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

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.

These plays are enormously important. It is impossible to understand the course of modern western culture without them. They are, in that sense, indisputably great.

But are they much good? Not now. They share a common problem: an artistic form that cannot bear the weight of the passions they unleash. Unlike the work that preceded and followed them in Ibsen’s career, they are confined within a naturalistic machinery that seems far too clunky and literal for the ideas and emotions that are fed into it. Now that they are no longer shocking they feel paradoxical. They are simultaneously dull and hysterical, tedious and overwrought.

The fame and historical significance of these plays are such that there seems to be an obligation to produce them. But there is also a strong case for trying to re-create or reinvent them and to think radically about how they might be liberated from the naturalistic conventions that make them so laborious. The Gate’s production has some very good things in it: the interplay of Declan Conlon as the honest scientist Stockman and Denis Conway as his brother the mayor; a valiant use of space by the set designer Paul O’Mahony. But it is fatally cautious.

One puzzling decision is the use of Miller’s text. Miller was himself a great playwright, but no one ever accused him of lacking earnestness. Putting his earnestness alongside that of Ibsen produces more of the stuff than Oscar Wilde could ever have imagined.

But it also leads to a curious lack of clarity about place and time. The set, and some of Miller’s language, suggest the US in the mid 20th century. The names and political structures are Norwegian. The clothes are also mid 20th century, but this is a 20th century in which an intelligent man doesn’t know what bacteria are and the mayor walks around with a funny badge of office on his hat and seems to have extraordinary legal and political authority. For a social drama, this fuzziness about what kind of society we are in is fatal.

At the same time, there is a tendency to clean up Ibsen’s rather dodgy attack on democracy. Stockman is morally right, and the howling majority who find his truths inconvenient are wrong. But Ibsen lets this opposition run away with itself, as Stockman launches a howling rant against the crawling and swarming masses while idealising the superiority of the high-minded intellectual. This is very much toned down in this production and in Conlon’s performance, Stockman is ineffably decent and therefore a little duller than he needs to be. The chief source of fun in the play is that he’s also quite bonkers.


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