October 20, 2018

Ibsen for Dummies

Jewish Journal theater critic Charles Marowitz writes from Malibu.

Ibsen for Dummies

The trick in Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” — now in a Royal National Theatre production at the Ahmanson — is realizing that a play which is ostensibly about water contamination and environmental pollution is really about political corruption. The second trick is segueing from the particular to the general in such a way that the play’s delicate balance between pretext and underlying intention is evenly maintained. The third is realizing that it is as much a comedy of the absurd as it is a play of ideas.

To avoid the more conventional heroic mold in which Dr. Stockmann is usually cast, Ian MacKellan opts for a dithery, woolly minded intellectual, reminiscent of Shaw’s Henry Higgins. Where Ibsen dictates a good-willed idealist gradually radicalized by self-serving political interests and ultimately victimized by an easily manipulated and vindictive society, MacKellan’s Stockmann never reflects the dynamic changes constantly transforming the man. He starts dithery and ends dithery.

The garrulous, naturalistic style of the humanistic Dr. Stockmann is indistinguishable from the garrulous, naturalistic style of his canny and bigoted brother (Stephen Moore), who is the mayor of the town threatened by the medical officer’s inflexible integrity. The sibling rivalry of the two brothers is established early on, but their similarity smudges the distinction between the intellectual idealist and the pragmatic local politician. The whole of the bitter ideological conflict between these men is consistently trivialized, and it seems more important to the production that it snares a few laughs than it should push its intellectual implications to their logical conclusions.

Although costumes and makeup try to make clear-cut social distinctions, everyone in Christopher Hampton’s uniform adaptation seems to share the same diction and belong to Ibsen’s all-embracing dialectic.

John Napier’s set is grossly over-designed, creating not only the most minute details of the Stockmann household and Aslaksen’s printing establishment, but the rooftops and shingles of the surrounding town as well. As if the imperative of “Enemy of The People” was creating a sea-going community in 19th-century Norway rather than a visual plane, where the play’s pressing social and political issues could be dramatized.

Director Trevor Nunn’s approach to “Enemy” is unwaveringly conventional. Instead of dramatizing its contradictions, he merely shuffles out the cards of Ibsen’s arguments and lets the chips fall where they may. He seems to believe that the play is so fundamentally rich in ideas, a director need not determine which ones make up the arc of his own interpretation. The meeting hall scene (the heart of the play) is diffuse and unfocused, conventionally orchestrated between the auditorium and the stage but, because of MacKellan’s nebulous Stockmann, obstreperously unconvincing. The Doctor emerges as a victim, not of the town’s malice, but of the production’s inability to settle on a firm viewpoint.

The fact is, despite Stockmann’s advocacy of progressive ideas, Ibsen’s own intellectual stance is for an elitism that, if given its head, would ultimately produce an oligarchy. He is clearly using Stockmann as a stick to beat both the bourgeoisie and the working classes, and the problem with that is it begs the question as to where he himself stands on all these issues, and the answer is, neither in one place or the other.

The play is essentially a kind of political farce disguised as a social melodrama. To Ibsen, liberalism, moderation, conservatism and radicalism were all equally preposterous, and this was not because he opted for some rarefied political solution of his own, but because his view of humanity was so jaundiced that he didn’t believe any system stocked with common or garden human beings could be anything but ruinous. That is why the dialectical conclusion of “Enemy” is so unconvincing. “That man is strongest,” says Stockmann, who “stands alone,” and that’s because Ibsen himself wished to dissociate himself from any organized political faction — not because he preferred one of his own but because he had grown to detest the feckless human material that corrupted them all. But the fact is, “standing alone” is itself a political position — i.e. isolationism — and we know very well what kind of political consequences that can produce.

The real enemy of the people was, of course, Ibsen himself.