Public enemy #1: Henrik Ibsen

wanted-ibsenI wrote earlier this year about seeing Ibsen’s Enemy of the People while I was in Dublin. While the topic discussed in the play in science, and I pointed out the relevance to climate change denial in the previous post, it turns out Ibsen was writing about something completely different: himself.

In 1881, Ibsen published Ghosts, his play about family secrets and morality. He broke a number of taboos in speaking obliquely of syphilis, incest, and in mocking religious authority. Many theatre companies wouldn’t perform it, and due to official censorship, it wasn’t seen in London until a decade later, and even then, in a single performance for a private audience.

Ibsen reacted to the scandal by penning Enemy of the People, and effectively told the world, “Majority rule is mob rule.” It’s still a shocking statement in an era when (small-d) democracy is held as the ideal condition for a state.

It’s true, nonetheless, and precisely why the United States has a (small-r( republican form of government. Popular opinion doesn’t change easily, as shown by the resistance in the past half decade to such things as interracial marriage and gay rights.

But the play is far more than an angry retort to an unappreciative crowd. Ibsen shows the wheels turning behind the curtain, and the power of money to influence policy and opinion. We should know, we were sold tobacco, leaded gas, and weapons of mass destruction by the very machinations Ibsen warned about.


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