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An Enemy of the People | Context

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Realism in Theater

To a modern audience Henrik Ibsen's plays seem formal and traditional, but for his time, they were groundbreaking works of realism. Most theatrical works in the early 19th century were highly dramatized and bore little resemblance to reality. Popular works often included melodramas with stock, predictable characters—the evil villain, the beautiful and innocent young maiden—and excessively emotional but simplistic plots. Mythological tales and even fairy tales were also popular. Costumes were elaborate, and sets were not intended to look realistic. Acting looked nothing like what a modern audience would expect: actors would often strike a dramatic pose and recite a speech.

Even the more widely praised playwrights of the day often followed the formula of the "well-made play." The well-made play was tightly constructed and followed a predictable system: a complex and usually unrealistic plot, further complications to add suspense, a grand climactic scene, and a happy resolution. French playwright Eugène Scribe was one of the foremost proponents of the well-made play. Ibsen borrowed some concepts from the well-made play, but he bent the formula to suit the psychological truths and realistic situations he wanted to explore. Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud was doing his early work on psychology in the late 19th century, and Ibsen, like his Russian contemporary playwright Anton Chekhov, wanted to explore fully developed, psychologically plausible characters onstage, not formulaic "types" or stock characters out of melodrama.

Ibsen also pushed for realism in the sets, costumes, and acting styles of his productions. His sets looked like actual rooms in a house. His actors wore costumes like the clothes the audience was wearing. They also reacted and interacted more naturally, interrupting each other and avoiding lengthy poetic speeches.

A Doll's House, Ghosts, and An Enemy of the People

A Doll's House (1879) was Ibsen's first play to tackle social issues, specifically feminism. He rejected the predictable formula of the well-made play, having his protagonist, Nora, choose to leave her family to find her identity as an independent woman. This choice shocked many in the audience. Irritated by the reaction, Ibsen decided to explore what happened when a woman stayed trapped in a bad marriage. The result was Ghosts (1881). Rather than back away from controversial topics, Ibsen went further, discussing sexually transmitted disease, prostitution, and infidelity. After this move, even more people criticized Ibsen. Newspapers that had praised A Doll's House objected to Ghosts. Ibsen couldn't even find a European theater to produce the play, so its first production was in the United States.

An Enemy of the People was produced only a year after Ghosts, in 1882. Ibsen had earlier referenced the idea that would become Enemy, but he had put it aside to write Ghosts. Dr. Stockmann's experience clearly parallels Ibsen's, and Stockmann expresses some of Ibsen's anger at the reception of his two previous works. In An Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann discovers the town Baths are polluted and need to be fixed. When it becomes obvious the fixes will cost a lot of money, people who initially supported the doctor turn against him—including the editor of the local newspaper. Unexpectedly, An Enemy of the People was well received, and many theaters wanted to produce it.

Ibsen's plays surprised audiences with realism and shocked them with content. By breaking new ground, Ibsen created a style of drama that influenced theater in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Scientific Understanding in the 19th Century

In An Enemy of the People many characters refuse to believe—or are incapable of understanding—bacteria could be polluting the water. Morten Kiil believes the idea of "animals" in the water that can't be seen is ridiculous. To a modern audience, polluted water is utterly believable, but Ibsen accurately reflects his era's lack of common scientific knowledge.

As late as the mid-19th century, bacteria were a topic of discussion primarily among scientists. French scientist Louis Pasteur worked with processes such as fermentation and explored whether or not bacteria could spontaneously generate (they can't). Considering these questions were still being debated among scientists, it is entirely plausible townspeople with limited education in a small community might be puzzled by Dr. Stockmann's assertions about the cleanliness of the water. Ibsen had studied to be a doctor, and he lived in many cosmopolitan places. He is known to have been friends with scientists while living in Rome. He may have been familiar with Pasteur's work and other scientists' work with microscopic research and decided to include such information in his play.

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