I can’t imagine that Henrik Ibsen wrote “An Enemy of the People” with the idea that its subject matter would be more timely than ever nearly a century and a half after he put pen to paper.
In fact, from what I can gather, he wrote it in response to the outcry his previous work, “Ghosts,” evoked from the public (the words “immoral” and “degenerate” were lobbed at him and the play because it dealt in a decidedly sober way with adultery and syphilis). But here we are, in 2020, and “An Enemy of the People” rings just as true now as it did then.
The play is centered in a small village in Norway with aspirations of greatness—a municipal spa has opened, and vacationers seeking the healthful benefits of the baths have infused the town’s economy with the capital it’s needed. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the health officer in charge of the spa (and brother of the town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann), is a well-respected member of the community. When Dr. Stockmann discovers that the waters tourists are bathing in under his supervision are contaminated with harmful bacteria, he wastes no time in recruiting the local newspaper to publish his findings.
If only it were so easy. As it turns out, blowing the whistle leads not to a swift resolution of the problem, but a downward spiral of countercharges, recrimination and retaliation. Sound familiar?
I was able to pick the brains of two of the actors in Gamut’s production: Gamut’s Artistic Director Clark Nicholson, who portrays whistleblower Dr. Thomas Stockmann, and a newcomer to Gamut’s stage, Marc Lubbers, who portrays Mayor Peter Stockmann. Through them, I was able to get a better glimpse into the central protagonist and antagonist of the play and how they feel about bringing Arthur Miller’s translation of Ibsen’s play to Harrisburg.
What made you interested in producing/performing in this play?
NICHOLSON: Frank [Henley, the director of this production] came to me several years ago with a proposal for Gamut’s Stage Door Ensemble to produce a staged reading of “An Enemy of the People.” I felt that it was a timely story, a classic play, and just the sort of thing that the Gamut mainstage should be producing. So, I put it on our full season roster.
LUBBERS: “An Enemy of the People” is a profound statement about power, truth, morals, corruption and family dynamics. Every character has a broad spectrum of emotions to manipulate, choices to make, and interactions in which to engage. For the audience, the play has points to make and lessons to teach, but, to the immense credit of the author(s), it does so in a way that forces the audience member to decide for his/herself what their individual perspective is on what’s good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, etc.
Tell me about your character. Has your opinion about him changed since you first started?
NICHOLSON: I initially felt that this story was about a fairly uncomplicated protagonist embarking on a difficult but righteous crusade. However, I’ve come to realize that it’s the story of a flawed messenger (and that we all are ultimately flawed messengers) trying to bring the truth to light. I believe that what Ibsen (and his translator, Arthur Miller) were trying to say was that humanity may aspire toward the pure, but this purity can only be championed by the flawed. And that can make the pursuit of absolute purity and truth both desirable and ultimately doomed to failure. Which does not mean that the pursuit is folly, just that it’s ultimately a never-ending and often brutal process—a hard but important lesson.
LUBBERS: Peter Stockmann has an element of “pure” antagonism to him, in terms of what he says and does in front of the audience. His motives, in the context of the action of the play, are clearly self-serving and manipulative, oftentimes to seemingly malicious ends. As with most figures who exercise power forcefully, however, layers underneath those base elements can be found—insecurity, jealousy, even frailty. I’m not necessarily trying to find ways in which to make my character tragic or sympathetic. It’s just that attention to these broader components of the character allow for a much richer arsenal of choices to make regarding his attitudes and demeanor. In terms of my opinion of him—part of my job as an actor is to make Marc Lubbers’ opinion of Peter Stockmann totally irrelevant. My job is to portray the character, wholly. Any influence on that by how I myself might “feel” about the character and his actions would interfere with a genuine portrayal. To be sure, an actor must draw upon his/her own experiences and capacity for emotion to add color and flavor to a character, but these things need to be filtered through Peter’s sensibilities vs. presenting them as Marc’s.
Are there questions you are left with, even after getting to know the play so well?
LUBBERS: Unfortunately, questions that arise for me from this play include, “How can these sea changes in people’s attitudes and allegiances occur so easily?” and “How can people be so easily manipulated?” I call them unfortunate because they apply all too well to real-time and real-life events in our country and world at this moment in history. It’s been, actually, often times frustrating that the timeliness and relevance of this play are so poignant to our current circumstances, despite its having been composed by Henrik Ibsen more than 130 years ago and adapted by Arthur Miller just about 70 years ago.
NICHOLSON: We still do not know what the final few moments of the play ultimately mean. We play them. We work on them. But they are a mystery. And, I believe that to a great extent, they are supposed to be. What is happening in the souls of the affected as the lights go down is profoundly unsettling. I’m not sure that we’re actually meant to know fully what the author(s) meant. It seems to me that this final image is a reflection on what it means to forge forward in the face of ultimate uncertainty.
“An Enemy of the People” opens on Saturday, Feb. 29, at Gamut Theatre in downtown Harrisburg, and runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through March 15. Friday and Saturday performances start at 7:30 p.m., with the box office, Capital Blue Cross reception lobby, and Peggy’s Pub open to the public starting at 6:30 p.m. Sunday matinées start at 2:30 p.m., with box office, lobby and bar open at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are available at www.gamuttheatre.org/tickets.
UPCOMING THEATER EVENTS
AT HARRISBURG’S PROFESSIONAL
“An Enemy of the People”
By Henrik Ibsen
Feb. 29 to March 15
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
“Three Billy Goats Gruff”
March 14 to 28
Saturdays at 1 p.m.
Wednesday and Thursday matinees available by request for groups of 20 or more.
“Amélie,” the musical
through March 8
The charming, uplifting musical based on the French film.
Court Street Cabaret: After Hours
March 5 and 6 at 9:30 p.m.
Featuring local singers performing songs from Broadway and beyond.
“Lady Boy Sings the Blues”
March 12, 14, 21, 26, 28 at 7:30 p.m.
March 13 at 9:30 p.m.
A drag cabaret featuring local drag clown Mister Treats
“EFF (Erotic FanFiction) Live!”
March 7 and 28 at 9:30 p.m.
The best of the worst the internet has to offer in cringe-worthy fandom, read out loud by local actors.
“The Diary of Anne Frank”
March 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Scottish Rite, 2701 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg
The annual production about an extraordinary young woman coming of age and her indomitable spirit that has inspired the community for over 20 years.
The Teen Studio Presents…
March 27 at 7:30 p.m.
An evening of song with the students of the Alsedek Theatre School.