Ibsen Times Three: Traitor, An Enemy of the People and Pillars of the Community
The protagonists of Henrik Ibsen can be divided into individuals seeking personal happiness despite the disapproval of their society, and those seeking to change the society itself. Of the latter, An Enemy of the People and the play often considered to be its prototype, Pillars of the Community, have exercised the greatest appeal for audiences of diverse countries, cultures and political affiliations. The 2016 election appears to have launched a paradigm shift in play selection, making for an unplanned Ibsen festival—featuring not one, but three productions of the playwright at his most censorious—to welcome in the 2018 season.
"In times of political change," observes Neena Arndt, dramaturg for the Goodman Theatre's upcoming production of Enemy of the People, "It's not unusual for theaters to program plays exploring government and the place of the lone citizen within them." The lone citizen under scrutiny by Ibsen, in this case, is a doctor who detects industrial pollution in the waters of the health spas anchoring the local economy—a discovery the town magistrates immediately seek to deny. "The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, reminded us that public services that we take for granted—clean water, for example—are subject to political systems exercising control of its infrastructure."
The setting for Brett Neveu's adaptation of Enemy of the People, re-titled Traitor, has been transposed from a Norwegian village in 1882 to a Chicago suburb in 2018, but the contention still lies in the efforts of a single crusader to alert the civic leaders to environmental biohazards—this time, on the campus of a recently-opened charter school.
"The central theme of my play is how the truth can get buried in a tidal wave of self-interest," insists Neveu, "How the need to win arguments can overrule the consequences of a problem, and how the news media often strives to create conflict because that's what keeps them in business. These troubles don't go away just because we ignore them. We can't unbreak something—we can only fix it"
Written early his career, Ibsen's Pillars of the Community covers a multitude of issues revolving around Karsten Bernick, whose shipbuilding business has rendered him prosperous and well-connected in his home-town of Grimstad, where he anticipates expanding his empire with the addition of profitable new railroad—if he can retain the good faith of fellow investors. Gossip still circulates regarding a scandal surrounding Bernick's brother-in-law, Johann, who fled to America after conducting an illicit affair with a married women of low station and stealing a sum of money, closely followed by Lona, Bernick's freethinking ex-fiancee. The two expatriates have now returned, threatening his new-found security, his marriage and even the life of his child.
"This was Ibsen's most personal play," director Elly Green reminds us, "As a teenager, he, himself, apprenticed in Grimstad, where he had an affair with an older woman that led to an illegitimate child—experiences at odds with the parochial society that he would write about thirty years later."
The fugitives' migration overseas to an upstart nation barely a hundred years old is regarded by Ibsen's Norwegians bourgeoisie as an aberration almost as shocking as Lona's protofeminist mode of dress. Indeed, the ship bringing the prodigals home is named the "Indian Girl," its Yankee sailors described as a "rascally pack of brawling beasts."
"Speaking as a non-American living in the United States" says the England-born Green, "I can't wait to see how our audience responds to Ibsen's representation of their country. I hope it sparks debate."
Arendt disagrees, "The characters [in Enemy of the People] shouldn't be seen as heroes or villains, but as human beings, with traits both flawed and admirable. Rather than viewing the play as prescriptive, we hope audiences will leave wondering, 'If this play ended with everyone completely happy, what would that ending be?' and see whether their answers agree."
Traitor runs at A Red Orchid Theatre through March 4.
Pillars of the Community runs at Strawdog Theatre through March 3.
An Enemy of the People opens at Goodman Theatre on March 11.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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