An Enemy of the People

Ibsen, Henrik

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Woodcock, John
  • Date of entry: May-02-2006


Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a public-minded doctor in a small town famous for its public baths, discovers that the water supply for the baths is contaminated and has probably been the cause of some illness among the tourists who are the town's economic lifeblood. In his effort to clean up the water supply, Dr. Stockmann runs into political cowards, sold-out journalists, shortsighted armchair economists, and a benighted citizenry. His own principled idealism exacerbates the conflict. The well-meaning doctor is publicly labeled an enemy of the people, and he and his family are all but driven out of the town he was trying to save.


This is an early dramatization of something we know better a century later: the difficulty of translating medical scientific knowledge into political action. Ibsen's well-intentioned blustery doctor heroically fails. Partly this is because the local democratic processes are quite cynical (powerful people prevent him from getting his information to the citizens), and partly because Dr. Stockmann suffers from a professional blindness that keeps him from understanding how anyone could possibly disagree that his scientific “truth” (he uses the world frequently) requires rebuilding the town's waterworks. He is a classic case of virtue-based ethics sacrificing outcome for principle.

The genesis of the play suggests that Ibsen, angry himself at European drama critics' response to his play, Ghosts, was blind to his protagonist's blindness. One interesting medical approach to the play is to see Dr. Stockmann's town as a resistant patient.

The playwright Arthur Miller adapted this play in the 1950s for its strong minority rights message at a time when many U.S. artists with liberal politics were being viewed by those in power as enemies of the people. Miller keeps Dr. Stockmann's strong idealism and mistrust of the majority but shortens and softens his tirades in which pro-minority is hard to distinguish from arguments for genetic superiority.


First published: 1882. Arthur Miller's adaptation was first published by Viking Penguin in 1951.



Place Published

New York



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