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Posted on on November 10th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (

Henrik Ibsen 1828-1906 is for the Scandinavians what Shakespeare is for the Anglo-Saxons, Gogol and Chekhov for the Slavs or Cervantes for the Spaniards. These individuals saw man as he or she are and their writings become globalized. Take then a Bertolt Brecht “theater of ideas” approach to the staging of an Ibsen play – or a play of any of the great playwrights  – get the acting up to an intelligent level  so that there are hints to the daily live of the audience – don’t over-do it – let the audience participate  directly – and the show turns into an event. That is great theater today and ever.

While on Broadway a Tennessee Williams great play – “The Glass Menagerie” – is these days over-staged, over-laud, over expensive – a must for tourists that can afford $300 for a seat, across the river in Brooklyn, at the incomparable masterpiece Harvey Theater – named after Harvey Lichtenstein – who was a former dancer who became arts administrator and for 32-year  the executive director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music that he turned with his strong will from a struggling mainly unused opera house into a Mecca for new legitimate theater.  At the Academy building started out people like Robert Wilson and the yearly New Wave Festival was just a natural outgrowth. Then there was the need of a second theater and The Harvey Theater Hall was born just one block away on Fulton Street. Now foreign directors bring their companies from overseas to teach America how to get back to the promise of good theater. We just got to witness there a truly great production of a play, for one tenth of the cost of the Broadway theater, and got to learn a lot about ourselves as well. These foreigners truly understood the US, while the US theater on Broadway showed very little understanding of the foreigners that leave the theater there with a feeling of being had.

Looking up via the internet we found – “The Enemy of the People” (1882), follows earlier Ibsen plays, where controversial elements were important and even pivotal components of the action, but they were on the small scale of individual households. In An Enemy, controversy became the primary focus, and the antagonist was the entire community. One primary message of the play is that the individual, who stands alone, is more often “right” than the mass of people, who are portrayed as ignorant and sheep-like. Contemporary society’s belief was that the community was a noble institution that could be trusted, a notion Ibsen challenged.

In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen chastised not only the conservatism of society, but also the liberalism of the time. He illustrated how people on both sides of the social spectrum could be equally self-serving.

An Enemy of the People was written as a response to the people who had rejected his previous work, Ghosts. The plot of the play is a veiled look at the way people reacted to the plot of Ghosts. In “Enemy” the protagonist is a physician in a vacation spot whose primary draw is a public bath. The doctor discovers that the water is contaminated by the local tannery. He expects to be acclaimed for saving the town from the nightmare of infecting visitors with disease, but instead he is declared an ‘enemy of the people’  by the locals, who band against him and even throw stones through his windows.
The play ends with his complete ostracism. It is obvious to the reader that disaster is in store for the town as well as for the doctor.

Then the source continues – As audiences by now expected, Ibsen’s next play again attacked entrenched beliefs and assumptions; but this time, his attack was not against society’s mores, but against overeager reformers and their idealism. Always an iconoclast, Ibsen was equally willing to tear down the ideologies of any part of the political spectrum, including his own.   Ibsen thus liked more the interaction of positions rather then the taking of a position. In effect the whole society is being criticized by Ibsen.

The Wild Duck (1884)  that followed The Enemy is by many considered Ibsen’s finest work, and it is certainly the most complex. It tells the story of Gregers Werle, a young man who returns to his hometown after an extended exile and is reunited with his boyhood friend Hjalmar Ekdal. Over the course of the play, the many secrets that lie behind the Ekdals’ apparently happy home are revealed to Gregers, who insists on pursuing the absolute truth, or the “Summons of the Ideal”. Among these truths: Gregers’ father impregnated his servant Gina, then married her off to Hjalmar to legitimize the child. Another man has been disgraced and imprisoned for a crime the elder Werle committed. Furthermore, while Hjalmar spends his days working on a wholly imaginary “invention”, his wife is earning the household income.

Dr. Stockman is the idealist who naively believes he can win by being right, but then encounters the truth that all levels of society are corrupt. Some start on the corruption path knowingly and others backstep into it because circumstances might otherwise turn them into major losers.
Nobody is ready to lose intentionally.

The Enemy that hit the Harvey Theater comes from the Schaubuhne at the Lehniner Platz (The Lenin Square) in what used to be East Berlin. The artistic genius – Director Thomas Ostermeier –  was responsible for this production as he was for several previous shows that were seen previously at the BAM.

The acting was impeccable – down to the facial expressions of the stage dog. There were minutes of talking without words and you knew exactly what they were saying. Only very seldom did the actors shout – and that was in cases of natural crescendo. I was able to understand the clear German and compliment it with the flashed English. The updates were in many cases just results on inflection and accent rather then as changes in wording. Nevertheless we understood that the closing of the bath would lead to unimaginable economic losses that the town will not allow. The vested interests were ready to fight back and had already prepared an alternate study that says there is nothing at fault with those waters – this sort of the Koch Brothers funded pseudo-scientific studies that say there is no man-made global warming.

Then, if one was going to do any changes to the water system it would cost money and nobody will want to pay higher taxes in order to pay-off the debt that the town will incur. In the end this becomes the common attitude to all those involved – just like in the USA of 2013. At this point some of the actors moved over to the audience and an exchange started that brought in regular members of the audience. When eventually Dr. Stockman is bombarded with paint balls the audience seems like having been wrestled down as well – though those balls originated from the theater hall.

YES – WE ARE ALL THE ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE – this because except for Dr. Stockman and his faithful wife nobody is left with ideals – and the young couple themselves have been presented with the shares of those baths, bought up by the father in law who invested in this the money that he had intended originally for them as inheritance. Now they can be rich if they only declare that they have a way to save those baths.


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