An Enemy of the People, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, is about a small town on the southern coast of Norway and how it perceives and accepts truth. The town is governed by Peter Stockmann and doctored by his younger brother, Thomas. The main conflict flares up between these two siblings and then spreads throughout the town as they both try to do best by the community.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann is a public-minded doctor in a small town famous for its public baths. He discovers that the water supply for the baths is contaminated and has probably been the cause of some illness among the tourists who are the town’s economic lifeblood. In his effort to clean up the water supply, Dr. Stockmann runs into political cowards, sold-out journalists, shortsighted armchair economists, and a benighted
Citizenry. His own principled idealism exacerbates the conflict. The well-meaning doctor is publicly labeled an enemy of the people, and he and his family are all but driven out of the town he was trying to save.
This is an early dramatization of something we know better a century later: the difficulty of translating medical scientific knowledge into political action. Ibsen’s well-intentioned blustery doctor heroically fails. This is partly because the local democratic processes are quite cynical (powerful people prevent him from getting his information to the citizens). Dr. Stockmann also suffers from a professional blindness that keeps him from understanding how anyone could possibly disagree that his scientific “truth” (he uses the world frequently) requires rebuilding the town’s waterworks. He is a classic case of virtue-based ethics sacrificing outcome for principle.
This play addresses many social issues. It ties in family, truth, righteousness, community, and politics. It really demonstrates how one issue can have many truths to it and how different people, even within ones own family, can see the same thing in total different perspectives; and in doing that act out against one another in an attempt to prove that ones own perspective is the right or only one. In human nature, we are not one to compromise. We see so many things as one way or another, right or wrong; rarely do we seek to find the common ground between the two. In this play, common ground is never found, and in the end leaves a family broken up and a society left to wonder.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann refused to give in, and in doing so lost parts of his family, his career, even his property, but never the less remained true to himself. This characteristic is one of great strength in my opinion. There are fewer and fewer people in my mind today, that believe so passionately in what they do and say, that they are willing to risk everything for it. Dr. Stockmanns character portrays extreme courage and independence.
The playwright Arthur Miller adapted this play in the 1950s for its strong minority rights message at a time when those in power were viewing many U.S. artists with liberal politics as enemies of the people. Miller keeps Dr. Stockmann’s strong idealism and mistrust of the majority but shortens and softens his tirades in which pro-minority is hard to distinguish from arguments for genetic superiority.