None among us is the Prince of Truth, whose company few can long endure. That inconvenient fact came home for me Saturday night, when I was forced to part ways with a particularly beloved, long-held lie.
My history with Arthur Miller's adaptation of An Enemy of the People dates back to high school, when I first read it in the now-defunct magazine Literary Cavalcade. This play about one of literature's most famous whistleblowers was one of the first to demonstrate to me the sheer power that words on the page could speak to authority.
And so an 11th-grader in a small tobacco town—one familiar, by then, with a constellation of lonely truths—memorized Dr. Thomas Stockmann's impassioned thoughts on ethics versus the majority, delivered by a single man against a mob. In the winter of that year, I voiced them in a successful audition for the North Carolina Governor's School.
For years afterward, Stockmann remained an ideal in my mind, the incorruptible public thinker and scientist who, like Jean Anouilh's Antigone, came from "the tribe that asks questions ... to the bitter end." After an extended absence from the work, I looked forward to its opening night at PlayMakers Rep as a private reunion of sorts.
Despite the loss of several days' rehearsal to weather, a self-assured cast navigated the familiar opening scenes. I gladly hailed Michael Bryan French as a life-affirming Dr. Stockmann; noted Anthony Newfield's prickly, fusty take on his brother and nemesis, Mayor Peter Stockmann, with a bit more reservation; and savored how the various self-styled defenders of the people and the truth on stage were setting themselves up to ultimately betray everything they were saying.
Then the fateful letter came from the University—the one whose chemical analysis confirmed the corruption that Dr. Stockmann suspected lay in the waters of the town's medicinal springs. Moments later, he asked his daughter, Petra (Allison Altman), to bring the report he'd prepared for the board of directors at the spring. "Five solid, explosive pages," Dr. Stockmann called them.
Already written. Before the science was in.
And lo, the charm was broken. My Dr. Stockmann was merely human after all: a character whose egotism, anger and disconcerting certainty were increasingly apparent as I later re-read the script.
He first describes his finding that the springs are poisoned as "a terrific discovery." The managers aren't merely wrong; they are "baboons," the "mighty" who will soon be fallen, he imagines, by his five sheets of paper. At the newspaper that promises to print his exposé, Dr. Stockmann's sudden zeal to "go on to other subjects and blow up every lie we live by" takes on the darker hue of the budding zealot.
Don't get me wrong; Dr. Stockmann's still on the right side of the facts—about the spring, about his brother and about those enigmatic chimeras we call The Majority and The People. "The majority is never right until it does right," he rails at an angry crowd. "Rights are sacred until it hurts for somebody to use them." To modern ears, surely these words ring all too true.
But I have to recognize that they're spoken, now, by someone just a little less pure: someone whose scientific certainty is taken to convey an equivalent moral certainty upon all of his other beliefs. Those beliefs include his unshakable conviction, held to the end of director Tom Quaintance's truly sinister last scene, that the truth, alone, will somehow save him, his wife and his three children from a rock-throwing mob.
This is certainly not the conclusion Arthur Miller would have us reach about his 1950 text. The playwright was commissioned to craft it as a response to the Communist witch hunts of that time and, as dramaturge Gregory Kable notes, the two actors playing Dr. and Mrs. Stockmann at the premiere were themselves under suspicion for un-American activities.
In a state where too-friendly coal ash regulations have befouled rivers and wells and the government has made ignoring sea-level science a matter of law in long-range coastal planning, a vocal ripple of recognition ran through the theater when the Mayor forbade the doctor from talking about his findings. "This has nothing to do with science," he yelled.
Correct again. But, unfortunately, censorship and attacks on whistleblowers still have everything to do with us.