About the author:
Rebecca Lenkiewicz has the rare distinction of having made the transition from nightclub table dancer to the first living female playwright produced at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre. In addition to that honored play, Her Naked Skin, Lenkiewicz is the author of The Night Season, Soho, The Lioness, Stars Over Kabuls and The Painter, among others. In 2008, she adapted Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People into a fast-paced drama that received critical acclaim in its London premiere. Now, her version of this classic examination of the consequences of whistle-blowing is being produced at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre by Manhattan Theatre Club, starring four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines and Emmy winner Richard Thomas. Below, Lenkiewicz shares her thoughts on the enduring power of Enemy and why the play is particularly appropriate for an election year.
It felt very resonant to be rehearsing Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at Manhattan Theatre Club while the presidential campaign was heating up. A couple of months earlier, I’d had a great breakfast meeting in London with director Doug Hughes and we’d both said how “present” we wanted the play to feel. In New York, rehearsals were brilliant, often hilarious, with infectious, machine gun laughter and much debate. The shenanigans in the play are almost farcical. Ibsen was unsure whether to call it a comedy or a drama, as the events are comical but the central idea very serious: whether man functions better alone or with society. It’s also about power and those who crave it. Dr. Stockmann (played by Boyd Gaines) is so rejected that he ultimately chooses to be “alone” in spirit. Which echoed Ibsen’s own anger at society.
So I would witness An Enemy by day and watch the election campaign by night. And art started to mirror life. Deeply controversial in his time, scandalous, edgy, Henrik and his work were shunned by many theaters. A Doll’s House, for example, was mounted on Broadway in 1889. Ibsen cited his society as “exclusively male…with laws made by men, by prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.” Women’s rights have progressed since his Nora Helmer slammed the door and left her husband and family. (A German theater refused to produce it unless she went back in and made up with them all, the curtain going down as she cried in her husband’s arms…) But still we must be vigilant and keep choice as a woman’s primal right when draconian and senseless legislation lurk in the wings.
An Enemy of the People provoked outrage in the 1880s. Ibsen was seen as criticizing the very fabric of society. Two brothers fight it out, Thomas and Peter Stockmann (played by Richard Thomas). Peter is the Mayor and Thomas the doctor who discovers that the local spa waters are toxic. Initially, Dr. Stockmann is hailed as a hero, but later he is almost crucified for his findings. “What is the truth?” came up a lot. “Can there be more than one truth?” The wealthy Morten Kiil affirms, “Anyone can change the facts.” When Dr. Stockmann addresses the people, they almost become a lynch mob. He tries to explain that there are natural leaders, that controversially we are not all equal: “You’ve got to admit the idiots outnumber the geniuses.”
In previews the audience has been very vocal during this speech. They interact, they shout—it’s great. The group mentality fascinated Ibsen. I found myself similarly hypnotized by the TV set as I watched the Republican Convention in Tampa. At certain points the whole arena were encouraged to chant along with inane statements. I wondered how Ibsen and his contemporary Abraham Lincoln would view our political “progress.” The upcoming biopic of Lincoln is timely. A fatalist, Lincoln saw himself as “an accidental instrument, temporary, and to serve but for a limited time.” He compared himself to “a piece of floating driftwood.” He claimed no feeling of “having controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Control is an issue at the center of An Enemy of the People. Who controls who? And why the need for it? When Dr. Stockmann addresses the people he talks about the majority and the minority. He cajoles the crowd, shouts at them, curses them. He is proud to be different, extreme.
The Presidential campaign conversely seems full to the ballooned rafters with the need to be liked. The politicians seem to be less intent on proving themselves to be extraordinary than aching to appear ordinary. Rhetoric looked in but it did not stay. Lincoln gave his beautiful Gettysburg address in 1863. He honored the dead and spoke of America having “a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Precisely one hundred years later, in 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King stood in front of the vast marble Lincoln and brought oratory once more to the mountaintop. He talked of all men being equal, of making the crooked ways straight. “I have a dream,” he soared above the earth, and was shot down five years later.
The modern Republicans sing out, “I have a mom.” Well, so do we all. So did Ibsen even. But what of King’s Dream? The American Dream? Is it still intact? And if it is, what precisely is it? Dr. Stockmann says at one point, “What I really need is a primeval island.” And so I wandered through Times Square, with the ghost of Henrik Ibsen perched upon my shoulder. And I wondered what he would make of the world and the politics of today.