It’s not for nothing that the best English-language movie adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama, An Enemy of the People, is the one with the giant man-eating shark. One review of the first London production of the play in 1893 quoted a “distinguished actress” who, during the intermission, complained that “this is my first Ibsen play, and I do not like it! I hate plays all about drains and water-supplies, with dirty scenery and no feminine interest in it.” Steven Spielberg solved the drains problem by making the danger that threatens the prosperity of a tourist town not tiny microorganisms in the polluted waters of the baths but a far more exciting monster that lurks beneath the waves while vacationers frolic on the beach.

Yet in all other respects, the first part of Jaws is a faithful compression of Ibsen’s didactic five-act satire into half an hour of breathless action. For Ibsen’s nameless spa resort on the southern coast of Norway, there is the New England beach town of Amity Island, whose economy is equally dependent on vacationers. For Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer who discovers that the supposedly health-giving waters of the spa are contaminated with deadly bacteria, there is the honest police chief Martin Brody, who tries to insist that the beach be closed down. For Stockmann’s elder brother, Peter, who is at once the town mayor, chief constable, and chairman of the board of the spa, there is Amity Island’s mayor, Larry Vaughn—both put economic interests before public safety. For Ibsen’s corrupt newspaper editor, Hovstad, there is Harry Meadows of The Amity Gazette.

For the raucous public meeting at which the townspeople turn on Stockmann, there is a gathering in Jaws that seems to be playing out in the same way—until the shark hunter Sam Quint takes over the plot and An Enemy of the People becomes Moby-Dick. There is then even less “feminine interest” than in the play, but it has to be admitted that it’s all rather more fun than Ibsen’s original. And Jaws manages what An Enemy of the People can never do: it turns the corruption of politics into an apolitical affair. The shark, not Stockmann, becomes the scapegoat.

An Enemy of the People is one of those plays that, in its original form, feels at once urgent and old-fashioned. It goes on too long and becomes, in some passages, heavy-handed and repetitive. With its elaborate scene-setting and what Arthur Miller called “the dull green tones of Victorianism,” it sometimes puts the turgid into late-nineteenth-century dramaturgy. Yet it explores tensions—between science and politics, truth and self-interest, democracy and individual conscience—that never go away. This peculiar combination of the momentous and the monotonous is, oddly enough, what makes the play live. It is a classic that is not sacrosanct. It is weighty enough to be canonical but flawed enough to be treated with healthy disrespect. It is infinitely malleable.

Even the meaning of its title can be turned into its opposite. For Ibsen, it’s a compliment: Stockmann earns it by refusing to tell politically convenient lies. But for someone like Donald Trump, it is a license to lie. In November 2019 The New York Times calculated that Trump had, as president, by then issued thirty-six tweets calling news media the “enemy of the people.” A year later Trump called Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, an “enemy of the people” for obstructing his attempt to steal the presidential election. Likewise, at the height of the Brexit hysteria in 2017, the right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail ran a front page with the photographs of three judges who had ruled that Parliament should be allowed to vote on the timing of the UK’s exit from the European Union, under the glaring headline “Enemies of the People.” Stripped of Ibsen’s sarcasm, the label has become again what it was before he made it ironic: a way of fixing a target on the foreheads of those who exercise inconveniently independent judgment.

Thus, as the drama is now reconfigured on the right, the character to be admired is not the honest and earnest Thomas Stockmann but his bad brother Peter, the mayor who prefers to let tourists die rather than face the economic consequences of closing the spa—or in the Jaws version, the beach. Peter Stockmann and his cinematic alter ego Larry Vaughn are libertarian stars. One of Boris Johnson’s favorite yarns in his well-paid after-dinner speeches was about

why my political hero is the mayor from Jaws. Yes. Because he kept the beaches open. Yes, he repudiated, he foreswore, and he abrogated all these silly regulations on health and safety and declared that the people should Swim! Swim! Now, I accept that as a result some small children were eaten by a shark. But how much more pleasure did the majority get from those beaches as a result of the boldness of the mayor in Jaws?

