An Enemy of the People

Experiencing Ibsen in English

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

an enemy of the people

Editor’s Note: A new production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People playing on Broadway through June 16 has sparked a renewed interest in Norway’s most famous playwright. With a new script by Amy Herzog and directed by Sam Gold, Jeremy Strong stars as Dr. Stockmann in a work that still has relevancy for us today.

But while we all can’t make it to New York City to see the play, Christine Foster Meloni offers a critique of Arthur Miller’s famous translation to be enjoyed anywhere.

The renowned American playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was a fervent admirer of the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). He wanted Americans to appreciate Ibsen as much as he did. This reverence was not forthcoming, however. Americans did not seem to appreciate Ibsen as they should.

While reading Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (En folkefiende), Miller saw the obvious problem. Something was being lost in translation. He felt that English readers were not able to truly catch the essence of what Ibsen was trying to communicate because of the poor English translations.

Miller decided to take the matter into his own hands. He was a well-respected playwright and therefore had the credentials to undertake the solution. He would take Ibsen’s play and adapt it for the American audience.

“I decided to work on An Enemy of the People,” Miller wrote, “because I had a private wish to demonstrate that Ibsen is really pertinent today, that he is not ‘old-fashioned.’”

He was unfamiliar with the Norwegian language, but this did not seem to him to pose a major stumbling block. He hired a native speaker to take him through the play, translating it for him line by line. He then went through the translation, rewriting parts of it and even eliminating what he considered unnecessary or inappropriate lines. His version is shorter than that of Ibsen. Ibsen’s play had five acts; Miller’s adaptation has three.

Miller liked the beginning of the play. Dr. Stockmann, the protagonist, is definitely an admirable man. He had the excellent idea to create splendid baths to improve the health not only of his own townspeople but of people from other areas as well. And, what was more important to his brother, the town’s mayor, these baths would bring much-needed money to the town. In fact, its prosperity would depend on them.

But shortly after the baths were opened, Stockmann began to suspect a problem. He seemed quite sure that something was wrong with the water. He sent a sample to be tested, and his suspicion was confirmed. He had to act immediately. He decided to submit an article to the newspaper to warn its readers of the danger and emphasize the necessity to close the baths so that the problem could be solved. He insisted that “the baths are nothing but a cesspool” and “a most serious danger to health.”

He, of course, met resistance from his brother and eventually from almost everyone else. In Act IV, a town meeting takes place. The majority of those in attendance go against Stockmann. They go so far as to brand him “an enemy of the people” because he wants to ruin the town by closing the baths.

Stockmann goes off the rails at this point and denounces his townspeople, the majority of whom oppose him. He criticizes the concept of democracy in forceful language. Miller did not agree, of course, with Stockmann’s opposition to democracy and he, therefore, eliminated the protagonist’s insults including the following:

“These majority-truths are like last year’s salt pork – like moldy, rancid, half-cured ham!”

“The majority is strong—unfortunately —but right it certainly is not! I am right—I and a few others—the minority is always right!”

Scholars continue to debate the merits of Ibsen’s original play and Miller’s adaptation. Both versions continue to be performed. But which one is preferable?

Consider the opinion of scholar Benedikte Berntzen. In a 2011 article in The Arthur Miller Journal, she notes that, since many theater companies outside of Scandinavia use Miller’s adaptation, Miller was, therefore, right when he decided to tone down the anti-democratic side of the play’s protagonist.

Why not read both versions and decide for yourself?

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue ofThe Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.