Did you ever read or hear Obama’s January 2009 inauguration speech? I remember my delight as I read the transcript that the New York Times posted online, how moved I was by its complexity of argument and its elegant, quite high register, with echoes of Emerson and the King James Bible. Here’s a man, I thought, who’s speaking not to the “unwashed masses” but to the enlightened citizens of the country he’d like to exist. And he wasn’t just speaking to them: he was also willing them into existence.
Maybe history doesn’t bear such gestures out; probably a country’s people don’t change their character because of a leader’s good intentions. But that doesn’t make his gesture any less noble, to my mind, or less important.
I felt much the same way towards the end of your production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at Tarragon Theatre, or rather your revision of Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s play in Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation and Maria Milisavljevic’s translation (to put it simply). A contemporary update of Ibsen’s story of a man who speaks out about his town’s contaminated water supply and runs afoul of the local economic elite, it struck me as perhaps the most important production I’ve seen at the Tarragon in years.
For many reasons, but first of all: it seems to be founded, like Obama’s speech, on a number of hugely generous and dignified assumptions about its audience. It assumes their intelligence and discernment, for starters, but also their willingness to have their prejudices challenged, to see themselves and their values reflected in a way that’s not always flattering. It assumes their political engagement and their capacity to think critically about their political situation. It assumes that they want their theatre not just to please but also, however obliquely, to educate. And, like any good educator, it leads them to unfamiliar, maybe uncomfortable territory and rewards them richly for — makes them see the intrinsic rewards of — that adventure, their courage.
I felt all this, even if it took me awhile to get there. To begin from the very beginning: when I heard last spring about this planned production, I confess my first instinct was skepticism. I admire Ostermeier’s work, have seen two of his other reworkings of Ibsen at the Schaubühne, but I thought: Why re-stage a celebrated German production and call it something new? Are our local artists incapable of an independent offering on the same themes?
But I also knew that such objections would’ve occurred to you. You were the first person to plant the idea in my mind that, with every production of every play old or new, the artist has a practical need and ethical duty to ask: Why This? Why Here? Why Now? I knew that if this Enemy concept had met your own such standard, I should reserve judgement until I’d seen the show.
I loved the provocative block of text that hovers on a scrim at the start of your production. A piece of energetic rhetoric about how complacency can be a kind of aggression (and about more than that), it sets a tone that immediately interested me. Like David Jansen’s really terrific program note, it impressed me by its density. It assumes an audience that’s come to the theatre for a pleasure that involves, at least at times, some careful thought on their part.
This promise was and wasn’t fulfilled by the play’s first acts, in my experience of them. Early on, I found the production’s balance between realistic, representational drama and expressionistic gestures to be an uneasy one. This is true of Ostermeier’s work as well, though I find his proportions quite different from yours: I haven’t seen his Enemy of the People, but his John Gabriel Borkman and Hedda Gabler are (as I’m sure you know) hyper-naturalistic (and hyper-contemporary) in both their scenic design and their performance style; Jansen once described that style to me as “photo-realism,” a description I like a lot. Another way to put it: with the important exception of his brief sequences of high, often violent theatricality, the body-mic’d performance style of Ostermeier’s Ibsens strikes me as almost indistinguishable from film.
The realism your actors inhabit, in those first acts of your production, seems to me to be more moderate, a standard proscenium naturalness in which the ghost of Brecht possesses certain actors in voice and body from time to time. The set is half sleekly modern and realistic, half a riotous mess of illustrated walls and snaking wires. I wasn’t always sure what this divided stage reality was meant to communicate, nor did I always feel the production’s musical interludes (which may well be Ostermeier’s insertions, not yours; I don’t know) had a content equal to the time they occupied. I worried sometimes, early on, that the adaptation (both text and production) would gesture towards my experience of the world but end up running parallel to it, separate from it.
Has the play been adapted enough, I wondered. Is the adaptation already a bit dated? Why does our whistleblower, Thomas Stockmann, depend so heavily on the whims of the mainstream print media to spread his revelations to the poisoned town? What about the Internet? Does this production take place in a world where there are MacBooks aplenty but no Edward Snowden or WikiLeaks?
Hard to say exactly why, but sometime in the production’s third act, set in the offices of the town’s main newspaper, these objections lost force for me. I heard my circumstances named more convincingly in the adaptation; I found myself more invested in the outcome of Stockmann’s troubles. This may have nothing to do with Act Three per se, may mean simply that your production’s effects are cumulative. Or it may be that the performance style finds a stronger unity in the third act, that it draws less attention to itself and so allows a more emotional, less conceptual access to it. I’m not sure. I do know that it was in Act Three that I felt the thrill of sitting among strangers all confronted by a question with enough power to unify and divide us.
The conflicting demands of ecological welfare and economic “necessity.” Power’s ability to stifle dissent even in what we call a democracy. The genuinely tragic dilemmas faced by good people who find they can’t satisfy both conscience and practical needs. You know how much I’ve admired your work with Wajdi Mouawad’s plays, but I found more of real modern tragedy in your Enemy, which reveals the irreconcilable positions our political (i.e. our human) situation imposes on the individual, than in Mouawad’s plays of more classically “tragic” tone and circumstance.
Your production’s fourth act, which unfolds into a town hall meeting where political speeches of revolutionary and reactionary stripes are delivered onstage and the audience has a chance to respond, has provoked a lot of commentary, as you know. I think it’s stirring — Stockmann’s aria in particular is a tremendous piece of writing, one that made me want to cry Bravo! and, the next moment, made me uncomfortable with the Bravo!-crying instinct in myself — though I did find the audience participation bit really just confirmed what your production had already achieved: that people were listening, felt personally invested, cared.
I was less interested in the play’s late return to plot, Ibsen’s typical twisty string of incidents, after the show blew itself open — couldn’t quite re-narrow my attention to the required dimensions. But I was already high on your production and the possibilities for theatre in this city that it suggested to me.
It’s partly because of the aesthetic possibilities it reveals that I think your Enemy of the People represents one of Tarragon’s most important moments in years. Its strengths aren’t the strengths of recent Tarragon hits like Scorched, say, to my mind; I don’t find it always has the accomplished stylistic unity of that work. But it has what I consider a deeper virtue: the ability to infuse drama with a social, political, spiritual concern of concrete local relevance and global reach. It’s this quality that legitimizes a national theatre, I think, that justifies its public subsidy, its existence.
I still wish this kind of exemplar didn’t have to come from abroad, as significant elements of this production do. Of course I think it’s crucial for Canadian new-writing theatres to support local work that has that same deep relevance and power. But if such work truly isn’t available to you as a programmer (a sufficient quantity of it, anyway), I can’t fault the choice to showcase this import, since when I ask, How can Canadian writers and directors be encouraged to create with this kind of complexity and social urgency, to develop an aesthetics that’s equal to the task?, my answer isn’t primarily or exclusively about formal training, but rather: We need to see this kind of work on our stages, see that it’s programmed, attended, rewarded.
At its best, your Enemy of the People is a sort of beacon: while you introduce your audience to a new and bracing pleasure, you also signal to the country’s artists that this type of art can find favour under your curation.
So my appreciation, which I magnify to a political scope, is of course quite personal. It has a lot to do with my hopes for myself and my art, as it is and as it might be, and the city where I choose to live and create. I feel like I’d been waiting for a long time to see this kind of work find a home on a mainstream Toronto stage. I hope it helps lay the groundwork for a Canadian theatre culture where so-called serious art that lacks an intelligent answer to those basic questions, Why This? Why Here? Why Now?, is an absurdity, its inadequacy obvious to artists and audiences alike — the same way I hope that one day in the not too distant future, this kind of website, my kind of essay, will seem like just the natural, inevitable response, utterly commonplace, of an engaged and curious public to art that’s made for them.