Guto Harri, who served as Johnson’s director of communications, wrote that Johnson “clearly believed what he was saying.” This semicomic provocation turned tragic during the Covid-19 pandemic—letting people die in order to keep businesses open became, on the right, a badge of honor.


Conversely, for the left, Thomas Stockmann’s stance has become even more valiant. The pollution of the spa waters can be seen now as a metaphor for environmental destruction. The determination of the town’s bigwigs to press ahead regardless of fatal consequences prefigures the continuation of business as usual in the face of the climate crisis. Stockmann, who says in Amy Herzog’s version of the play that “I have devoted my life to science,” is also an Anthony Fauci pilloried for insisting on scientific facts during the pandemic. In his introduction to a 2010 edition of Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation of the play, John Guare prayed, “God forbid we should have a time when Miller’s Enemy ever again does become pertinent. We have to see this Enemy as a reminder of what has happened, what can happen, and what must never happen again.”

Those prayers were not answered. What must never happen again is happening before our eyes. And the more systematically the idea of objective truth is undermined, the easier it is to rally around Stockmann’s insistence on it. The audience at the Broadway production of Herzog’s adaptation can be expected to nod along when in the fifth act the rueful doctor reflects on what is going on in the town:

It is alarming. That we’ve lived here this long, without understanding who our neighbors are, that they turn everything upside down, call the truth a lie and vice versa—and the scariest thing? Is that these people genuinely believe themselves to be free-thinkers.

The contemporary resonances do not need to be spelled out.

Stockmann is of course Norwegian, but he can also be seen as a specifically American type. Guare wrote that, when he first read An Enemy of the People in the 1950s, “Ibsen’s play reminded me of the movie High Noon. Gary Cooper, in a lone battle against the bad guys…” When the drama was filmed by George Schaefer in 1978, Cooper was long dead, but they got the next best thing: Steve McQueen (albeit barely recognizable beneath a luxuriant mop of hair, glasses, and a bushy beard). This Stockmann brings together religious and secular idols: he is both Jesus and a brave scientist. Baited by the crowd in the climactic scene, when he’s trying to present his evidence, he asks, “Was the majority right when they stood by while Jesus was crucified? Was the majority right when they refused to believe that the earth moved around the sun and let Galileo be driven to his knees?” In the final act, when Stockmann has determined that he will stay in town and try to educate a group of young street urchins, he specifies, “We’ll want about twelve of them to start,” that dozen not accidentally adding up to the same number as Christ’s apostles.

This is not Ibsen; it is Arthur Miller. The movie used Miller’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People, which had a short and unsuccessful run on Broadway in late 1950 and early 1951. That version, written in response to “a swelling prefascist tide running in the United States,” can be seen as an overture to The Crucible—another exploration of the way a drama set in the past could be used as a metaphor for America under McCarthyism.1 In his autobiography, Timebends, Miller recalls the circumstances in which he agreed to adapt the play for Fredric March and his wife, Florence Eldridge:

When [the veteran director] Bobby Lewis came to me with the idea…it bucked me up that these veteran theatre people, whom I had never connected with radical politics, had awakened to the danger. I soon learned that the Marches were suing a man for libeling them as Communists; the charge had cost them film roles, and they saw themselves in the shoes of the Stockmanns, who were also crucified by a mob.

Stockmann as the crucified Christ is a product of 1950s America, not 1880s Norway. And, as such, he is worthy but dull. As anyone who has ever sat through a biblical epic can testify, there is not much dramatic tension in watching a sacrificial victim being nailed to a cross. If you’re going to have Stockmann as a one-dimensional hero, it’s much more interesting to have him go off and hunt a huge shark.


