An Enemy of the People

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Manuscript title page of Ibsen's En folkefiende, 1882

An Enemy of the People (original Norwegian title: En folkefiende) is an 1882 play by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen wrote it in response to the public outcry against his play Ghosts, which had challenged the hypocrisy of Victorian morality. According to Ellen Mortensen (Ibsen Studies v.7, 169), the words scandalous, degenerate, and immoral were hurled at both the play and its author because of its open discussion of sex outside of marriage and its portrayal of one of the consequences of that lifestyle: syphilis.

Ibsen's own view appears to have been more balanced. According to a widely quoted passage from a letter to his publisher in Copenhagen, Denmark, he wrote: "I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama. It may [have] many traits of comedy, but it also is based on a serious idea."

Plot overview[edit]

Act I[edit]

In Dr. Stockmann's household, Mrs. Stockmann is entertaining dinner guests. As the evening progresses, Dr. Stockmann's brother Peter (the mayor) and Hovstad (the editor of the newspaper) arrive at the house. Dr. Stockmann and his two sons Ejlif and Morten return from a walk. As they all gather in the house, the Mayor needs to confront his brother about an article regarding the town health baths and the rumors that have been raised about them being contaminated. The brothers argue about their positions on hiding the truth and shaping the truth to get the results that are convenient. Dr. Stockmann's daughter Petra brings in a letter for which her father has been waiting. After Dr. Stockmann reads the letter, he discovers his suspicions were right and the water from the baths is in fact contaminated. Hovstad agrees to print the article and unfold the story. This will bring a great deal of attention to the baths and possibly will be the end of them (which will have repercussions on the town's economy). Dr. Stockmann is overwhelmed with all that has happened and quickly believes he is the savior of the town.

Act II[edit]

The next morning in Dr. Stockmann's house, Mrs. Stockmann tells her husband that his brother Peter will stop by to talk about the baths. Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law, stops by the house to congratulate him on what Kiil believes is an elaborate prank. Kiil believes that notion that the baths are tainted is too ridiculous to be believed, and certainly not by the mayor. Hovstad and the printer Aslaksen visit the house as well to reinforce their commitment to the doctor and extend their gratitude. The new alliance between the newspaper and Dr. Stockmann has a deeper interest than just the baths. The newspaper wants to confront the government of the town and expose the corruption that happens behind closed doors, and this opportunity is a way to start.

Peter (the mayor) enters the house, and everything becomes tense. Peter tells Dr. Stockmann that if he proceeds with this article and exposes this information to the town, he will be partially culpable for the ruin of the town. Peter accuses Dr. Stockmann of being selfish and not thinking of the bigger picture. He encourages Dr. Stockmann to retract himself from this article and to solve this problem in a more quiet way. Dr. Stockmann refuses his brother's propositions. Peter reiterates that there will be terrible consequences for him and his family.

Act III[edit]

In the newspaper office, Hovstad and Billing discuss the pros and cons of running Dr. Stockmann's article which damages the reputation of the government of the town. They are ready to proceed and help bring the privileged classes down. Dr. Stockmann comes into the office and tells them to print the article, but at this moment the whole office has a change of heart and are questioning how valuable is it really to expose the government and the town's baths in this way. They are realizing that printing this article will do more damage than help with the situation. Instead, the newspaper is now on the side of the mayor, and has decided to print a statement of him talking about the baths and how good they are. Out of desperation, Dr. Stockmann decides that he does not need the paper to print anything and that he can fight this battle on his own. He decides to call a town meeting and spread the information that way. Mrs. Stockmann is present during all of this, and although she knows that her husband is making an extreme decision and is risking his reputation, she stands by him.

Act IV[edit]

At the town meeting in Captain Horster's house, Dr. Stockmann is about to read his water report to the townspeople. Billing, the family, the mayor, Aslaksen, and Hovstad are there. Aslaksen, a respected citizen, is elected Chairman of the meeting. Permission for Dr. Stockmann's being allowed to speak is about to be voted on when he says he has a different subject. He then winds up into an excited oration about social evolution. This evolutionary process is leaving the "colossal stupidity of the authorities" behind along with "the compact majority" of the people, who may as well "be exterminated." The audience feels insulted by these accusations and anger rises. By the end of the meeting the audience has rebelled, repeatedly shouting, "He is an enemy of the people!" Dr. Stockmann tells his father-in-law, Kill, that it is his tannery that is leaking most of the poisons into the baths. As the crowd is leaving, voices are heard threatening to break his windows.

Act V[edit]

The next morning, Dr. Stockmann's study is shown, badly damaged. The windows of the house have been smashed. The town has turned against the family, and no one they know will help them. The landlord is evicting them from their house, and Petra has been fired from school for having progressive opinions. Peter comes to the house to present Dr. Stockmann with a letter from the board of directors of the baths, terminating his contract, and a resolution from the householders association stating that no one should hire Dr. Stockmann in this town again.

Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law, Morton Kill, arrives to say that he has just bought shares in the Baths with the money intended for the legacy that Dr. Stockmann's wife will inherit. He expects that this fact will cause his son-in-law to stop his crusade in order to insure that his wife and children will have a secure future. Dr. Stockmann rebuffs Kill's threat and also ignores Peter's advice to leave town for a few months. Dr. Stockman's wife tells him she is afraid that the people will drive him out of town. But Dr. Stockmann replies that he intends to stay and make them understand "that considerations of expediency and justice turn morality and justice upside down." He ends by proclaiming himself the strongest man in town because he is able to stand alone.


Édouard Vuillard, An Enemy of the People program for Théâtre de l'Œuvre, November 1893
  • Doctor Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer at the new Municipal Baths and the protagonist.
  • Mrs. Katherine Stockmann, his wife.
  • Petra, their daughter, a teacher.
  • Ejlif & Morten, their sons.
  • Peter Stockmann, Doctor Stockmann's elder brother; he is the mayor of the town and thus Thomas' supervisor.
  • Morten Kiil, a tanner (Mrs. Stockmann's father), also known as the Badger.
  • Hovstad, editor of The Peoples' Messenger, the local paper.
  • Billing, sub-editor.
  • Captain Horster, a shipmaster going to America and a friend of Thomas Stockmann.
  • Aslaksen, a publisher (also a character in The League of Youth).
  • Men of various conditions and occupations, a few women, and a troop of schoolboys – the audience at a public meeting.


In An Enemy of the People, speaking the language of comic exaggeration through the mouth of his spokesman, the idealist Doctor Thomas Stockmann, Ibsen puts into very literal terms the theme of the play: It is true that ideas grow stale and platitudinous, but one may go one step further and say flatly that truths die. According to Stockmann, there are no absolute principles of either wisdom or morality. In this Ibsen is referring indirectly to the reception of his previous plays. For example, the commandment "honor thy father and thy mother" referred to in Ghosts is not simply either true or false. It may have been a truth once and a falsehood today.[1] As Stockmann states in his excited harangue to his political enemies:

Truths are by no means the wiry Methuselahs some people think them. A normally constituted truth lives—let us say—as a rule, seventeen or eighteen years; at the outside twenty; very seldom more. And truths so patriarchal as that are always shockingly emaciated.

Yet, Ibsen addresses in an engaging manner a number of challenges that remain highly relevant today, such as environmental issues (versus economic interests), professional responsibilities (of experts in policy debates) and, last but not least, the moral dilemmas and tensions involved in whistle blowing.[2]


Scottish drama critic William Archer said the play was less sensational than some of Ibsen's earlier efforts, but was a strong drama with excellent dialogue and characters.[3]


This classic play was adapted by Arthur Miller in the 1950s in a production that opened at the Broadhurst Theater on December 28, 1950. It starred Academy Award winner Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge as well as Morris Carnovsky; future Oscar winner Rod Steiger was a "townsperson." Miller's adaptation was presented on National Educational Television in 1966, in a production starring James Daly. It was also made into a movie of the same name in 1978, starring Steve McQueen.[4] The BBC then cast Robert Urquhart as "Tom Stockman" in their 1980 TV version, adapting the story and the cast names to reflect it now being set in a Scottish town.[5] In the creation of his adaptation of Ibsen's work, several changes were made by Miller to make the play more accessible and accepting to a 1950s audience, as opposed to Ibsen's late 1800s audience. Many major edits not only included the transformation of speech and language, but changes were made to the character of Dr. Stockmann to avoid having him champion eugenics. Throughout the play, Dr. Stockmann acts as a Christ figure. Miller found it necessary therefore to change Ibsen's use of genetic and racial theories from the late 1800s to further Dr. Stockmann's standing as a champion of the lower classes as opposed to a scientist with a belief in racial determinism and the importance of eugenics for "improving" people. For example, in Ibsen's original, a portion of Dr. Stockmann's speech to the people contained:

The masses are nothing but the raw material that must be fashioned into the people. Is it not so with all other living creatures on earth? How great the difference between a cultivated and an uncultivated breed of animals!... Don't you believe that the brain of a poodle has developed quite differently from that of a mongrel? Yes, you may depend upon that! It is educated poodles like this that jugglers train to perform the most extraordinary tricks. A common peasant-cur could never learn anything of the sort—not if he tried till Doomsday... we are animals... there is a terrible difference between men-poodles and men-mongrels.

— Dr. Stockmann, quoted in Bigsby (141)[6]

In Miller's adaptation, no such eugenics-positive screed is read. Miller keeps Dr. Stockmann's ideals as a character, and his dedication to facing down the hypocrisy of the aristocracy and governmental bureaucrats, but portrays him as more of a democratic thinker and socialist, while retaining some of the original character's ideas about the evolution of animals and humans, and the need to cultivate humane qualities in order to bring the masses to a more rational and educated level, so that they can fully participate in a democracy. In Miller's adaptation, part of the doctor's speech reads:

I put in a good many years in the north of our country. Up there the rulers of the world are the great seal and the gigantic squadrons of duck. Man lives on ice, huddled together in little piles of stones. His whole life consists of grubbing for food. Nothing more. He can barely speak his own language. And it came to me one day that it was romantic and sentimental for a man of my education to be tending these people. They had not yet reached the stage where they needed a doctor. If the truth were to be told, a veterinary would be more in order.

