Schaubuhne's 'An Enemy of the People' Leads Us To Our Own Interrogation And That's Great
Notes on the Schaubuhne’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People under the direction of Thomas Ostemeier
Thomas Ostemeier’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People played for two nights at Zellerbach Hall last weekend and so unfortunately I can’t tell you to run to Berkeley and see it. It’s gone. We don’t live in a perfect world.
But neither does Dr. Stockman, the ostensible hero of Ibsen’s play. He has a scientific and investigative bent and wonders why tourists keep on getting sick while visiting the town’s hugely profitable water spa—a lot of diarrhea and skin rashes. So he runs a few tests, discovers that the water’s contaminated, and does what any good citizen would: writes an article, an exposé, that alerts the public to the dangers.
Stockman knows that’s the right thing to do, and I guess so do we, though not all of his circle of friends, family, and acquaintances agree. Certainly not his brother, Peter, a city councilman, or his editors at the local paper, or, as things move along, any of his friends—Stockman soon learns that when you’re armed with the truth you can easily become an enemy of the people.
And for a good deal of the people, Stockman’s truth is nastier than any poison lurking in the water.
There’s a difference between putting on a play and interrogating it. Ostemeier is an artist of the latter school. His understanding of An Enemy of the People is striking and the choices he makes signals how we might begin our own interrogation.
You might ask what does that mean as a practical matter. Well, for one, it’s a demand to be aware—of Ibsen’s thinking, of how the play operates, not only as an entertainment, but also as a set of propositions about the world. And the most urgent of those propositions is that we pay attention.
I don’t know whether that should be a commonplace or radical notion. All I know it that it rarely happens in Bay Area theater, that you should have to pay attention. There were more than a few muttering walk outs the night I was there, but what would you expect from audiences weaned on artistic sugar, honey, and cocaine.
Drift away and this production will cast you aside.
In any community, you can count on most of us to jettison individual conscience. Ibsen understood that and that ugly fact is at the basis of Ostemeier’s vision here. How does the community situate itself, intellectually, emotionally, politically, and economically?
The production provides two initial answers, wildly different in scope and feeling, but both committed to utopian ideals.
We’re confronted with the first answer as we enter Zellerbach Hall. A quote from the Invisible Committee’s 2009 anti-corporate, anarchist manifesto The Coming Insurrection is plastered across a scrim covering the whole of the stage. Here it is in full:
I AM WHAT I AM: the latest marketing slogan by an American sports shoe producer, not simply a lie, not a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war cry, directed against everything that exists between beings, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that invisibly links them, everything that prevents complete desolation against everything that makes us exist and ensures that the whole world doesn’t have the look and feel of a highway, an amusement park or a new town: pure boredom, passionless but well ordered, empty, frozen space, where nothing moves apart from registered bodies, automobile molecules, and ideal communities.
I read The Coming Insurrection in the wake of the Occupy movement (long before President Trump). I found its popularity in left circles worrying. The anonymous “invisible committee” seemed a more philosophically sophisticated version of American evangelicals. For both, the world, the system, every way of living is always on the verge of collapse. And from that vantage point we can, depending on one’s orientation, expect either God’s great awakening or the coming communist utopia.
Ostemeier catches the way activism is always tied to greater philosophical and religious movements (Stockman’s included), and how difficult and dangerous it is to maintain those beliefs when they run counter to community interests. The tricky aspect, which the play and production understand so well, is that the community is in flux, too, constantly redefining (perhaps unconsciously) its philosophical underpinnings.
Part of the power and pleasure of the production is that The Coming Insurrection is not going to get a fly-by mention, a nod to far-left hipsters. It seeps into the drama in ways that are haunting, dangerous, and ask more from us than mere agreement. We must also feel the pressure of our convictions. Our world is full of unexamined and vague alliances, but every intimate relationship is a product of unspoken beliefs and those beliefs can shatter.
The second answer is more alive and sensual. As the play begins the cast sings a kind of alt-folk take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” The actors sing beautifully and we learn a little later that this Dr. Stockman, in this rendition of An Enemy of the People, is not a middle-aged brooding malcontent, but a young brooding malcontent who lives in a kind of bohemian commune and heads an indie band with his wife.
It’s a brilliant gambit on Ostemeier’s part. What makes up a band but a set of competing interests trying to achieve a type of public harmony? Each member must always balance their sense of self against that of the group or the leader(s). The tensions are always explosive, and we know that in the end artistic alliances splinter, fracture, blow up, or limp along in a sad parody of past vitality.
What makes the metaphor so potent is the beauty of the music papers over obvious political and social fissures, that its utopian promise is always a pipe dream. Still, even as an unreachable ideal, Ostemeier makes clear that Stockman’s band is spurring him to take on real beliefs, commitments, and political action.