Ibsen’s Stockmann, on the other hand, is a much more uncomfortable—and thus intriguing—figure. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the good democratic citizen most people on the left would like him to be. He is indeed a whistleblower, a truth teller, a man of science who insists on the primacy of the evidence. But he’s also, possibly, a bit of a fascist. Guare noted that Stockmann can be conceived of as

a new face on the problematic American loner who could just as easily morph into Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. The world of Ayn Rand with Howard Roark, the lonely architect against the crass world…. Couldn’t the defiant, self-righteous loner against the world just as easily become Lee Harvey Oswald or Charlie Manson?

Or, say, Robert Kennedy Jr., saving the world from the pollution of vaccines? In 2021 Kennedy wrote a preface to R. Farquharson Sharp’s hundred-year-old version of the play, in which he hailed it as a parable about “the persecution of scientists and doctors who dare to challenge contemporary orthodoxies.”

Long before Hollywood got around to Steve McQueen’s Jesus-like version, there was a Nazi movie of An Enemy of the People. As early as 1924 Joseph Goebbels identified the play as “an ally against the ‘compact majority’ of Weimar democracy.” In 1937 Hans Steinhoff’s Nazi-approved film Ein Volksfeind had Heinrich George, familiar to German audiences from his roles in antisemitic propaganda films, play Stockmann as a good German standing up against those who would contaminate the streams from which the pure nation sprang. George delivers Stockmann’s big speech with Hitlerian cadences at the town hall meeting where he is being condemned, and rises to a demand that the individual be subordinated to the common good (which means, here, the good of the race): “Revolution against the lie, the cowardice, the stupidity and the egoism of the individual! I will fight so that the individual is prepared to sacrifice himself for the entire general public.” In the end, a Nazi Party official intervenes to vindicate Stockmann and admonish the townsfolk for their doubting of his superior wisdom. Stockmann has the ominous last words: “Thank God, truth stays truth and doesn’t put up with moderation!”

This isn’t Ibsen either, but it has as much basis in his text as Miller’s ideal democrat does. Miller himself was well aware of this. In his introduction to the published text of his adaptation, he acknowledged:

There are a few speeches, and one scene in particular, which have been taken to mean that Ibsen was a fascist. In the original meeting scene in which Dr. Stockmann sets forth his—and Ibsen’s—point of view most completely and angrily, Dr. Stockmann makes a speech in which he turns to biology to prove that there are indeed certain individuals “bred” to a superior apprehension of truths and who have the natural right to lead, if not to govern, the mass. If the entire play is to be understood as the working-out of this speech, then one has no justification for contending that it is other than racist and fascist—certainly it could not be thought of as a defense of any democratic idea.

Ibsen’s Stockmann does not, like Christ, turn the other cheek. He lashes out at those who are silencing and humiliating him in a rant that is not just elitist but eugenicist. This is what makes the play interesting—the wounded hero turns nasty. And we don’t really know why. Is this Ibsen speaking through his mouthpiece or just the master dramatist adding a strange and deliberately unsettling twist?2 Are these even Stockmann’s real views? Or is he just maddened by his degrading treatment into blurting out things he does not truly mean? Miller dealt with this problem by simply excising the nasty bits and convincing himself that, especially after the Holocaust, this is what Ibsen would have wanted. This suppression of the dark side of the good doctor makes the play morally better but aesthetically worse.

The question that arises with any new American version of An Enemy of the People is what it will do about this problem. The dilemma goes very deep because, frankly, there’s no point in staging any version of the play if you don’t want to make a connection to contemporary politics. How Stockmann is written and cast will always reflect the perceived needs of the moment. Sam Gold’s vivid and entertaining new Broadway production puts those needs first—but also takes a narrow view of what they might be. It makes the play more fluent and more effective, and it gives us, in Jeremy Strong’s portrayal, a Stockmann who is neither savior nor fascist. But it essentially returns to Miller’s approach from 1950. In the face of McCarthyism, Miller decided to make the play into a straightforward attack on the far right. In the face of Trumpism, Gold and Herzog make the same decision.

