Henrik Ibsen was one of the world’s greatest dramatists. He was the leading figure of an artistic renaissance that took place in Norway at the end of the nineteenth century, a renaissance that also included the painter Edvard Munch. Ibsen lived from 1828 to 1906. He grew up in poverty, studied medicine for a while, then abandoned that to write plays. In 1858, he published his first play, The Vikings at Helgeland. That same year, he married Susannah Thoresen, the daughter of a pastor.
Ibsen obtained a scholarship to travel to Italy, where he wrote the plays that would establish his reputation, Brand and Peer Gynt. These were long, historical verse plays. He lived most of the rest of his life in Italy and Germany. Starting in 1869, he began to write prose plays. Some critics would say that at this point in his life, Ibsen abandoned poetry and took up realism. In 1877, he began what became a series of five plays in which he examines the moral faults of modern society. In order of appearance, the plays were The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, and The Wild Duck.
An Enemy of the People
An Enemy of the People attacks the institution of the liberal newspaper. Like all of the plays in this series, An Enemy of the People deals with the extent to which individual desires and beliefs are compromised by society. In particular, the play focuses on the ways in which an individual can be ostracized by the society he is trying to help. The problems of the play’s hero, Dr. Stockmann, are not far removed from the problems Ibsen experienced after the publication of Ghosts. In a letter written around the time of the play’s composition, Ibsen noted: “Dr. Stockmann and I got on excellently together; we agree on so many subjects.”
Like all of Ibsen’s plays, An Enemy of the People was originally written in Norwegian and is full of untranslatable wordplay. Specifically, a number of the character’s titles exists only in Norwegian bureaucracy. For the sake of clarity, in this SparkNote, Peter Stockmann is referred to as the mayor, Morten Kiil is Mrs. Stockmann’s adoptive father, and Hovstad is editor of the People’s Herald.