Buy NowIn An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen offers us an uncompromising analysis of the ways in which cynical politicians in cahoots with the media can thwart the message of an unworldly enthusiast, even—or particularly—when that man is a fundamentally apolitical scientist. As a character, Dr. Stockmann has an innocent energy, a joy of life, a relish of open fighting and a recklessness that makes him completely incapable of petty political calculation. All this makes him easy prey for the machinations of his powerful brother, Peter Stockmann, and for the scheming of the editor of the liberal paper, Hovstad, aided and abetted by his sidekick Billing and the printer Aslaksen.
With one exception—and An Enemy of the People (1882) is not it—Ibsen never wrote a play in which the hero was intended to be a spokesperson for his own ideas. (The exception is Ibsen’s first play, Catiline, a Romantic tragedy he wrote at the age of 21.) Many critics have nevertheless assumed that Dr. Stockmann, the doctor who rightly wishes to tell the truth about the infected baths, must be an unambiguous hero, even in Ibsen’s eyes. Such readings find much support in the text, but so do interpretations that stress the darker and more ambiguous aspects of Ibsen’s protagonist. Bertholt Brecht’s Galileo owes a lot more to Dr. Stockmann than Brecht himself liked to admit.
It is true that Ibsen and Dr. Stockmann share some political views. In the 1880s, at a time when liberal politicians in Norway were agitating for greater degrees of democracy, Ibsen was extremely critical of party politics and took a skeptical view of the idea of government by the people. In a speech to the workers of Trondheim in June 1885, Ibsen made it plain that he favored freedom—freedom of spirit, mind and expression—over democracy: “A majority of those who govern us grant neither freedom of belief nor freedom of expression to the individual, beyond an arbitrarily fixed limit. There is then still much to do before we can be said to have reached true freedom. But our
present democracy will probably not be equal to those tasks. A noble element must be introduced into the life of the state, in our government, in our representatives, and in our press. […] I am thinking of the nobility of character, mind and will. It alone can liberate us. This nobility […] will come to us from two sides. It will come to us from two groups, which have not yet been irreparably damaged by the pressure of political partisanship. It will come to us from our women and our workers.”
Good government requires nobility of spirit, Ibsen thought, and good education was required to develop noble and free people. At the end of Ibsen’s original text, Dr. Stockmann decides to begin a school for boys from the lower classes. This is entirely in keeping with the idea of “ennobling” the masses, an idea that also returns in Ibsen’s masterly Rosmersholm (1886).
On the other hand, Ibsen’s appeal to the uncorrupted influence of the workers and the women appears entirely alien to Dr. Stockmann. In the last scene of Pillars of Society (1877), Consul Bernick discovers that women are the true champions of truth and freedom. Although he has the enthusiastic support of his brilliant daughter, Petra, and the unwavering love and loyalty of his wife, Katherine, Dr. Stockmann makes no such discovery. His famous last line—“the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”—is spoken as if in blithe ignorance of the presence of these two supportive women. How alone is Dr. Stockmann at the end? Is he theatricalizing himself, exaggerating his misery by ignoring the presence of the two women, his sons and Captain Horster? Or is he rather speaking the truth, given that he is standing in a room where every single window has been broken by stones thrown by the enraged crowd?
Perhaps Dr. Stockmann is ambivalent about the support of women because his opponents have constantly tried to manipulate him by reminding him of his responsibilities to his family. At one point he bursts out: “Is a man who has a wife and children not allowed to tell the truth—not allowed to be a useful and energetic citizen—not allowed to serve the city in which he lives?” thus sounding a theme more forcefully embodied by Ibsen’s most revolutionary characters, Brand and Nora. Then he rather conveniently decides that he owes it to his two young sons—not, we note, to his daughter—to stand up for truth.
Dr. Stockmann also shows little sympathy for the working class. In the original text, he is incapable of learning the name of the family’s maid, Randine. Even when he is in need of her services, he can refer to her only as “the one who’s always sooty around the nose.” In his great speech to the crowd in act 4, Dr. Stockmann contrasts true nobility of the soul to the low-caste mongrels who surround him in a series of unpleasant comparisons, which his opponents easily twist to make him look like an elitist who believes that the working class is genetically inferior to the aristocracy.
Dr. Stockmann, however, believes no such thing. Like Ibsen, he thinks that people of all classes can develop freedom and nobility of the soul, but that no such qualities can be detected in party politicians (represented by Aslaksen and Hovstad), or in the unelected “leaders”of his society, embodied by his elder brother, Peter. In the cast list, Ibsen describes Peter as “the town judge and chief of police, chairman of the Board of Directors of the baths, etc.”—that is to say, as the embodiment of law, order and capitalism. In Ibsen’s original text, Peter prides himself on his fine family, but Dr. Stockmann calls him common, declaring that there is no reason to go around and feel proud just because their ancestor was a “horrible old pirate from Pomerania.”
Dr. Stockmann is a radical individualist with a burning passion for freedom. No wonder, then, that Hovstad can’t decide whether Dr. Stockmann is an aristocrat or a revolutionary, for both labels fit, just as they fit Ibsen himself. It is no coincidence, either, that Aristocratic Radicalism is the title of the world’s first book on Friedrich Nietzsche, published in 1889 by Ibsen’s friend, the Danish intellectual Georg Brandes.
At other times, Dr. Stockmann comes across as no better than his opponents. When the weathervane Hovstad declares that “the majority is always right,” Dr. Stockmann immediately retorts: “The majority is never right. Never, I say!” Ibsen expected us to realize that both claims are doomed by their absolutism, for in his next play, A Wild Duck (1884), Gregers Werle’s hell-bent insistence on telling the truth has appalling consequences.
Dr. Stockmann’s ambiguities provide scope for directors and actors to transform the play into a parable for their own time. Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation turned it into a galvanizing experience for Americans struggling against McCarthyism. In 2000, in a production from Upper Volta, Dr. Stockmann was shot dead after uttering his last line. What a commentary on Dr. Stockmann’s hopes for the future! What will the Shakespeare Theatre Company make of Ibsen’s powerful play about politics, truth and freedom in 2006?
Toril Moi is James B. Duke Professor of Literature, Romance Studies and Theater Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, published by Oxford University Press in 2006.