The fact that the band ceases to sing about a third of the way through the production shows the irreparable damage that the presence of real political conflict can bring. Politics is always about pure power, the aesthetic, only partially so. We understand in Stockman’s growing disenchantment that all communities must eventually collapse in disagreement, even those capable of creating great beauty.
Stockman’s band breaks up without ever realizing that they’ve sung their last song—which is as it should be.
If An Enemy of the People is a battle about truth, both play and production relentlessly pursue its aesthetic correlative: how to depict reality. Today, Ibsen’s realism has become—in a greatly diluted form—ours. By embracing aggressive, non-realistic staging techniques, Ostemeier re-imagines Ibsen’s most radical goals of representing the world, and in fact demands that his production make us feel the shock of it, the shock of what is actually in front of us.
You feel it in the rhythm of the scenes. The acting is amazing in the cast’s ability to steer clear of the Meryl Streep School of grand gestures. They never seek to take or hold our attention; we must come to them. Whether it’s an uncomfortable conversation between Stockman and his brother Peter, or Stockman’s rich, father-in-law slipping in for a surprise visit, we never feel as if we are at the beginning of a scene. Rather, there’s a sense that we’re floating through the gradual unfolding of a normal day. And so we must demonstrate an alertness equal to the characters, the same awareness that we employ every day to make it through our lives, especially when the times become political and fraught.
So the sense of realism is shockingly high and even in the plays most dramatic moments, the performances have a low key, shoot-from-the-hip nonchalance. Again, we’re being asked to pay attention, to find our own paths into the play, our own set of interests and beliefs. That’s why for a production steeped with ideas, not one moment feels didactic. You are free to choose. That’s the crucial issue here: you are free to choose.
Ibsen understood that too, that the relationship between realism and choice is always a negotiation around truth. The penultimate scene of An Enemy of the People is Stockman’s attempt to issue a public, scientific report on the state of the water spa. It’s a nice trick of the stage that theaters and town halls naturally resemble each other, and often are the same space.
That gives the city council scene an easy and natural realism; but if the set is built into the architecture, there’s nothing easy about how the characters treat it. They fight to speak from it, to hold center stage, to shape our sense of what it means to use it, allowing us to witness the ethics and brute force of speaking in public, taking the stage—the whole theater becomes a battlefield over space that is in its theatricality devastatingly realistic.
And Stockman doesn’t even speak about the issue at hand—the poisoning of the water—and instead becomes obsessed with attacking the whole system. In Ostemeier’s take, he ceases to be a watchdog or a whistle blower, someone who sees injustices and searches for a remedy, but rather becomes a leftist on the order of the invisible committee, someone who’d have a hand in writing The Coming Insurrection.
But don’t take my word for it, take the words of Stockman’s speech to the council and town, much of it lifted from the committee’s 2009 manifesto:
The disabled is the model citizen of tomorrow.
Contrary to what has been repeated to us since childhood intelligence doesn’t mean knowing how to adapt, or, if this is a kind of intelligence, it belongs to slaves.
That’s why society imposes Ritalin on overactive children.
It’s not the crisis that depresses us, it’s growth.
And he goes on and on. And that’s when things got a little crazy at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California.
Ostemeier’s production has become quite infamous for opening up Stockman’s Town Hall meeting to actual audience members, saying whatever the hell they want. With the cast and techies running around with microphones, we get members of our community weighing in on the issues at hand. And some didn’t even bother to wait for a mike, they just shouted from their seats.
I can’t say that what was said the night I was there made much sense, but it highlighted one nasty, shining truth about Ibsen’s play (and when it comes to Ibsen, nasty truths are the only ones you get): that without a fidelity to the truth, we will always be subjected to the worst of democracy, autocracy, socialism, wily fascists and benign despots, the garbage heap of any form of government or leadership you can imagine.
Stockman’s decision to jettison the issue of poison to take down the social system that produces it is a tricky and dangerous one. Without truth—the actual conditions of the water in the spa—all we have are competing ideologies, the politics of might, rhetoric, and the pleasures of destroying our opponents. When the truth slips from view, when it’s just a sideshow to the circus of pure power and spectacle, all we have left are self-righteous evangelists.
Stockman’s fate is a rigorous demonstration of what can happen to charismatic critics, no matter how trenchant their insights and critiques, and no matter how right they might be about the corruption and poison we live with everyday. Without the truth, the system will always get them.
In the end all I can say is that the whole evening was a beautiful challenge.
The run of ‘An Enemy of the People’ is over and so there is no tickets or information to click here.