— Dr. Stockmann, Arthur Miller (93)[7]

A version was produced for Australian television in 1958.[8]

Satyajit Ray's 1989 film Ganashatru was based on this play. In 1990, PBS produced the play for their show American Playhouse, starring William Anton and John Glover.[9]

In 2007 Ouriel Zohar creates his troupe Compagnie Ouriel Zohar with An Enemy of the People in Paris, an adaptation for two actors only. First performance in Paris, then Fréjus, Besançon in 2008, Liège Belgium Minsk Belarus Valleyfield in Canada 2009, Porto Heli in Greece in 2010.[10]

A stage version starring Richard Thomas and Boyd Gaines opened in New York in September 2012.

An Enemy of the People (with the subtitle The strongest one is the one who stands alone)—a Norwegian film issued in 2004 and directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg—is an adaptation of Ibsen's play.

The play was the indirect inspiration for the blockbuster movie Jaws.[11]

In early 2013, an adaptation "عدو الشعب" was made in Egypt (Arabic: Enemy of the people or A Public Enemy). This theater production was organized and directed by Nora Amin (who played the role of Doctor Stockmann's wife) and starring Tarek El-Dewiri as Doctor Thomas Stockmann. It was translated into colloquial Arabic and featured a rock-themed soundtrack played live on-set. It received various positive reviews and was jointly sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy in Cairo and the Ibsen Studies Center in Norway. The show came at a time where Egypt and the capital, Cairo are plunged into deep turmoil and the play carries serious political relevance in post-revolutionary Egypt.[12][13]

In May 2013, the Young Vic theatre in London presented Public Enemy, a version by David Harrower, directed by Richard Jones.[14]

The play was staged in 2013, between October and December, in the Teatro da Comuna in Lisbon.[15]

A new translation by Paul Walsh was staged at the Yale Repertory Theatre in October 2017.[16]

The play was staged in February 2018 at the Classical Theatre Company in Houston, Texas.[17]

In February 2018 it was adapted to the Israeli Cameri Theater. [18]

A new adaptation by Robert Falls, based on a 19th century translation by Eleanor Marx, was staged at Chicago's Goodman Theatre from March - April 2018. [19]


  1. ^ Krutch, Joseph Wood (1953). "Modernism" in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 11. 
  2. ^ Zwart, H. (2004). "Environmental Pollution and professional responsibility. Ibsen's A public enemy as a seminar on science communication and ethics". Environmental Values. 13 (3): 349–372. 
  3. ^ Archer, William (1997). "William Archer on Mrs Lord's imperfections and An Enemy of the People". In Egan, Michael. Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge. p. 61. 
  4. ^ Bailey, Keith. "The Unknown Movies – An Enemy Of The People (1979)". Archived from the original on 2010-03-24. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  5. ^ BBC TV's 1980 version of the novel, set in Scotland: website. Retrieved on January 13, 2008.
  6. ^ Bigsby, Christopher (2005). Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 141. 
  7. ^ Miller, Arthur (1979). Arthur Miller’s Adaptation of An Enemy of the People. New York: Penguin Group. 
  8. ^ An Enemy of the People (1958) on IMDb
  9. ^ "American Playhouse: An Enemy of the People (1990)". Retrieved 2013-03-30. 
  10. ^ Babaiah (July 9, 2010). "'Un ennemi du peuple' de Henrik Ibsen". (in French). Retrieved December 7, 2017. 
  11. ^ Baer, William (2008). Classic American films : conversations with the screenwriters. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. p. 208. ISBN 9780313348983. Carl Gottlieb: 'Steven [Spielberg] and I always referred to Jaws as "Moby Dick and Enemy of the People"....' 
  12. ^ "A timely play for Egypt today". Al-Ahram Weekly. Egypt. January 9, 2013. Archived from the original on January 11, 2013. Retrieved December 7, 2017. 
  13. ^ Sélim, May (January 16, 2013). "Théâtre: La traîtrise, une question de point de vue" [Theater: Treachery, a point of view]. Al-Ahram Hebdo (in French). Egypt. Archived from the original on February 15, 2013. Retrieved December 7, 2017. 
  14. ^ "Public Enemy". Young Vic Theatre. Retrieved 18 April 2013. 
  15. ^ "Um Inimigo do Povo na Comuna" [An Enemy of the People in the Commune]. (in Portuguese). Portugal: Teatro da Comuna. Retrieved December 7, 2017. 
  16. ^ Padla, Steven (April 20, 2017). "Yale Rep's new season to offer audiences 'vital perspectives on the world'". Yale University. Retrieved December 7, 2017. 
  17. ^ "An Enemy of the People". Houston, TX, United States: Classical Theatre Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017. 
  18. ^ "אויב הציבור". Israel. 
  19. ^ "Ibsen Wrote 'An Enemy of the People' in 1882. Trump Has Made It Popular Again". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2018. 

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