Friday, February 26, 2010

An Enemy of the People

Spolier alert

The Crucible Theatre has re-opened with a production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, a battle between truth, freedom and justice on the one hand, and politics, the media and the solid majority of public opinion on the other.

Dr Stockman knows he is right - he has the evidence, and initially he has supporters, but when the cost to the town in money and reputation is understood his supporters desert him. Driven close to madness by his unwillingness to deny the truth in the face of public opinion and financial ruin, he makes what he calls a remarkable - and to our ears disturbing - discovery. A society that would lie to protect its interests is utterly rotten. The common man, the radical press and the political establishment are not the backbone of society but its chief ill. They would suffocate superior free-thinking people like himself. Were they to succeed in this suppression of their moral superiors, they would deserve to be exterminated: the whole town, the whole country if necessary. And yes there was a bit of dalek voice for this line.

Yes, the fighter for truth and justice (in this adaptation, if not in Arthur Miller's) is not just called an enemy of the people by the authorities, he really is one. And perhaps the people deserve to have enemies such as him.

The majority is not always right. (Stockman says 'never right'). And while Stockman's descent into quasi-fascist elitism is disturbing, it is perhaps a salutory reminder that if we regard democracy merely as a device for fulfilling our desires, without regard to truth or justice as higher authorities, then we will deserve to have enemies like Stockman. Instead, bringers of uncomfortable news, back up by evidence, should be respected not vilified.

I've not touched on the bumbling and self-importance of the mayor, or the faux radicalism of the press, but both are frighteningly relevant comments on our society, for a play written in 1882.

Do we still shoot the messenger today? I fully expect many crusaders for truth to identify with Stockman, even if most of them actually have their facts wrong - the pattern is much the same. I'm sure the chiropractics and homoeopaths are smarting a little at the moment. Global warming deniers and global warming hysterics are widely ridiculed.

But mostly we ignore uncomfortable truths. Proportionate science-based action on climate change just isn't getting off the ground. Drug policy seems determined (to fail) to build compelling myths to fight the drug culture.

So while we still prefer to live in denial, since Ibsen's time we have introduced the new crime of not really caring what is true and what is not. Stockman would I think have been even more horrified at that.

An Enemy of the People runs until 20th March 2010.


1 comment:

Guy said...

I recall enjoying this play about 30 years ago when it was put on by the Theatre in Oldham shortly before the director was sacked by the Oldham Council, for reasons not difficult to guess.