Gold’s production is played in the round. The action takes place on a long, narrow, white-painted platform with period furniture that is deftly arranged to avoid clutter. The scenic design, by a collective called dots, is ingeniously conceived to ensure that changes of location—from Stockmann’s house, to the newspaper office, to the public meeting, and back again—are achieved quickly and smoothly. Speed is of the essence. The play, normally a three-hour endurance test, unfolds here in two. This doesn’t just avoid the usual longueurs. It brings us into a fast-moving psychological world in which all the initial supports for Stockmann’s insistence that the spa must close evaporate in dizzying succession. The pacing makes these shifts of attitudes genuinely scary: all that is solid melts into air as self-interest distorts reality.

This rapidity is enabled by Herzog’s intelligently ruthless decluttering of the text. She keeps the five-act structure but sharpens and shortens almost every moment. Her dialogue is crisp. For example, Christopher Hampton’s fine version from 1997 opens with the journalist Billing tucking into roast beef alone at the Stockmanns’ dinner table. Mrs. Stockmann says, “If you arrive an hour late, Mr Billing, you have to make do with cold… You know how fussy Stockmann is about having his meals on time.” Herzog has this as: “Well when you’re an hour late, you get cold food… You know how my dad is about eating at regular hours—he waited almost a minute and a half for you if you can believe that.” The lines convey the idea of Stockmann’s fussiness with more wit and irony and also tell us something about the spirit of the woman who is speaking.

That woman is not Mrs. Stockmann. Herzog has killed off the wife, a major role but a rather thankless one. Her disappearance may seem to reduce the already limited “feminine interest” of the play, but in fact this enhances it. Herzog gives those of her lines that she wishes to retain to the Stockmanns’ daughter, Petra, making this bright young woman in her early twenties a much larger force. In Victoria Pedretti’s excellent performance, Petra is the pulse of the play, her quiet intelligence and toughness of mind acting as a realistic counterpoint to her father’s histrionics. Pedretti’s penetrating gaze seems to see through all the vanities of the male characters, including Stockmann’s. She loves her father and stands by him, but we always know that it is she who will have to deal with the consequences of his crusade. By making Stockmann a widower, Herzog adds poignancy to his backstory, but we also see how he has unthinkingly made his daughter into a substitute for his wife (“You’re more and more like her”) and assumes that she will take care of him and his younger children. She will—and the disaster brought on the family by Stockmann’s truth telling will be much more her burden than his.

Gold’s direction is at its best in his brilliant staging of the moments when the townspeople turn on Stockmann. The action unfolds not, as in Ibsen’s original, in a large private house but in a pub. The bar is a metallic square into which Strong is pushed by the angry mob, like an animal in a pen. He has liquor poured over his head and is pelted with ice cubes. When the bar is raised back up into the ceiling, we are again in Stockmann’s house, and the ice cubes are the stones that have been thrown through his windows. This is a masterpiece of stage violence—cruel, humiliating, hateful, but not striving for excessive realism. It feels all the more terrifying for being concentrated in a single visual image, the ice cubes serving as physical blows, as broken glass, as tokens of contempt, but also, as they start to melt, as metaphors for some kind of cleansing. The clear water that runs off them is a counterpoint to the polluted water of the spa.

What, though, of the Stockmann problem—is he to be another Gary Cooper? Rather startlingly, Herzog cuts his famous concluding line: in Hampton’s version, “The thing is, you see, that the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.” Herzog is having none of this lonely strongman stuff. She replaces the lines with Petra’s expression of fear that “the hardest times are still ahead,” followed by Stockmann’s prayer of collective faith: “And in ten years, or fifty…it will matter that we did what’s right…. We just have to imagine, that the water will be clean and safe and the truth will be valued… We just have to imagine…”

Strong’s memorable performance as Stockmann picks up on this hint that he is not to be seen as the all-American solitary hero. He brings to the role something of the comic doubleness of his Kendall Roy in Succession, a kind of solipsistic sincerity that makes everything seem at once deeply serious and utterly ridiculous.3 Like Kendall, his Stockmann is sublimely free of self-awareness. Strong weaves the doctor’s integrity and honesty into a naiveté that sometimes borders on the childish. While Pedretti’s Petra sees everything, Strong, blinking through his professorial spectacles, has tunnel vision. He fixes his eye on the truth but cannot perceive its consequences. This makes him as much a comic character as a tragic one, and Strong’s achievement is to give Stockmann dignity even when he is behaving like a holy fool.

