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Literature and Ideas

Something in the Water

Ever had the feeling that you’re right about something that most of the world is hopelessly mistaken over? Perhaps not, but I think Ibsen had it. He wrote, in 1881, Gengångare [Ghosts], a dark play about a respectable man who discovers that he has inherited syphilis from his father (whom he now knows to have been less respectable in his conduct than he had once believed) and, moreover, that the family’s maid is in fact his half-sister (though that doesn’t entirely dampen his desire to lay his loins upon her) and that the bacteria inside are slowly and painfully killing him, so that the curtain closes on his bitter entreaties to be euthanised: so many big issues, from incest to the stigma of sexually transmitted infections, that Ibsen felt needed to be brought out into the open, away from the hushed hypocrisies of the private household, but that his critics saw only as so much filth that degraded the dignity of the theatre.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, described its opening on the British stage a decade later with the following invective list of almost libellous metaphor: “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly, or a lazar house with all its doors and windows open”.1 Maybe not a quote to emblazon on the promotional posters! Ibsen knew that his play was worth more than that sort of review, but the criticism was equally as vituperative in his native Norway, and may even have contributed to his decision to leave the country for Sorrento, on the southern coast of Italy. Which was where he wrote En Folkefiende [A Public Enemy], a play that is itself a study of man shunned and scapegoated by his community for doggedly telling it the uncomfortable truths that it would rather not hear.

Set in precisely the sort of small — small-minded even — Norwegian town from which Ibsen himself had fled, the play opens with the entire community united in their high spirits at the news that a health spa is to be built, and the local water source is to become a source of income. The town’s liberal newspaper, the People’s Tribune, is to publish an article by Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who played a significant role in developing the proposal for the baths, much to the chagrin of his brother, Peter, the town’s mayor, who would rather have the credit heaped solely upon himself. Already, we see that there is sibling rivalry between the two. Yet the article that Thomas intends to publish is not the publicity piece expected by Hovstad, the editor, a simple panegyric celebrating the construction and the great wealth that will inevitably flow to the town when the “invalids” come to bathe their sicknesses better. No, Thomas has discovered a fatal flaw with the original plan — and thus breaks open the great fissure at the centre of the play.

The water that would supply the baths is dangerously “riddled with toxins, billions of bacteria”. At the time the play was written and set, the germ theory, which held microorganisms responsible for infectious disease, had been scientifically proven (by, amongst others, Louis Pasteur, who, true to Gallic stereotypes, had been working on preservation methods to prevent the spoilage of wine and beer) but was still controversial or poorly understood among the general public. This provides moments of light comedy when Morten Kiil, a hard-headed industrialist and the father of Thomas’ wife, Katherine, ridicules the idea of invisible animals dancing around the pipes, as though they were fairies at the bottom of the garden.2 The son-in-law, however, couldn’t be more certain of himself: he had surreptitiously sent samples off to the university’s labs to be tested and has recently received confirmation that the water is, indeed, contaminated. As he says, “all we have to offer our visitors at the present time is a condition of permanent ill health”. But interests are vested: Kiil owns a tannery that Thomas considers to be the root of the pollution, and Hovstad soon becomes uncomfortable with the prospect of publishing the doctor’s findings, if they should cost taxpayer money to aright, as Peter, in his mayoral robes, is all too keen to suggest.

Threats are thrown towards Thomas, as he is encouraged to reconsider his stance for the sake of the town’s prosperity, which is intimately tied up with the development of the baths. Peter reminds his brother how he had supported him financially during leaner years and of the latter’s subordinate position as a public employee; when all else fails, he turns to emotional blackmail, imploring him not to harm his wife and children by embarking on this futile crusade. But the truth means more to him than his responsibilities do. It has become a point of principle. One cannot help but admire his courage and his bloody-minded devotion to his cause in the face of more or less universal opposition. Those traits are so admirable because so few people possess them. As the early-20th-century American wit Logan Pearsall Smith put it, “Most people sell their souls, and live with a good conscience on the proceeds”. A recent example that springs to mind is the UK government’s push for fracking: all opposition, all caution, has been brushed aside in the dash for gas. Of course, the situation is not quite so analogous, because there are many people opposed to its introduction, and local councils have voted against it (their vetoes soon overturned from above), but the billions of pounds worth of revenue that the industry will generate is enough to convince the decision-makers not to look too closely at any potential harms to the environment that may be also be generated.

Stockmann is clearly a man with a justified cause, but he becomes harder to sympathise with in the fourth and penultimate act, when he convenes a public meeting and delivers a roaring peroration in favour of the individual against the ignorant majority. Echoing the language of the 19th-century eugenicists, he claims that the mob is like “a stunted chicken [that] hasn’t the qualities of a Japanese hen”: how then can we expect it to be anything other than habitually mistaken, or moved like a marionette in one direction and then the other at the hands of devious demagogues? No doubt such sentiments would have found some favour with the comfortable theatre-goers of turn-of-the-century Europe, who could afford to consider themselves free-thinkers, but therein lies the paradox: in pandering to the prejudices of his audience, is Ibsen not playing to the crowd while, at the same time, claiming otherwise?

As the century closed, Gustave le Bon published his Psychologie des Foules: the title translates into English as Crowd Psychology or The Psychology of Crowds, but it might as well be translated The Psychology of Fools, for a crowd was, for him, often nothing but a collection of the most dangerous and cretinous elements of human nature — less than the sum of its parts. Of course, his argument is more nuanced than my précis, but le Bon does go so far as to suggest that when people congregate into a mob, they “enter upon a purely automatic and unconscious state, in which they are guided by suggestion”,3 as though groupthink were a form of mesmerism. So the play is clearly consonant with the spirit of its times, but the central attack on democracy as a form of “rule by morons” goes back millennia, an attack offered mostly by conservative advocates of aristocracy or autocracy. For example, Plato, who had been born into the Athenian aristocracy (and was therefore a natural opponent of its democratic rule), defines democracy as the system of government that dispenses “a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike”.4 Hovstad, by the fourth act, is indeed calling Stockmann an aristocrat, as an insult, and he doesn’t reject the label.

Like much of Ibsen’s work, An Enemy of the People is an example of what has been termed by critics a “problem play”, where the drama is little more than a means to debate wider issues, not an attempt to represent life in all its convoluted complexity. The machinery is visible: the stage is manned by cogs, not characters. The masses at the public meeting are portrayed as simpletons, each searching his immediate superior for signs of an opinion to steal. There is a drunk who interrupts proceedings and is eventually thrown out: he is surely intended to play no role other than to symbolise the common people at their worst. There is Horster, a sea captain, who is in Thomas Stockmann’s sitting room as the play opens and is there to symbolise the necessity of hierarchy in keeping the “ship of state” afloat: for example, when Billing, a subeditor at the Tribune, compares society to a vessel where “everyone should have a hand on the helm”, Horster duly replies, “Not on my ship!” Inevitably, the sea captain continues to stand by Thomas when the rest of the town has turned against him, and it is in his house that the public meeting is held. The Stockmann family’s maid never speaks, but we hear Thomas calling for her, in increasingly aggravated tones as the play progresses. More often than not, he forgets her name; finally, she becomes “that snotty-nosed girl”. Again, she is no more than a manifestation of his growing impatience with the masses.

This reliance on the “problem” as the central narrative force can become wearing, as though a universe has been created simply so that the playwright can prove a point. At times, I feel as though Ibsen himself might perhaps have done better by writing an angry letter to the newspaper or holding a public meeting to air his grievances, and to spare us the performance. Yet, once you understand that the characters are made of cardboard, it is possible to focus more fully on the clash of ideas that they enact.

The play, in recent years, has undergone something of a revival. It has been read by liberals as an all-too-relevant reminder of the limits of democracy in these times of political populism, as reflected by Trump in the US and by Brexit here. But this is a reading that plays to their prejudices, and not to their strengths: it is technocracy, rule by distant experts, the contemporary form of aristocracy, that increases the sense of powerlessness that many have, and telling them to quieten down and to pay better attention to the experts, as Thomas Stockmann does, is only likely to elicit a two-word response. Hilary Clinton’s characterisation of a quarter of the American population as no more than a “basket of deplorables” — regardless of whether you think it accurate or not — was, by her own admission, a “political gift” to the Republicans.5 It helped to support their narrative that sanctimonious liberals looked down on the ordinary sorts of folks who had often voted for them. It stoked resentment.

Let’s be honest, the people were hoodwinked if they expected a billionaire egotist to do anything other than cut his own tax rate. And they were played for fools by the demagogues at FOX News and elsewhere. But An Enemy of the People can just as much be read as a critique of liberal piety — of virtue signalling, if you like — as it can a critique of ochlocracy. Take Hovstad and his newspaper: claiming to support the forces of progressivism, he soon balks when any reforms might eat into his own pocket. When Petra, Thomas Stockmann’s daughter, refuses to translate a saccharine English novel for serialisation in the paper, on the grounds that its conventional worldview seemed diametrically opposed to that espoused by the editorials, he, likewise, tells her that such things are unimportant so long as they please the readers, who like such simple-minded stuff, and keep them engaged enough actually to read the editorials: he claims the moral high ground, but, when it comes down to it, the ends soon justify baser means, and his declared ends aren’t always the ones that he pursues.

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, there is always the temptation to imagine that if only power were vested in fewer, better hands, then things would run more smoothly. And power has been vested in fewer — more specialised — hands, because vast hierarchies are virtually essential to the running of complex systems such as the global economy that our prosperity depends upon. But if Thomas Stockmann says that “the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone”, he forgets to say that such a man is also unaccountable to anyone but himself. If power is to be spread more widely, as I think it must, so must the ability to wield it, to think critically and to challenge authority. To that extent, we all stand alone.


  1. George Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, p. 3.
  2. It may be worth remembering that the original term for a bacterium was an “animalcule” (literally, a “small creature”).
  3. Gustave le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (trans. anon.), ch. 2.
  4. Plato, The Republic (trans. Benjamin Jowett), book VIII.
  5. Hilary Clinton, What Happened, p.413.

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