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Is Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People a "realistic" drama?

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macboy1000 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 2) eNoter

Posted March 5, 2012 at 8:42 PM via web

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Is Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People a "realistic" drama?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted March 6, 2012 at 12:03 PM (Answer #1)

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An Enemy of the People is Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play about the dangers of collectivism and the importance of research, leadership, and individual responsibility.

In the play, Dr. Stockmann has overseen the installation of public baths to increase tourism revenues. While the project is a success, Dr. Stockmann finds that the tannery is releasing toxic wastes that are making the tourists sick. When he tries to have the baths closed down, he is opposed by his brother the Mayor, and by the populace, who are satisfied with the money coming in despite the danger. His defense is not well-received:

"I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord!--you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones I (Uproar and cries.) Oh, yes--you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has might on its side--unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right--I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right."
(Ibsen, An Enemy of the People, gutenberg.org)

As public opinion turns against him, Dr. Stockmann discovers that the power of media and group-think can overcome both science and reason. He is ridiculed in the press and his house is attacked by a mob throwing rocks. Finally, he concludes:

"The worst is that, from one end of this country to the other, every man is the slave of his Party. Although, as far as that goes, I daresay it is not much better in the free West either; the compact majority, and liberal public opinion, and all that infernal old bag of tricks are probably rampant there too. But there things are done on a larger scale, you see. They may kill you, but they won't put you to death by slow torture. They don't squeeze a free man's soul in a vice, as they do here. And, if need be, one can live in solitude."
(Ibsen, An Enemy of the People, gutenberg.org)

Dr. Stockmann is echoing the constant tendency of charismatic leaders to drum up unthinking support in the form of mobs, which inevitably lead to violence. Since a mob can always justify its violence by pointing at the majority -- e.g., "Everyone else was doing it" -- it is up to leaders to be smarter than the mobs and control their power with reality and words. This lesson is quite appropriate today, with many mob protests around the world refusing to listen to reason and destroying property with no justification beyond anger. The collectivist tendency towards group-mimicry destroys the individual's ability to think rationally and come to a solution from reason instead of from emotion.

In that sense, as well as the very commonplace situation of government and corporations ignoring science and truth in favor of profits and control, An Enemy of the People is very realistic, and still very timely today.

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