In Arthur Miller's update of Ibsen, a whistleblower's righteous zeal also accounts for his flaws | Theater | Indy Week
Pin It

In Arthur Miller's update of Ibsen, a whistleblower's righteous zeal also accounts for his flaws 

Arthur Miller's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People at PlayMakers Rep

Photo by Jon Gardiner

Arthur Miller's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People at PlayMakers Rep

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.

  • An Enemy of the People runs at PlayMakers Repertory Company through March 15.

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Theater



Twitter Activity

Comments

I'm wondering why Dorfman specifically chose the Death and the Maiden quartet - deriving from the song Der Tod und …

by trishmapow on Forgiving is not forgetting in Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden (Theater)

Most Read

Most Recent Comments

I'm wondering why Dorfman specifically chose the Death and the Maiden quartet - deriving from the song Der Tod und …

by trishmapow on Forgiving is not forgetting in Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden (Theater)

I'm not a theatergoer, so it was off my usual path to see this production. The small/ mighty cast approached …

by Aims Arches on A Superlative Adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando Packs Centuries of Insight into a Fleet Eighty Minutes (Theater)

I personally am remarkably intrigued to see this production but since I can't drive myself to it I will sadly …

by Ryan Oliveira on David Harrower Lives Up to His Name in Blackbird, a Challenging Portrait of Abuse (Theater)

I wholeheartedly agree with the position that there should be more structured, civic support for the thriving arts community in …

by ShellByars on Common Ground Closed. Sonorous Road Might Be Next. Is It Curtains for Small, Affordable Theaters in the Triangle? (Theater)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation