Staging Ibsen presents one of the biggest conundrums for contemporary directors. Like Edgar Allen Poe, Rene Descartes, and even Bob Dylan, Ibsen suffers from the fate of many revolutionary artists and thinkers who see their breakthroughs grow stale in hindsight do the work of their followers. Ibsen’s fate in this regard is particularly pronounced; all modern dramatists can, arguably, be considered his followers. Contemporary stagings have a hard time making 19th century drawing room dramas with well-made-play tendencies seem truly modern.
In the case of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s staging of An Enemy of the People, however, any hint of modernity is shed in favor of the farcical, childish, and just plain stupid. Using a nearly half-century-old translation of Ibsen featured in one of the standard published editions, it’s hard to convey anything modern - this is still a world of pocket watches, smoking hats, “Pah’s” and “egads.” By playing closer to the 18th than the 20th century side of the play, the Phoenix Ensemble has sapped Ibsen of his strengths and cut out any chance for an interesting production. Instead, they’ve created a watered down, supposedly more digestible version of An Enemy of the People, a play that fights against the very notion of watered-down convictions.
The Phoenix Ensemble has a focus on elementary school education, and I suspect that the group chose to focus on the more childish sides of the play in order to attract more kids. At the production I attended, however, the youngest audience members were at least well into high school. Even if the farcical side of the play may attract kids, this production's intentional, gaping sense of the pre-modern 19th century world will turn away as many children as it will draw in. Perhaps more damaging, however, would be how this play could actively turn away those just beyond elementary and facing a critical period in a theatergoer’s life. If a young teen, newly acquainted with skepticism, were to see this production after hearing of the play's purported importance, I fear he’d never become a regular theatergoer.
The irony of such a safe, facile production is that Ibsen’s text demands of its audience the exact opposite of a feeling of safety and ease. An Enemy of the People is about a righteous man who doggedly refuses to back down from his ethical righteousness in spite of every conceivable obstacle thrown his way. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the character at the center of the play, is a man of science whose sense of right and wrong clashes with the political demands of his community. He fights to shut down the highly profitable but highly unsanitary town baths not because of any political bias, but simply because it is the right thing to do.