Friday, July 11, 2008

Play of the Week: Enemy of the People

With gas at $4.50 a gallon, shrinking job market, and the price of homes falling everyday, what town wouldn’t be thrilled to learn that there is a huge pocket of oil sitting right underneath them ripe for the plucking? The oil wells go in, financed by a handful of the town’s wealthy citizens, and pretty the whole town is feeling the benefits of the investment. Now everyone has a job and a good paying one at that. The oil workers are spending money and extra money at the local businesses. People can now afford to have the life they want to lead. Their families have become comfortable. Prosperity and (more importantly) stability seem to be guaranteed for years to come.

…until they find that the oil wells are contaminating the drinking water in the next county.

Henrik Ibsen tackles similar issues in his classic play An Enemy of the People.The story is familiar. A town's new hot springs-spa is contaminated by the local tannery causing the patients to get sick and the town is left with a choice. This play is a champion of the individual who is willing to stand up to the crowd who is more concerned with their pocketbooks than the greater problem that is pressing.

There are, however, some problems with this. The story becomes rather he-said-she-said over the facts of the contamination of the springs. While the protagonist Dr. Stockmann is right in his findings that the spas need to be closed, he takes on an all-or-nothing mentality. As the play progresses, the town turns against him and it becomes obvious that he is not going to be able to get his desired outcome. Yet, he is unwilling to compromise.

This poses a difficult question. How long can you stand in the face of adversity for what you claim is the greater good and not be willing to negotiate?

Sure, it's not ethical. Sure there will be people who are ill and that shouldn't happen. But if there is the promise that it will go on forever, is gradual change an option? Is small change or eventual change better than no change at all?

When factions get so entrenched in their ideas compromise becomes harder and harder. At that point too moderates become more of the villain than the opposing side - at least the opposing side has had the guts to make a decision. Sometimes the middle ground becomes the hardest to negotiate. But in some instances, the meeting point between the two issues is the best.

Does this moderate philosophy apply to this play? I know I have many friends who would argue "no." But taking the time to at least consider this possibility will make your argument for or against the spas that much stronger.

Happy Birthday: Harold Bloom
Happy Birthday (July 12): Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960)

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