'Enemy' plays like extension of TV's golden age
DBW | Chicago, IL USA | 09/25/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
""Television's Golden Age," the 1950s, gets that moniker because the best of that decade's live drama anthologies -- such as "Playhouse 90," "Studio One" and "Kraft Television Theater," featured innovative plays that made insightful comments about contemporary life. Though "Enemy of the People" aired on National Educational Television (the precursor of PBS) in 1966, Arthur Miller's adaptation of the Ibsen classic feels like an extension of the "golden" era. In the Norway of the 1880s, an idealistic doctor (James Daly of "Medical Center") discovers that water from a new spring is contaminated with deadly bacteria. Because the spring is expected to bring a solid tourist trade to this small town, his repeated attempts to convince the town's officials and citizens are met with hostility -- most notably by the mayor, who happens to be the doctor's brother (Philip Bosco).The acting here is uniformly excellent, delivered in normal theatrical style. Daly is ideal in the lead role, never sounding a false note. Kate Reid is solid as his concerned wife, though sometimes encumbered by wild motivational swings in her character, as written.Bosco is appropriately maddening as the doctor's brother, though viewers may be somewhat amused by his stage mustache, which becomes skewed during one sequence.A number of very good actors from the period inexplicably go unbilled on the box, and are even absent from the IMDB entry. Among them are George Voskovec as the doctor's scheming father-in-law; James Olson as an unscrupulous newspaper editor; and William Prince as the battle-scarred publisher of the newspaper. Tim Daly, best known for his role on "Wings," plays one of the doctor's young sons; he is the real life son of the late James Daly. Rue McLanahan appears in a bit role.In what might have been rather startling for TV viewers of the mid-'60s, the mild profanity of Miller's adaptation is kept intact. The play was shot on black-and-white videotape, and the print that was used for this DVD is very good. It's always so much better to see the straight video from this period, rather than a kinescoped copy."An Enemy of the People" will be rewarding viewing for any lover of classic television."
Thoughts about the Play in Itself
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 01/15/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
An Enemy of the People is Ibsen's most explicitly political play, and the one that critics refer to most often when attempting to pin down the playwright's political stance. The fourth act of the drama consists chiefly of Doctor Stockman's spontaneous ranting and raving against the tyranny of the majority - the democratic mass of ignorant and short-sighted ordinary people who have failed to accept his advice. "The majority is never right!" he declares; "That's one of those social lies that any free man who thinks for himself has to rebel against.... all over this whole wide earth, the stupid are in a fearsomely overpowering majority..... The right is with me, and the other few, the solitary individuals. The minority is always right." Later in his tirade, he continues: "I'm thinking of the few, the individuals among us, who've mastered all the new truths that have been germinating. Those men are out there holding their positions like outposts, so far in the vanguard that the solid majority hasn't even begun to catch up..." Such anti-democratic, anti-liberal declarations have earned Ibsen a reputation among some critics of being a prophet of fascism -- he was in fact Hitler's favorite playwright -- but a careful comparison will show that Doctor Stockman sounds a good deal more like a character in an Ayn Rand novel than like the 'hero' of Mein Kampf. Listen to Stockman's last words, at the end of act five, standing in the middle of his vandalized clinic and confronted a ruined career: "I've made a great discovery!... the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone!"
Recent audiences seem disposed to take Stockman at his own estimation. The BBC adaptation of Enemy, set in Scotland, transposes the danger to the community that Stockman has discovered from sewage contamination of the Spa to chemical pollution, and portrays Stockman as a staunch monitor against environmental catastrophe. This adaptation by Arthur Miller sticks far closer to Ibsen's scenario, and has a lot of merit as theater, but fails to convey what I conceive to be the 'mixed-genre' tragicomedic complexity of the original. It would be quite easy to rewrite Ibsen's play as an outcry of alarm against the deniers of global environmental degradation in our times, taking Ibsen's Norwegian village as emblematic of the whole Earth. But frankly, I don't think Ibsen had anything so unambiguous in mind. Perhaps I'm just reluctant to accept the idea that a great playwright could be a total fool. The play is not about pollution, but about the 'balance' of values between the exceptional individual and the ordinary throng.
Doctor Stockman, by his own evaluation, is the exceptional individual, and for the moment at least the embodiment of the "prophet with honor in his own country." However, the play is rife with clues that we the audience are not required to accept Stockman's self-assessment. First, of course, any rash madman can proclaim himself a genius, and Stockman is plainly a bit of a madman. He has, after all, put himself and his family in dire straits. He's also, by his own admission, remarkably naive for an "exceptional" mind -- utterly blind to the possibility that others might have other understandings than his. He loudly declares his indifference to public opinion of his personal worth, yet in fact he is painfully susceptible to doubts about his motives and hysterically committed to vindicating his "honor'. In the end, he'd rather 'be right' - in his own mind - than 'do right'. His bizarre father-in-law, in fact, provides him with the chance to do something concrete - not without struggle and cost, but effectively for the best interest of the community - to take on the pragmatic task of cleansing the Spa of disease organisms. The mere possibility that the community might suspect him of self-interest, however, throws him into a tizzy of abnegation and isolation, and the scary scheme of 'educating' his sons and a few other children essentially as disciples of his proto-Objectivist philosophy. Stockman may be totally right about the hazard of pollution and yet be recognized as a quixotic megalomaniacal crank, a man of no possible use to his community.
What then did Ibsen intend? After all, in Peer Gynt he'd already expressed his horror of everything mediocre; Doctor Stockman would have no reason to fear the "button-maker" who comes to recycle the 'souls' of ordinary men. But "An Enemy of the People" is too rich in irony and tragicomedy to be another affirmation of libertarian individualism. It can only be coherently read as proof of the perilous futility of the 'superior' outsider. It's just a quick half-turn from Doctor Stockman to Ralph Nader... or to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber."