Stage Notes

Ibsen the Realist

By Robert B. Shimko, Ph.D.  

Henrik Ibsen
Portrait of Henrik Ibsen, 1863-64

Few plays from the 19th century feel as relevant to the present day as An Enemy of the People.  Written in 1882, Ibsen’s “problem drama” combines themes of environmentalism versus economic interests, the tensions between science and skepticism, the responsibilities and shortcomings of the news media and, most importantly, the price paid by a person willing to speak the truth despite controversy and powerful opposition. The basic setup of the play is so dramatically compelling and adaptable that it has been borrowed by myriad later works, perhaps most famously the novel and subsequent film Jaws (the mayor of a coastal town engages in a battle of wills with a scientist over a lethal threat in the local waters), an influence that has been acknowledged by Jaws author Peter Benchley.

An Enemy of the People was written in direct response to the strongly negative reception received by Ibsen’s prior play, Ghosts, which was staged earlier the same year. Ghosts presented a scathing commentary on late 19th-century bourgeois morality, unflinchingly delving into such taboo subjects as adultery, venereal disease, incest, and euthanasia. While many shocked critics of Ibsen’s time rejected the play, Ghosts helped usher in a type of modern tragedy in which individuals suffer not because they break from traditional strict moral codes, but rather because they fail to disobey the rigid rules of a flawed society. 

Defiant in the face of the outcry against Ghosts, Ibsen composed An Enemy of the People, a play about an idealist who tells society truths it does not want to hear. In fact, the notion that truth-telling was the key to progress and human freedom was the motivating idea behind this middle phase of Ibsen’s career in which he also wrote the socially engaged plays Pillars of Society (1877) and A Doll’s House (1879). Ibsen’s plays of this period, culminating in An Enemy of the People, crystallized the drive towards socially engaged realism, a genre designed to prod middle class values and tackle pressing social problems, that had been gaining momentum in European playwriting for more than a decade.

Ibsen is known as the greatest of all the 19th-century realist playwrights. But what does the label “realist” actually mean?  Realism as a modern literary and theatrical style seeking to represent the world as it actually is, rather than abstracted or idealized, first arose in the mid-19th century. Its historical context includes the influence of two major innovations of that era: sociology and photography. The advent of sociology allowed authors a new space to think of themselves as the evaluators of society and the champions of new, rational ideas beneficial to the common good. The proliferation of photography encouraged artists and writers to create representations of everyday life as it was actually lived, rather than the more poetic and metaphysical reflections of life offered in the preceding Romantic era. In the theatre, playwriting, acting, and design (aided in part by new lighting technology) all began to experiment with portraying the world more as it appears to us outside the theatre. Ibsen found himself at the forefront of the new movement, lauded by fellow writers like the Danish critic Georg Brandes and the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw whose book The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891) pits the archetypal figures of “the realist” and “the idealist” against one another in philosophical debate.

Ibsen considered himself a realist author, and for him that meant presenting the interactions among his characters as if he were a dispassionate observer documenting the truths of human behavior. He prided himself on not taking sides in his plays and resented critics who suggested that he used his characters to get across his personal views. In 1882, in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding Ghosts and as he was working on An Enemy of the People, he wrote the following thoughts in a letter to an acquaintance: 

"They try to make me responsible for the opinions that certain of the characters in the play express. And yet in the whole book there is not a single opinion, not a single remark to be found that is there on the dramatist’s account. I took good care about that. [...] My intention was to try and give the reader the impression of experiencing a piece of reality. But nothing would more effectively run counter to this intention than inserting the author’s opinions into the dialogue."

In this line of thinking, Ibsen positions himself as occupying a shared position with the audience--both Ibsen and the audience live in the same real world of which the characters are an autonomous reflection, and they all therefore experience similar problems and concerns. Ibsen’s characters do not speak for him; instead, they speak about the world as we all share it. Certainly he is the creator of the characters and the author of their dialogue, but Ibsen argues that his characters are derived so carefully from actual reality that they are essentially autonomous from him. In this way, Ibsen’s approach to playwriting is not a soapbox political speech or a sermon on morality, it is instead closer to a sociological case study.

One last thing to note is how Ibsen’s sense of humor comes through in the play. He did in many ways create the template for the playwright as ethicist and iconoclast, and this has garnered him a reputation as a serious and even stern writer. The modern notion of the playwright as social critic can be traced back to Ibsen more directly than to any other modern dramatist. However, Ibsen is, above all, a master storyteller who knows how to blend the small-scale comedy of human foibles with powerful, serious emotions and socially significant themes. His characters can be petty and single-minded in ways that resemble traditional comedy. In fact, Ibsen wrote to his publisher that he was unsure if An Enemy of the People was a comedy or a straight drama, concluding that the play had “many traits of comedy, but it also is based on a serious idea."