Which leads us to the great pity of this production. Strong has constructed a Stockmann complex enough to embrace the full oddness of Ibsen’s character—including its dark hints of fascism. But Gold and Herzog seem to have decided, like Miller in 1950, that these times in America call for a less ambiguous political message. Stockmann may be permitted his comic foibles, but he is not to be permitted his flights of eugenic fantasy and violent passion.

The relevant moments are in the fourth act, when Stockmann has been shouted down and denied the opportunity to present his scientific findings to the public. He responds first by attacking the (elected) officials: “I can’t stand leaders.” Which is fine, except that he adds (in Hampton’s version): “And I should like to see them exterminated, like any other vermin.” He then elaborates a biological distinction between those who should be allowed to lead and those who should not. He describes the people of the rural north, among whom he had served as a doctor, as animals who would be more appropriately treated by a vet. And he warms to this theme:

First imagine a simple, common-or-garden dog… I mean one of those disgusting, ratty, vulgar mongrels which mooches around the streets lifting its leg against your house. And then compare the mongrel with a pedigree dog, bred through several generations in a superior house, eating fine food and exposed to the sound of harmonious voices and music. Don’t you suppose the pedigree’s skull is quite differently evolved from the mongrel’s?

In Herzog’s version, Stockmann doesn’t say that officials should be exterminated like vermin. He doesn’t imply that the poor northerners he used to treat are animals but merely admits that “sometimes I questioned whether it was right to treat those people at all, if some of them would be better off left to die.” While he does raise his dog analogy—“there’s a difference between a stray and a poodle, isn’t there?”—Herzog has him specifically disavow any eugenic explanation for that distinction: “I’m not saying those mutts wouldn’t be capable of learning good behavior if they’d had the right opportunities.” His high dudgeon is offensive to his onstage audience—but much less so to an offstage audience of right-thinking New Yorkers.

It’s easy to understand this decision to dial down his verbal violence and obnoxious superiority. The Stockmann who is capable of such thoughts, even under extreme provocation, is much less effective as a warning against fascism—he might even be a warning against liberal self-righteousness. In the face of both McCarthyism and Trumpism, it seems wiser not to blur the separation between the good guys and the bad guys. Nonetheless, two things are lost. One is the opportunity to see Strong’s wonderfully subtle performance stretch even further into moral ambiguity. He seems entirely capable of pushing Stockmann out to the wilder shores of madness before reeling him back in. The other is the opportunity for some liberal self-reflection. Just because anti-elitism is being used to fuel right-wing populism does not mean that there are no questions to be asked about why so many people feel alienated from the language of higher education, science, and rationality. Stockmann is so certain of his moral and intellectual superiority that he makes no real effort to understand why some of the ordinary townsfolk might be worried about losing their livelihoods if the spa closes. He embodies the dangers of a haughty dismissal of the deplorables, and if he is sanitized, the chance to explore them is missed.

What happens in the play after those rants is that Stockmann and Petra decide to take in some street kids and educate them. This is, in practice, an apology for the previous night’s indulgence in social Darwinism: education, not biology, is what will determine their development. But the meaning of this apology is lost if we don’t quite know what Stockmann is sorry for. Perhaps it might be possible to imagine a production in which such an acknowledgment of the failings of liberal elitism might go hand in hand with a condemnation of incipient fascism, but this does not seem to be the right moment for it.