The majority is stupid.
At least that’s what Henrik Ibsen conveys in his play “An Enemy of the People,” currently showing at the Yale Repertory Theatre until October 28th.
President Trump denounced the New York Times, NBC News and other major news outlets as “the enem[ies] of the American People!” on Twitter; however, leaders from the Roman Senate in 67 A.D. to Mao Zedong in 1957 have publicly uttered variations of “an enemy of the people” to denounce their opposition. Directed by James Bundy, “An Enemy of the People” follows protagonist Dr. Stockmann (played by Reg Rogers), who discovers that his town’s medicinal baths are toxic, a dangerous secret that threatens the town’s economic livelihood if publicly known. Throughout the play, Dr. Stockmann navigates the oppressive forces that have suppressed voices through history and across the globe. From ignorance, worship of authority, demagoguery and self-delusion, the factors that silence truth in favor of stability pervade the play, teaching us that the strongest voices often stand alone.
We want to be heroes but not at the expense of our security. At first, all characters seem to have noble hearts and brave intentions toward publicizing the truth, as Hovstad (Bobby Roman), the editor of the “People’s Messenger,” Alasken (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), leader of the homeowner’s association, and many more rally behind Dr. Stockmann to unveil the truth. It is glamorous, in theory, to speak the truth as celebratory music plays and the cast begins to dance. They are all naive in hopes of becoming public proponents of righteousness.
Yet, when speaking against authority brings a personal cost, everyone abandons the truth and deserts Dr. Stockmann, even deluding themselves for comfort. When Alasken discovers that the expenses of repairing the resources would come out of the “ill-filled pockets of the small tradesmen,” like himself, he readily, cowardly, diminishes Dr. Stockmann’s truths to “conjecture,” publicly joining the resistance against him during a trial, just like all of Dr. Stockmann’s previous “friends.” The play demonstrates the temptation to quickly switch sides for convenience, a weakness that is — as Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons) puts it — shameful. Once again, “An Enemy of the People” highlights how the strongest must stand alone, because everyone else will acquiesce to the majority.
We often think the common people,“the solid majority,” is in the right. We often think that it is tyrants who suppress us; however, our protagonist expresses “the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority — yes, the damned compact Liberal majority.”
It is mob mentality and fears of standing out that suppress us.
Because we learn that though the majority has power, it may not have truth. The ensemble, who represent the masses and the common people, rage against Dr. Stockmann as he stands alone in truth, yet the uproar is almost senseless as its power is fueled by glances toward each other — as if in confirmation that they are all in fervent, blind agreement. Nobody truly listens to him, which demonstrates how easy it is to settle in blissful ignorance, as the masses in the play do.
“I am in the right — I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right,” shouts Dr. Stockmann, but the “liberal majority” just carry on in their rioting, denying the truth and ironically siding with the worshipped authority, the mayor, because it is safer. He is instead decried as “an enemy of the people,” yet Dr. Stockmann is actually the only speaker who wishes to improve the town instead of denying its toxic faults. The play makes audiences question if “an enemy of the people” is merely an opposing voice to the majority and reigning authority, not someone with any actual malice toward the public.
Lenin, Stalin and Hitler used terms like “Vrag naroda” and “Volksfeind,” which translates to “an enemy of the people,” to attack opposing groups, yet we know their political agendas, which ignited massive followings, had devastating effects for “the people.” In today’s era, where Trump has used the titular phrase for politics as well, the Yale Repertory Theatre effectively presents a timely piece with sociopolitical themes that span millennia.
Allison Chen | email@example.com