The great 19-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is considered by many historians to be “the father of modern drama.” His plays, many of which are considered masterpieces include “A Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabler,” “The Wild Duck” and “An Enemy of the People.” According to Wikipedia, Ibsen is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare.
Of all of Ibsen’s plays, “An Enemy of the People” is my personal favorite. Although written in 1882, its themes remain remarkably current. The central character is Thomas Stockmann, the doctor of a small coastal Norwegian town. Along with his brother the mayor, he leads a project involving a large investment of public and private funds to develop local baths and spas to attract tourists looking to partake in their health benefits.
As the baths become a financial success, Doctor Stockmann discovers that the water has been polluted by a local tannery and poses a health risk for the visiting tourists. When he tries to convey this to the local authorities, to his dismay the good doctor finds that no one wants to hear it. His brother the mayor tells him that he should “acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community.” Stockmann refuses to accept this and goes public with the information. Fearing economic ruin, eventually the whole town turns against him. He is denounced as a lunatic, an “Enemy of the People.”
There are classic quotes from the play spoken by Doctor Stockmann. Here are three: “I am in revolt against the age old lie that the majority is always right”; “A party is like a sausage machine — it grinds up all sorts of heads together into the same baloney…”; and my favorite, “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”
I am reminded of the character of Doctor Stockmann because of recent events; the theater surrounding Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Intense criticism of the senator has come from the press, the opposing party and even from within his own party for his stand taken on Obamacare. From within his own party the criticism is over “tactics.” Harry Reid has predicted that if Cruz runs for president in 2016 he will destroy the Republican Party. Good to know that Sen. Reid is concerned about the Republican Party.
Some critics of Sen. Cruz go so far as to engage in totalitarian thinking as did Sean Penn, the actor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk. On the Piers Morgan program, said Penn, “I think for let’s, let’s go to the Tea Party influence on Congress on this thing. I think they have, there’s a mental health problem in Congress. This would be solved by committing them by executive order.” When Piers Morgan laughingly asked him if Ted Cruz should be committed, Penn responded, “I think that’s a good idea.”
As an actor of some repute, perhaps he should try playing the role of Alexander Ivanov in Tom Stoppard’s play “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.” He might begin to understand the implications of what he said.
First staged in 1977, the play was written to draw attention to the Soviet Union’s practice of treating political dissent as a mental illness. The play’s central character is imprisoned in a Soviet mental institution for making anti-government statements and is told he will not be released until he confesses to being mentally ill. Incidentally, in the former Soviet Union even religious faith was determined to be a mental illness. Note to Sean Penn, the Soviet Union called this mental illness “philosophical intoxication.”
Cruz appears to understand the threat he poses to those on Sean Penn’s side of the fence. In reference to his critics Cruz has said, “they want to make this about a battle of this senator versus that senator, this person versus that person. So, it’s all personal. It’s like reading the Hollywood gossip pages. That’s how this issue is covered.” He also appears to understand the threat he poses to the Washington establishment when he says, “I don’t know if it’s the water, something in the air, the cherry blossoms, but people get here and they stop listening to the American people.”
In “Enemy of the People,” Doctor Stockmann is an individual with courage and is an agent for change. Two years prior to Ibsen’s death in 1906, Mark Twain said, “In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry