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1 COMPABATIVE i ama Volume 27Summer 1993Number 2 An Enemy of the People: Ibsen's Reluctant Comedy Harold C. Knutson That An Enemy of the People embodies notable comic elements few Ibsen specialists would contest. However, that the play may be a full-fledged comedy and informed by an integrated comic vision—here mainstream Ibsen scholarship is likely to balk. Everyone is in agreement of course as to the truculent social satire that pervades the work from beginning to end. As with the earlier League of Youth (1868-69) and to a lesser extent The Pillars of Society (1877), Ibsen exposed with malicious delight the underside of political life in small-town coastal Norway. However, above this mordant caricature towers the play's compelling moral issue: the absolute value of Truth. And if this lofty principle must be taken seriously, then—so goes the received logic—its proponent, rising as he does so far above his crass fellow-citizens, must needs draw our full admiration. And at first blush, Dr. Tomas Stockmann does appear to be exemplary . The idealistic staff physician of a fashionable spa, having ascertained that the water feeding the baths is dangerously polluted , hurls that truth in the face of his fellow-citizens only to find the entire town determined to cover up this threat to its livelihood . Indeed, so noble are Stockmann's principles and so indomitable is his character that some critics strongly resist any 159 160Comparative Drama sustained comic interpretation of his role.1 Others, like Thomas Van Laan, for example, concede that the doctor is a comic figure to a degree. But Van Laan detects a serious, even disquieting side to Ibsen's hero and thus argues that An Enemy ofthe People must be seen as a generic hybrid, compounded of traits characteristic of both comic and serious drama.2 The tendency to give heroic stature to Stockmann goes back beyond modern scholarship to the early performance history of the play. Already at the end of the last century the play was caught up in the political turbulence of the time and suffered from what now seems to be egregious oversimplification. All evidence in the text to the contrary, Stockmann was quickly identified as the prototypical democratic revolutionary, the fearless champion for justice against the forces of repression and coercion . In the 1890's French liberals equated Stockmann with Emile Zola and the truth about the spa waters with the transparent evidence for Dreyfuss' innocence. The delirious reception of the play in Moscow immediately after the Kazansky Square massacre , as related by Stanislavsky, confirms the compulsion at the time to turn Stockmann into a proclaimer of liberal ideas challenging a smug and ruthless political establishment.3 That Stockmann is a firebrand in the revolutionary tradition is incontestable; but to see him as a political liberal is to turn a blind eye to the shockingly reactionary views he proclaims in the drama—and to the failings of character and motive that make him at best a flawed hero. But the proclivity to ignore such complexities in favor of a simplistic political agenda remains alive even in our own time, as Arthur Miller's adaptation of the play amply illustrates. Whatever the historical misinterpretations, however, the main reason why commentators have conferred a noble image on Stockmann is the author's presence behind the character. The doctor echoes many of Ibsen's most trenchant, iconoclastic pronouncements . The dramatist, like his creation, had nothing but contempt for the tyranny of the majority, scorned the hypocrisy of the so-called liberal press, and exuded the same arrogant sense of aristocratic superiority and uniqueness as his creation. As early as 1 872, a decade before writing An Enemy of the People, Ibsen addressed as a consolation to the embattled Georg Brandes the very words he has Stockmann utter at the end of the play: "the strongest man in the world is he who is most alone."4 It is understandable, then, that some critics deny any comic substance to Stockmann's role. How can an authorial mouthpiece Harold C. Knutson161 be comic? If we belittle a stern prophet of unpalatable truths in the play, we must pour equal...


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