Earnest Ibsen could do with a dash of Spielberg
The Gate Theatre’s production of ‘An Enemy of the People’ is fatally cautious
Weight of passion: Declan Conlon in the Gate Theatre production of ‘An Enemy of the People’ by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photograph: Peter Rowen
There is a brilliant modern version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People. It has a huge mechanical shark, some very scary music, lots of blood in the water and a large added dose of Moby Dick. It is, of course, called Jaws. The first half of Steven Spielberg’s movie contains most of the plot of Ibsen’s play: a fearless expert discovers a grave danger to public health in a tourist town, but the authorities conspire to cover it up. It’s also a lot more fun: watching Wayne Jordan’s earnest production of Arthur Miller’s adaptation of the play at the Gate Theatre, in Dublin, I found myself longing for the sound of some darkly threatening dah-dah chords and for a giant white mouth to pop up from beneath the stage and snatch at least one of the minor characters.
An Enemy of the People is a very good example of a phenomenon that, if not unique to the theatre, is perhaps characteristic of it. In most art forms a piece of work has to be good before it can be great. But this is not quite true of drama. A play can be called great for quite different reasons. It might have a great public, moral and intellectual force in its own time. Or it might be a supreme example of the art form. (Occasionally, of course, a play might hit both of these targets.) Some of Ibsen’s work, An Enemy of the People being a prime example, is great in the first sense. But it is not, or at least not now, all that good in the second.
Ibsen is a towering figure, the inventor of the modern drama and one of the essential figures in the history of theatre. But there is a paradox in his reputation: the work for which he is most famous is, theatrically speaking, his least interesting.
Roughly, Ibsen’s career had four stages. There are the early historical epics that are rarely performed in English. I’ve never seen any of them on stage, so I’ve no real idea whether they stand up now. Next come the great expressionistic and poetic plays – Brand, Peer Gynt and Emperor and Galilean – that still seem immensely rich. Much later, there’s a fourth phase: the big psychosymbolic explorations such as Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck and When We Dead Awaken.
In between, though, there are the plays that created the idea of Ibsenism – an idea whose significance went far beyond the theatre. Three successive realistic social dramas – A Doll’s House, Ghosts and An Enemy of the People – outraged bourgeois society and generated fiercely embattled debates, both about the issues with which they dealt and about the limits of what should and should not be said and shown.