An Enemy of the People

An Enemy of the People Study Guide

An Enemy of the People is one of Henrik Ibsen's most popular and well-known plays among audiences and producers –but it is also one of Arthur Miller's best-known staged works. This situation results from the fact that Miller translated and modified Ibsen's work and went on to stage it several times; Miller's version is usually the one found in bookstores and is more commonly read and studied (in fact, it is what this ClassicNote uses as its source).

Ibsen wrote the play in 1882, setting the action in a small Norwegian coastal town. The plot was based on the real-life censure he experienced as a result of his controversial play, Ghosts (1881). It was initially five acts long. His plays were known for their realist style and, as Miller put it, a structure that utilized "models of a stringent economy of means to create immense symphonic images of tragic proportions."

Miller first studied Ibsen's works in seminars at the University of Michigan. His own works, such as All My Sons, were influenced by Ibsen, and he soon became attracted to the idea of creating his own version of Enemy. He believed the play was an important bulwark in the fight against fascism and red-baiting of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He commissioned a translation from Lars Nordenson, trimmed down the acts from five to three, and simplified the language. He also made Stockmann more heroic and one-dimensional, whereas the character in Ibsen's work evinces more problematic attitudes toward the common man.

Miller's version was first staged in New York City on December 28th, 1950. Unsurprisingly given the political and social climate at the time, it was relatively unsuccessful and closed after 36 shows. Some critics lauded Miller's version –the New York Times called it "a vast improvement on the original" –but, more often than not, reviews were mixed or negative. One critic ironically called it a work of "agitational propaganda."

Three films of Miller's version have been done to date:  one in 1966; one in 1976; and one in 1990. Critics were still divided regarding all three, some calling the play outdated with others waxing poetic about how relevant it was.

The play is not very popular amongst critics and scholars, but is popularly beloved.