According to Cristina GÃ³mez-Baggethun, UiO researcher, the fact that Henrik Ibsen’s play continues to spark debate on democracy shows that it is a true art.
Photo: Tristram Kenton.
Art suffered during the Franco dictatorship in Spain. Strong censorship prevailed between the general’s coming to power in 1939 and until his death in 1975. Calling for democracy, or even meeting to discuss politics, was prohibited. Yet in the early 1970s there was one place where heated discussions about democracy were taking place: the theaters of Madrid and Barcelona.
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen has passed the censorship and sold out in these two big cities. And it’s not just the opposition that has rushed to see the story of Dr Stockmann, a medical doctor who stands firm when the most powerful members of society try to hide the truth about the new spa. the city contaminated with harmful bacteria.
âUnexpectedly enough, the play was a huge success. And oddly enough, An Enemy of the People was very well received by the most intransigent fascists in Spain, which probably contributed to its success, âsaid Cristina GÃ³mez-Baggethun.
She has studied the Spanish productions of An Enemy of the People and thinks it is a perfect play for discussing difficult political situations.
âAfter all, the play is about democracy, and it’s designed so that you can identify different characters with various political positions,â she says.
The transition from a dictatorship to a democracy made A very relevant enemy of the people
When GÃ³mez-Baggethun searched the Spanish archives, she discovered that An Enemy of the People had been staged in Spain exclusively during a politically turbulent time. In retrospect, these periods could be considered as transitional periods. In 1971, the play was performed in Madrid, directed by Fernando FernÃ¡n-GÃ³mez, a great star of Spanish cinema. With Ibsen, he struck a chord among the people.
âThe play lasted for months in Madrid and a series of tenders took place to find out who would be allowed to put it on in Barcelona, ââbecause everyone wanted An Enemy of the People. The only reason he quit acting was because the director was bored – it drew full rooms and could have gone on for a long time.
GÃ³mez-Baggethun believes the success of the play is due to the fact that it featured a discussion of democracy that was already taking place in society.
âIt was three or four years before Franco died and everyone was wondering what was going to happen. There was a lot of debate, but it couldn’t take place openly because the press and everything else was being censored.
In the fourth act of the play, Dr. Stockmann attends a public meeting in which he fiercely accuses his opponents of being cowardly and corrupt. In Spain, this was staged in a way that GÃ³mez-Baggethun says has proven successful in many other places: allowing the public to participate in the public meeting.
âIbsen didn’t write it that way, but it’s almost like he’s suggesting it. And based on the reviews and testimonials, we can see that a real debate ensues. As a result, the theater became a place where people could legally discuss politics and democracy.
The fascists applauded the play
âTo put on a play in the early 1970s, it had to pass the censorship. An enemy of the people has passed hands down, âexplains GÃ³mez-Baggethun.
âOne of the three censors who read the play was a hardline old fascist who advocated racial hygiene and worse. But he was the most positive of the three censors, and he also wrote panegyric reviews in the newspapers afterwards. “
It was no secret that the people who put on the play were on the left.
“The director was an anarchist and he later wrote in his memoir that he was destined to upset Franco and his fascist government.”
However, according to GÃ³mez-Baggethun, Ibsen’s play was dear to the hearts of fascists. A few years earlier, in 1963, two theater artists who supported the regime had organized public readings in Madrid with their own fascist version of the play.
âIt’s interesting that you really don’t have to make a lot of changes to get the play to fit in with fascist ideology. The common theme in An Enemy of the People is the idea that democratic policies are corrupt and serve as a sort of cover for the economic power behind them.
When art is good, it’s political
Like most of Ibsen’s plays, An Enemy of the People has been rewritten by several translators and playwrights. When Spanish actors were scheduled to play their version of Dr Stockmann in 1971, they used a translation written by American playwright Arthur Miller.
Miller had feared that An Enemy of the People might be misinterpreted as a fascist play and he toned down Dr Stockmann’s speech at the town hall.
âAlmost all of the versions make Dr Stockmann slightly nicer than he actually is in Ibsen’s room. However, even though the Spanish Dr Stockmann insisted less on the argument that some people belong to the upper classes and that some are worth less than in the original play, the fascists liked what they saw.
The fact that the same production can have an impact on people with completely different political views shows that director FernÃ¡n-GÃ³mez avoided making propaganda, despite the fact that the play was intended to be a commotion.
The researcher believes this is theater at its best.
âWhen it doesn’t try to convince people of one thing or another, but makes them think, wonder about things and discuss them, theater can bring people from different social groups together and help to build a community. “
GÃ³mez-Baggethun realizes that the term “political art” has long been negatively charged as it is associated with manipulation or propaganda. Since art speaks to emotions, it can be an effective tool. She herself is in favor of the revaluation of political art.
âI, and others with me, believe that political art is what really is art. You can only call something art when it affects people – and I mean everyone. The power to bring people together and create wonder can make a difference in society, âshe said, emphasizing:
“That’s why I think Ibsen was poetic because he was political, and he was political because he was poetic.”
Public education important to Ibsen
In An Enemy of the People, Dr Stockmann loses his faith in democracy and argues for an aristocracy where someone worthy among the people should be brought up through education.
âIbsen himself said that the only political issue he thought was worth fighting for was the establishment of a proper school system in Norway. Public education was essential for him, âexplains GÃ³mez-Baggethun.
It was also the key to the very first time that an Ibsen play was performed in Spanish – when An Enemy of the People was staged in Madrid in 1896 and Barcelona in 1893.
âThe choice probably fell on An Enemy of the People because the play reflected many debates that were taking place in Spain at that time. They had recently introduced the right to vote for all men and there was a lot of debate about education and attempts to establish schools.
Today democracy is under pressure in many parts of the world. Recently, democracy in Spain has been put to the test in the aftermath of the financial crisis and in the brutal manner in which authorities have dealt with Catalan demands for an independence referendum in 2019. Spain has also fallen in the international democracy indices.
âOne of the reasons for this is political corruption. As Aristotle said: “Democracy tends to turn into plutocracy, where money reigns”, “explains GÃ³mez-Baggethun.
She believes that art will continue to address the question of democracy, either through new texts, or by returning to the hero of Un ennemi du people.
âYou can say whatever you want about Dr Stockmann, but he’s the only one who’s being honest and doing his best to do the right thing. What is surprising is that all those who lie are the most convincing, and it is lies that prevail in a democracy.
Source: GÃ³mez-Baggethun, Cristina (2021): Spain in assembly. Fighting for a Future through the productions of An Enemy of the People of Ibsen. Doctoral thesis at the Department of Literature, Regional Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo.