack about Ghosts. Chances are this isn't just a random coincidence.
We know from a series of letters that many of the ideas spouted by Dr. Stockmann, were very close to Ibsen's own opinions. In a letter to his editor upon completing his manuscript, Ibsen wrote that he felt "lost and lonely" now that he had completed the script, because he and Dr. Stockmann had "got on excellently" and "agree[d] on so many subjects." Ibsen went on the say that Doctor has "characteristics because of which people will stand hearing a good many things from him which they might perhaps not have taken in such very good part had they been said by me" (source). The evidence seems to be pointing to the fact that the Ibsen saw Stockmann as a mouthpiece of sorts, a more likeable alter ego who people were more likely to listen to.
Even though it is widely believed that An Enemy of the People was inspired by the negative critical reactions to Ghosts, it's also pretty clear that the core ideas of the play were in Ibsen's mind for a long time. Shortly after he published his earlier play A Doll's House, Ibsen wrote to a Professor buddy of his, "It appears to me doubtful whether better artistic conditions can be attained in Norway before the intellectual soil has been thoroughly turned up and cleansed, and all the swamps drained off" (source). This happens to be the very same sort of conclusion that Dr. Stockmann comes to at the end of An Enemy of the People and is also the play's central metaphor. It looks like the ideas that erupt on the stage in An Enemy of the People had been burning inside of Ibsen for quite some time.
Have you ever felt that everyone around you is completely absurd? Have you ever thought that perhaps you were the only reasonable or intelligent person left in the whole world? If so, you might get along well with Dr. Stockmann, the hero of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. When the people in Dr. Stockmann's town all turn against him for trying to reveal the truth of their polluted water, the Doctor goes on the warpath.
Dr. Stockmann comes to realize that the real pollution around him isn't necessarily the bacteria-ridden water; instead it's the ignorant masses. His basic argument is that the majority of people are too foolish to know what's best for them, therefore majority rule is an inherently foolish system. Wait a minute…isn't the rule of the majority kind of the foundation of democracy? Whoever and whatever gets the most votes wins, right?
The Doctor says that society ought to be ruled by the intellectually superior (like himself). In his opinion the people who are the smartest might just be in a position to make the best decisions. What do you think? Is this a reasonable argument or an elitist opinion? Whatever you think, it's still pretty edgy. Read on to see if you agree.
A great site with lots of information on Ibsen.
All Ibsen, all the time.
En Folkenfiende, 2005
A Norwegian film.
An Enemy of the People, 1978
Film version starring tough guy Steve McQueen.
An Enemy of the People, 1966
Arthur Miller (same guy who wrote the plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible) wrote the screenplay for this film version of Ibsen's play.
An Indian adaptation of Ibsen's play.
An Enemy of the People, 1990
Arthur Miller was apparently a big fan of this play. He wrote this TV version of it, too.
Here's a link to the translation we used. Translated by R. Farquharson Sharp.
Henrik Ibsen: Plays and Problems
An entire book on Ibsen free for you to browse.
A clip from the 1966 Arthur Miller adaptation. This is the first part of the film, but you can watch all 12 parts on YouTube.
Bespectacled Ibsen and his mighty fine beard
Image from a production of the play.
An Enemy of the People Handbill
Cover of one of the play's publications.
A dramatic standoff.