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 previous play, Ghosts, which challenged the hypocrisy of 19th-century morality. According to Ellen Mortensen (Ibsen Studies v.7, 169), the words "scandalous, degenerate," and "immoral" were hurled at both Ghosts and its author because it openly discussed adultery and syphilis. Therefore, An Enemy of the People tells the story of a man who dares to speak an unpalatable truth, and is punished for it. However, Ibsen took a somewhat skeptical view of his protagonist, suggesting that he may have gone too far in his zeal to tell the truth. Ibsen wrote to his publisher: "I am still uncertain as to whether I should call [An Enemy of the People] 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]

Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the medical officer of a recently opened spa in a small town in southern Norway. The play begins in Dr. Stockmann's house, where his wife Katrine 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. The Mayor asks his brother about a rumor that Hovstad is about to print an article he wrote regarding the spa baths. Dr. Stockmann is evasive about the nature of this article, and Peter leaves. Dr. Stockmann's daughter Petra brings in a letter, which reveals that Dr. Stockmann's suspicions were correct and the spa water is contaminated with bacteria (he had sent samples of water away to be tested in a lab). With this proof in hand, Hovstad agrees to print Dr. Stockmann's article, which will reveal the truth about the spa water. This will bring a great deal of attention to the baths and possibly force them to shut down (which will have repercussions on the town's economy). Dr. Stockmann is overwhelmed with all that has happened, but rejoices that he has saved the town.

Act II[edit]

The next morning in Dr. Stockmann's house. Morten Kiil, Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law, stops by to congratulate him on what Kiil believes is an elaborate prank. Kiil says that the 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 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 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 the article and to solve the 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 will damage the reputation of the town government. 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 the office starts to experience a change of heart, questioning how valuable is it really to expose the government and the town's baths in this way. They realize printing this article will do more damage than help with the situation, and may cause the town's economy to crater. Peter Stockmann comes to the newspaper office with a statement of his own, intending to reassure the public about the safety of the spa baths. The newspaper readily agrees to print the mayor's statement. Desperate, 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. Katrine Stockmann realizes that her husband is making an extreme decision and is risking his reputation, but she stands by him.

Act IV[edit]

At a 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 a passionate oration about social evolution. He says that new, truthful ideas are always condemned, due to the "colossal stupidity of the authorities" and the small-mindedness of "the compact liberal 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, Kiil, 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 Stockmann's 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 her job as a schoolteacher 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 homeowners' association stating that no one should hire Dr. Stockmann in this town again.

Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law, Morton Kiil, arrives to say that he has just bought shares in the Baths with the money that he had intended to leave to his daughter and grandchildren. He expects that will cause his son-in-law to stop his crusade, to ensure that the spa does not go bankrupt and his family will have a secure future. Dr. Stockmann rebuffs Kiil's threat and also ignores Peter's advice to leave town for a few months. Katrine tells Dr. Stockmann 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 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]


As in many other plays, Ibsen derived names and traits from his relatives, including the name Stockmann, a real family in Telemark from which Ibsen himself was descended; Ibsen was also born in Stockmanngården in Skien. Peter Stockmann, who in the Norwegian original holds the offices of byfoged (city judge/magistrate) and politimester (chief of police), was based on Ibsen's uncle, Christian Cornelius Paus, who held the same two offices in Skien and who was also a descendant of the Stockmann family.[3]


Scottish drama critic William Archer, an early and contemporary advocate of Ibsen's plays, said the play was less sensational than some of Ibsen's earlier efforts, but was a strong drama with excellent dialogue and characters.[4]


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.[5] 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.[6] 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)[7]

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)[8]

A version was produced for Australian television in 1958.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13][14]

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. [15]

Censored in Mainland China[edit]

"An Enemy of the People", produced by Berlin's Schaubühne theater, was performed in Beijing from September 6 to September 8, 2018, but the subsequent touring of the show was cancelled due to its themes. The audience in Beijing reportedly showed overwhelming support for the character Dr. Stockmann, and shouted criticism of the Chinese regime during interaction parts. Even in subsequent censored performances, audiences yelled "for personal freedom!". The regime's censorship officers would not agree on any more subsequent touring unless it was doctored in favor of the regime's thought on what a play should be.[16] [17]


  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. doi:10.3197/096327104323312662.
  3. ^ Nygaard, Jon (2012). "Henrik Ibsen og Skien: "... af stort est du kommen, og till stort skalst du vorde engang!"". Bøygen. 24 (1): 81–95.
  4. ^ Archer, William (1997). "William Archer on Mrs Lord's imperfections and An Enemy of the People". In Egan, Michael (ed.). Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge. p. 61.
  5. ^ Bailey, Keith. "The Unknown Movies – An Enemy Of The People (1979)". Archived from the original on 2010-03-24. Retrieved 2010-06-19.
  6. ^ BBC TV's 1980 version of the novel, set in Scotland: website. Retrieved on January 13, 2008.
  7. ^ Bigsby, Christopher (2005). Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 141.
  8. ^ Miller, Arthur (1979). Arthur Miller's Adaptation of An Enemy of the People. New York: Penguin Group.
  9. ^ An Enemy of the People (1958) on IMDb
  10. ^ "American Playhouse: An Enemy of the People (1990)". Retrieved 2013-03-30.
  11. ^ Babaiah (July 9, 2010). "'Un ennemi du peuple' de Henrik Ibsen". (in French). Retrieved December 7, 2017.
  12. ^ 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"....'
  13. ^ "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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ "Review: "An Enemy of the People"". Hyde Park Herald. Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  16. ^ "China Cancels Ibsen's 'An Enemy of the People' Amid Ever-Widening Censorship". Radio Free Asia. Retrieved 13 September 2018.
  17. ^ "Ibsen Play Is Canceled in China After Audience Criticizes Government". New York Times. Retrieved 13 September 2018.

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