Melbourne Festival: An Enemy of the People ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Melbourne Festival: An Enemy of the People

Melbourne Festival Diary #8

I woke the morning after seeing the Schaubühne Berlin's production of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People seething with a burning, undirected anger. I don't know what I had been dreaming: but I think this play named something accurately enough to blow those embers - of disillusion, impotence, political alienation, whatever - into a white heat. Some flame in me leapt up: yes, I thought, that's how it is. It's just like that.

Stefan Stern as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, Schaubühne Berlin

Is An Enemy of the People a revolutionary production? No: but it's about a certain kind of revolution that has always emerged from the intellectual bourgeoisie. Does it draw any conclusions, offer any program for the redress of the ills that the play analyses? No. Will it make its audiences rush to the barricades? I doubt it: it's only a play, after all, not a manifesto. But it is political in a very interesting way that profoundly implicates and exhilarates its audience. If political theatre is, as Brecht believed, about illuminating a situation so that it is possible to reflect fruitfully upon our place in it, then this is certainly political theatre.

The only Thomas Ostermeier production I've seen is his 2005 version of Hedda Gabler, which was performed at last year's Melbourne Festival. I found it disappointing, for several reasons: perhaps the major disappointment was its deliberate affectlessness, which amounted almost to cynicism. As I said at the time, "Ibsen's play becomes a scathing miniature, a portrait of an emotionally numbed, intellectually trivial bourgeoisie... Hedda and the gang are symbols merely, flattened-out representations of the conscious heartlessness of the middle classes, absorbed in their trivial pursuits as they turn their faces from the blood on the walls." What bothered me was that there was nothing at stake.

Here again Ostermeier is concerned with the middle classes - as Jana Perkovic observes, in her must-read response to the Berlin production, he is quintessentially a director of and for the middle classes. But this production cuts much deeper than easy caricacture. It revitalises naturalism, pulling on its original power to implicate its audience in self-recognition. In Hedda Gabler, this for me came close to avant garde David Williamson: in An Enemy of the People, the implication of the audience in the reality on stage was a whole lot more complex and direct. Ostermeier has a cast of exceptional actors, whose detailed performances generate a complex texture of argument: no character, not even the smooth, swift-talking politician, is simply reducible to symbolic moral significance. There is much to say about the production, which is beautifully realised in many ways: but here I want to concentrate on the ideas that animate it.

An Enemy of the People is Ibsen at his most acute, in his observations of social relations in the Norwegian middle classes and the self-interested machinations of capital. Written in 1882, it prefigures the two major revolutionary strands of the 20th century: the mass revolutions of China and Russia, and the Fascist revolution of Germany. Discomfortingly, it highlights the common genes that led both to Communism and National Socialism: Ibsen's hero, Doctor Thomas Stockmann, espouses beliefs that sound perilously close to eugenics, while at the same time railing against the petty blindness and destructiveness of bourgeois capitalism.

At first Florian Borchmeyer's adaptation, which updates it to the present time, sticks closely to the original play, although it dispenses with a few characters. Ibsen uses the net of relationships in a small provincial town to expose how the machinations of short-sighted self-interest militate against the common good (this is the germ of the idea that inspired Spielberg to make Jaws). Thomas Stockmann (Stefan Stern) is the doctor employed at the local spa. In this adaptation he is younger, married to Katherine (Eva Meckbach), with whom he has a new baby. They play in a band with Hovstad (Christoph Gawenda), editor of the local paper, and self-styled revolutionary reporter Billing (Moritz Gottwald): in short, as we first glimpse them, rehearsing their indie folk version of Bowie's Changes, they are the ideal boho professionals.

The spa, a recent innovation, is the source of the town's and Stockmann's recent prosperity, and is in fact originally Stockmann's idea. But he has discovered that effluent from a factory is poisoning the water, sickening the people who come to visit. When Stockmann attempts to publicise this fact, he hits petty local self-interest: his brother Peter (Ingo Hulsmann), the mayor of the town, points out that the cost of addressing the contamination is ruinous. The initial enthusiasm of Hovstad, Billing and the newspaper's publisher Aslaksen (David Ruland) evaporates rapidly when it becomes clear that addressing the problem will compromise the prosperity of the community. The situation is complicated by Katherine's father, the sinister Morten Kiil (Thomas Bading), who is the owner of the factory that is poisoning the groundwater. No one, in this complex web of interdependent relationships, is innocent or free of compromise.

The adaptation begins to depart from Ibsen most radically in the public meeting in Act 4, when Borchmeyer jams long excerpts from a 2007 French anarchist manifesto by an anonymous group called The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, into Thomas's speech. The Coming Insurrection, a contemporary derivation of the mid-20th century movement the Situationist International, became notorious when it was cited in scare quotes by FOX News pundit Glenn Beck as the ur-text of the Occupy movement, and picked up by Occupy itself as a rallying cry. A long quote, a powerful description of contemporary western self-alienation, is in fact projected onto a scrim front-stage as we walk into the theatre. It's worth stepping aside a little to examine what this text is actually doing there.

Jana Perkovic dismisses its presence as an illogical and superficial gesture (as does Chris Boyd in the Australian), which simply draws on trendy notions of revolution without attending to their meaning. Pointing out that Ibsen's An Enemy of the People is, above all, a play that defends the individual self against the masses, she says that The Coming Insurrection is a scathing critique of the misleading vacuity of that very individual. By putting the speech into Thomas's mouth, this production promotes "two opposing notions of the 'individual' and the 'community' at the same time, by the same person". I'm not so sure that this is an oversight: it seems to me that rather, Ostermeier is using Ibsen's play as a way to critique this iconic text (and vice versa).

The public meeting is also the point where the production opens out into something like audience participation: we became the public. The night I went, this became a thrilling experience of the power and ambiguity of theatre. The excerpt of The Coming Insurrection chosen for the play is the part that deals with the commodified individual:

“I AM WHAT I AM,” then, is not simply a lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war cry directed against everything that exists between beings, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that invisibly links them, everything that prevents complete desolation, against everything that makes us, and ensures that the whole world doesn’t everywhere have the look and feel of a highway, an amusement park or a new town: pure boredom, passionless but well-ordered, empty, frozen space, where nothing moves apart from registered bodies, molecular automobiles, and ideal commodities.

The sense of recognition in the audience was palpable: when the actors, now scattered through the auditorium, asked who agreed with Thomas, almost everyone put up their hand. A common sympathy with a person attempting to communicate an important truth in the face of vested interests (which was the drama we had been, up to now, witnessing) suddenly united with the real sense of contemporary crisis. Ibsen's "poisoned ground" became the crisis of the individual that middle classes everywhere in the western world are presently experiencing. "Everywhere," says Thomas, quoting The Invisible Committee, "the hypothesis of the self is beginning to crack". The sense that everything of human value is being sold, and of the impotence of the individual to combat the massive destruction we witness, was suddenly articulate.

I think this accounted for the peculiar passion of those who spoke in this weird QandA: the membrane between fiction and reality became outrageously permeable. It was never quite clear if people were speaking of the play or of their own situations and beliefs: someone linked the factory of the play with the desalination plant; someone else, pointing at the actors, complained about how much the media control and frame debate, making genuine discussion of issues all but impossible. This strange suspension of realities became stranger when another audience member asked if Thomas knew about his wife's flirtation with Hovstad, which we had just witnessed; a moment that clearly disconcerted the actors. Some gloriously liberating instability suddenly occurred in that theatre, which revealed a complexity of emotional and intellectual engagement that this fiction had released into the real.

But this was always going to be ambiguous: Thomas is no simple hero, not in Ibsen, and not in Ostermeier's interpretation. And rather than being contradictory, placing the anarchist manifesto in dialogue with Ibsen's play opens up all sorts of uncomfortable echoes. Just as Ibsen's Thomas heroicises the dissident individual holding fast to his truth, so too does The Coming Insurrection: "An isolated being who holds fast to a truth will inevitably meet others like her. In fact, every insurrectional process starts from a truth that we refuse to give up."  The Coming Insurrection is in fact full of nostalgia for an authentic self, defined primarily by holding fast to an individual sense of truth. It warns against the inevitable corruption of the organisation, and even against most recognisable forms of collectivity, claiming "There will be no social solution to the present situation". It attacks the traditional organisational Left as inevitably compromised and corrupt, just as Ibsen's Thomas attacks "the damned solid liberal majority".

Perhaps most revealing is the statement that "To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition..." Not to those who have the luxury of choosing to be "socially nothing", perhaps. It is very much a text of middle class revolt, in which the idea of working class revolution has been all but abandoned or, more accurately, rendered invisible. As one commentator notes, The Coming Insurrection, with all its utopian contradictions, is as much as anything a product of the failures of the Left to provide any answers to contemporary crisis. An Enemy of the People is, at its most potent, an enactment of these failures. It represents an impossible situation, without the consolation of a solution.

In the final act, we watch the inevitable ostracisation of the whistle blower, the impugning of his motives, the removal of his social privileges, his casting out of society: a mechanism familiar to anyone who follows the news, from the continuing narrative of Julian Assange to the cyclists who attempted to expose Lance Armstrong. The production finishes with a much more ambivalent moment than in Ibsen's original, where Thomas decides for radicalism, saying triumphantly: "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone". Ibsen has Thomas surrounded by his family, his wife doubtful but supportive, his daughter grasping his hand in solidarity and recognition, his vocation finally illuminated by his adversity.

Here, in contrast, Thomas is squirming on the knife of doubt: the removal of his sense of community has not made him stronger, but disastrously weaker. Our last glimpse of him is as he sits with Katherine, jobless and homeless, his whole world fallen about his ears. Even his self-belief has been broken when, in frustration, he resorts to violence against Aslaksen. Aslaksen looks at him in contempt, saying "Yes, that is what you are": and in that moment, Thomas realises he has been reduced to the pettiness of his peers. His and Katherine's one remaining wealth is the shares in the spa that their father in law has secretly bought for them, a wealth that compromises everything that Thomas has fought for. He brings out a lighter, as if he is planning to burn the shares: he looks at his wife. We don't know what he decides.

An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, adaptation and dramaturgy by Florian Borchmeyer. Schaubühne Berlin, Melbourne Festival, until October 27.


Richard Pettifer said...

Just to add Andrew F's interview as well, reviving the old (revived?????) Primitave Surveys site:

He draws an interesting parallel between Stockmann and J. Assange, amongst some other good conversation.

Anonymous said...

The night I went, someone said (to the actors playing the 'baddies', though of course just who this audient was addressing was, as you say, deliciously slippery) - "You have no politics. Ibsen had no politics."


P.S. How wonderful that audience utterance becomes text - contingent; unique to each instance of performance; by definition 'unscripted' - that we then discuss in this little sensus communis...!


Alison Croggon said...

How do you discuss that? Is that the same as saying as all politics represented in art are impotent fictions? (Which is entirely possible, although I think not the case).

I heard another night an audience member got up on stage to defend Thomas from the paint balls. Wish I'd seen that.

jena zelezny said...

see the thing maybe that IF the form of the norm does not change we cannot expect a break through the conceptual structure can we?

Alison Croggon said...

What is "the form of the norm"?

jena zelezny said...

the form of the norm is the way in which normative politics are structured (historically formed) and perpetuated.

Perhaps 'impotent' fictions is not quite on the mark. Perhaps 'foundational' fictions is better ...

Alison Croggon said...

Yes. But that is what I reckon fictions can be good at: they open the space to imagine other possibilities. Even "foundational fictions" are very unstable.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the audience member was implying the political impotence of all art or theatre. I suspect he might have had Brechtian leanings, had he been pressed on the matter. I suppose I understood his comment to indicate a familiarity with Ibsen which had led him to feel that the politics of Ibsen's writing specifically were somehow 'off'. I think you could make a good argument for that in the case of Ein Folkfiende. If Ostermeier were playing the two texts (the Ibsen and the Insurrection) off against one another, as it were, then this person chose the latter as the victor. Later he was heard to say mockingly to the actors, in response to a comment about terrorists, "I suppose that would include Occupy for you, too?"

I'll leave the politics hanging there, though it does remind me of another extraordinary moment of my festival trip - Paul Capsis's solo concert, in particular his final encore bow. Having previously spoken in the concert about how great it was to see social movements happening in the streets "again" (wilfully betraying his age which, for such a wickedly mincing queen, is rare - my generation has never seen it in its lifetime). Here he was obviously referring both to various Occupy movements as well as the Arab Spring, and even more specifically the social movements and unrest in Europe (where Capsis spends much of his year) such as the banlieue uprisings and the sans-papiers movements in France (much grist to the Insurrection text of 2007), the Spanish indignados, and various other anti-fascist and anti-capitalist social movements across Europe and the world.

Returning for one final, floridly ironic bow, this brilliantly gifted queen of the stage (who had that very night channeled the spirit itself of Billie Holiday in order to perform a requiem farewell to another dead diva, Amy Winehouse), returned to the microphone, stars glittering with a wicked glint in his sly eyes, and with a palm outstretched over the heads of his adoring and rapturously applauding crowd, cried: "People are risin' up! Risin' up!"

At which point he (accidentally?) kocked the microphone, which performed the most pitch-perfect piece of clowning imaginable. Drooping comically toward the floor, it juxtaposed Capsis's ecstatic, triumphant, encorific 'rise' with the pathetic, anti-phallic, and hilarious gesture of technological (including human) failure.

To which Capsis's immediate response - one of shock but simultaneously of recognition of how perfect this gesture was for his purposes - was a true revelation of his genius. 'As if by chance' (as the Forsythe dancers taunted us, mantra-like) Capsis created a moment of clowning - the very art of failure, of which the truly great instances must always fail anew, fail again, fail better - which opened onto a landscape of thought that he had already subtly mapped as political terrain. Thought about the simultaneous power and impotence of human action, the concommitent need for courage and humility, for constructing and yielding. For rising and drooping.

Any of us with a desire 'to Occupy', as well as performers everywhere, would do well to heed the wisdom of this divinely touched fool.


Anonymous said...


Hooray For The Unstable Foundational Fiction!
What Else Have We Got?


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben - I don't think you can accuse Ibsen of not having a politics - even Tony Abbott has a politics - although I would agree that the politics he had was sometimes, as you say, "off"... but in ways that remain perhaps disturbingly familiar, even after the whole 20C disaster.

Thanks too for the description of Capsis. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

I think you could argue that Abbott - like many, if not all parliamentary politicians in this country - has no 'real' politics in the Arendtian sense of actually 'acting', and 'thinking what [they] are doing'. I believe it was in this sense that the audience member meant the accusation that men such as the mayor and the paper owner had 'no politics' - a void of truly political action, which nonetheless has political effects that teeter toward the totalitarian...

The same can't be said of Ibsen, I feel. Whether or not his politics were sometimes 'off', he nonetheless strove, it seems, for action itself. If the Antigone figure, as Butler argues in her great book Antigone's Claim, will continue to transcend the bounds of time and place (both Sophocles and our own) and remain forever out of reach as that which the polis must reject in order to constitute itself, the same might be said of Nora or Hedda (though perhaps not Stockmann, as you show Alison - his view is now much less radical, hence the required 'update' to the Invisible Collective, whom I do however feel you've read a little judgementally if I may say so - we can stoush about that elsewhere, later!). Examples of this include of course the work of our own Mr Schlusser, who so gleefully carves up and satirises but is nonetheless is 'inspired' by Ibsen's text - remembering that one meaning of inspiration is a breath (of fresh, or at least new, air).

I suppose I'm intrigued by the idea that a playwright's politics, and the politics that inhere in their works, might have little to do with what draws us back to their texts... Or, another way, that what is political in these texts is less "their politics" and more something like their structure, that which they stage, the human figures they plagiarise and sometimes only dimly outline and leave behind for us to play with.

This might be accurately said of Brecht, for example. In Carson's recent translation of Antigone, Ismene reminds her of "how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back?"

Antigone's rejoinder is priceless: "Oh I don't want to talk about him, or him, or him..." The other 'him's named or implied by Carson's Antigone throughout the play include Hegel, Freud and Lacan, all of whom made made use of her figure for stagings of theory whose effects have been widely attacked at a political level, and rightly so IMHO. But throwing out the Freud with the psychoanalytic bathwater is one of the frequent mis-steps of (what passes as) contemporary political theory, and the reason for that has to have something to do with the fact that the figures his texts outline ('his Antigone', for example, or indeed her even more influential Dad) continue to demand restaging and rewriting and contemplation. This last forms the etymological root (Greek 'theoria') of both theory and theatre.

I think the demand for contemplation that Ibsen's text still hold on us is the reason why, in spite of and possibly quite apart from some of his more 'off' politics, we can nonetheless call his stagins 'acute', as you do. Even politically so, though of course that's a kind of paradox I can't unravel right now...


jena zelezny said...

I agree that even dodgy politics is 'having' a political position.

I was trying to say that if the production accepts the premise of the problem(s) Ibsen sets up then no amount of post-dramatic representation will be a break through.

I have not yet seen the show - I am going - but I have read the Ibsen. A post-structural critique would tend to point out that neither the individual nor the masses (the people) chose a capital driven society. Both the doctor and the community are responding to an imperative that they can justify and rationalize.

So the important question (for me) is about ethics and agency in conditions where competing universalities constantly clash.

Paul Capsis is definitely a genius.

and on the question of unstable foundational fictions, what else have we got? We have critique (as opposed to criticism) and critique is agency.

Alison Croggon said...

Glad you're going to see it, Jena. But I wouldn't call this production post-dramatic, by a long shot. I'm pretty certain Schaubuehne are in part a reaction to German post dramatic theatre.

Hi Ben - the kind of politics Abbott (and the ALP) inhabit often strikes me as very like what Douglas Adams said Zaphod Beeblebrox's role was as President of the Universe: a show intended to divert attention from the real political machinations that are taking place elsewhere. That is an "action", but not necessarily an action designed to do anything except ensure that certain interests are protected from public scrutiny and pressure, those interests, state and capital, being increasingly conflated. Hence the increasing police state, with the new National Security legislation, among many other things.

To make an obvious point, politics, like theatre itself, is inevitably contextual: what Ibsen might be now will be very different to what he was in the 1880s. But I do sometimes find it striking how much writers of his time can speak so specifically to now, how, in a way, modern radicalism is still asking the same questions and facing what are essentially the same problems, if differently couched: the dark satanic mills are still there, but they're in Asia now, etc. But of course you're right that there's more than this kind of recognition going on: I think you're spot on about the "demand for contemplation" that these texts generate, though I can't say I'm quite up to thinking about what that demand, or indeed that contemplation, might be...

jena zelezny said...

Who do we go to for a ruling on what is and is not post-dramatic? Lehmann? Is there a referee in the house you could call on?

How easily we accept terms and labels depends on a willingness to expedite, dismiss and categorise while not being up to the demanding work of critique.

Alison Croggon said...

Er, what? Are you trolling again, Jena? To be precise: this production hardly refashions the idea of drama as Ibsen saw it: its dramaturgy works in the same ways, however some of the staging heightens and alienates it. Which is why I wouldn't call it post dramatic. Maybe it's post-post dramatic.

jena zelezny said...

I'm not trolling Allison. I don't troll.

I just don't accept that slapping a label onto something immediately enhances understanding or makes it intelligible.

I just wanted to question the form of the norm from which Ibsen launched his argument.

Anonymous said...

Great quote from Ostermeier from Andrew's interview - remarkably honest re: the mainstage theatre marketing machine:

"of course, I have to admit, it’s a little bit like the Trojan Horse. If you put a new play on the program, you will have difficulties attracting a bigger audience. If you put an Ibsen play on, or a writer who everybody knows, then everybody comes and thinks they’re going to see Ibsen, and in the end they hear, hopefully, something about us today."


Anonymous said...

also I just learned that Toril Moi (feminist literary of Norwegion origin who published the seminal 'Sexual/Textual Politics' towards the end of the 70s I believe) has published a new book on the subject of her homeland's national playwright, arguing for his continued political relevance as a 'founder of modernism':

Interesting coming from the theorist who more or less throws Foucault out on what appear to me to be trumped-up charges of misogyny (though we can certainly see a certain woman-blindness in old-F...).


P.S. Can I once again attest to this blog's extraordinary capacity for facilitating procrastination. Psychology might call this 'enabling behaviour'. The law might say 'aiding and abbetting'. Considered yourself summonsed, TN.

Alison Croggon said...

TN: Proudly Procrastinating Since 2004!

That book does look interesting. Here's a link that works.

I'm not surprised that Foucault has been called to order on misogyny, although I don't know what the details of Toril Moi's criticisms are. I doubt they're "trumped up", though. You don't have to dig very far in French theory to find loads of it.

jena zelezny said...

Woman blindness is a more accurate description of Foucault's work. Toril Moi is noted for her readings of Julia Kristeva and it is also well known that Kristeva had a tendency to pathologize female homosexualtiy - a tendency that is quite common in heterocentric feminism.

Butler's critique of Kristeva is interesting in view of the above.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jena - Kristeva = fascinating but problematic, as you note. As is heterocentric/transphobic feminism. I was thinking more along the lines of Lacan, Sartre etc. Truth is, it's years since I read Foucault, so my flippant comment about whether his work might show signs of misogyny was based on nothing at all, except for how often it European infects intellectual thought.

John Branch said...

It's really inspiring to see once again how Ms. Croggon deployed political and aesthetic analysis and
generated discussion among her readers. How sad that the past tense I used is necessary.

I saw this production recently In New York and was very excited by it. To the review and the comments here, I'll add only one thing. The anti-collectivist aspect of Thomas Stockmann's position reminds me of the second half (but not the first) of something Simone Weil wrote in her essay "On Human Personality":

“The whole effort of the mystic has always been to become such that there is no part left in his soul to say ‘I.’ / But the part of the soul which says ‘We’ is infinitely more dangerous still.”