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Past is Present in 'An Enemy Of The People'

Although it was written in 1882, Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People still resonates today. Richard Thomas and Boyd Gaines, the stars of a new production of the play, join Ira Flatow to talk about the play's themes of power and truth, and the role of whistle-blowers.

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Even though it was produced in 1883, the storyline in Henrik Ibsen's play "An Enemy of the People" could have been written yesterday. A scientist discovers some inconvenient truths, facts that if revealed could cost those in power a lot of money and change many lives, including his own family's, for the worse.

What's a scientist to do? That question is at the center of the drama, and it's one of the reasons this new Broadway production of the play is so riveting. Joining me now to talk more about the play are two of its lead actors. Tony Award-winning actor Boyd Gaines plays Thomas Stockmann in the play; and the award-winner Richard Thomas plays Peter Stockmann, who happens to be his brother in the play. He's also - Mr. Thomas is also the honorary chairman of the National Corporate Theatre Fund.

Also with us is David Shookhoff, he's the education director for the Manhattan Theatre Club. Thank you all for joining us today.

RICHARD THOMAS: Pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: A fantastic, fantastic production.

BOYD GAINES: Thank you.

FLATOW: I saw it - tell us about the play, Richard, for people who may not be - you're the mayor of a town that have spas or baths (unintelligible)...

THOMAS: A Norwegian spa town that's a town that really gets all of its revenue from the business at the spas, and my character is the mayor of the town, who's in charge of obviously maintaining the town's prosperity and considers himself to be the moral guardian of the town.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: His brother is a bit of a problem for him.

GAINES: I beg your pardon.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right, tell us about who the brother is.

GAINES: I play Thomas Stockmann, Peter's brother, and who is the - through the influence of his brother Peter has become the medical officer for the baths. He's been secretly, for the last year, been sampling the waters of the baths for impurities and sending them off to the university laboratories only to discover that they are rife with bacteria and pollution, and the revelation of that becomes the motor of the play.

THOMAS: To rebuild everything would cost - it just means that everything would essentially have to be done over, all the pipes re-laid, a swamp drained, and it's hundreds and hundreds of thousands of crowns.

FLATOW: And we're going to play a little clip, that essentially - the frank exchange of views you two have.

(LAUGHTER)

GAINES: Yes, we do have, we have several, and this is the first big one.

FLATOW: This is the big one, talking about rebuilding.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE")

THOMAS: (As Peter Stockmann) You're just going to have to retract the whole thing publicly.

GAINES: (As Thomas Stockmann) What did you just say?

THOMAS: (As Peter) You're going to find that you've been mistaken.

GAINES: (As Thomas) Am I?

THOMAS: (As Peter) You will express your confidence in the committee and its commitment to ongoing improvements, which may be merely cosmetic.

GAINES: (As Thomas) You have to reroute the whole system, Peter.

THOMAS: (As Peter) As an employee, you haven't the right to tell me anything.

GAINES: (As Thomas) I haven't the right?

THOMAS: (As Peter) No, you work for me, Thomas. And you'll find in your contract that one of the rules is that you're not allowed to contradict a superior.

GAINES: (As Thomas) What? I'm a doctor. I'm a man of science (unintelligible)...

THOMAS: (As Peter) The world doesn't revolve around your science. It's about money.

You could say that's my point of view.

FLATOW: Has anything changed that much in 30 years? I mean, and that's what makes the play so riveting for today.

GAINES: Well, the - one of the - I mean, there are specific scientific facts, you know, pollution, the idea of bacteria, which is, you know, coming to the forefront with Lister and Pasteur and even Jennings at the beginning of the 19th century, it's a new idea, and people are loathe to change their views on science.

THOMAS: It's just the kind of thing that one could conveniently call a theory.

GAINES: Yeah, no, exactly, a theory. And it is incredibly inconvenient financially, and basically everyone starts covering their own butts.

FLATOW: Yeah, 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk about this play. David Shookhoff, you're the education director for the Manhattan Theatre Club. This program is relevant to kids? You bring in school kids to talk about the ethical dilemmas that you find here?

DAVID SHOOKHOFF: Indeed, more than talk about. We have a relationship with some 40 schools in the New York area, and some number of those are right now - well, right now they're out of school because of the hurricane, but they have been and will be studying these issues but studying them in the theatrical mode.

We're trying to make the ideas that Richard and Boyd have been talking about personal for them, the ethical ideas of the inconvenient truths in personal terms, you know, what happens if there's a cheating scandal at the school, and you have to blow the whistle or feel compelled to blow the whistle.

What if there's asbestos in the gym, and you're on the team, and the coach is saying don't let anybody know. And we give - we enable them to dramatize those issues, you know, drawn from their own lives as a kind of a template against which they can view and resonate with the play when they come to see it.

FLATOW: Now, this play has been adapted quite a few times. How is this production different than the original?

SHOOKHOFF: The original, I wasn't there for the original.

(LAUGHTER)

SHOOKHOFF: You know, but what we have done, Rebecca Linkovich(ph) has done an extraordinary job, I think, of making the play sinewy and muscular and relevant and as - you know, made it really a play for our times, not that the original wasn't either, but she's I think pared away, you know, and cut to the essentials.

GAINES: Compressed it.

FLATOW: You know, lots of plays get revived on Broadway, but very - most of them are musicals. I mean, was it difficult to get this revived?

THOMAS: Actually we did a reading of it in, what, April I guess it was, and for Manhattan Theatre Club, and when we read it, everyone in the room, it just jumped off the page. It was crying out to be produced not only because it's a wonderful new voice for the play but because of how the play speaks about the world that we're living in.

But I think that the personal aspect of it that you're speaking about is so important because it's a play so much about conscience, really, and each one of us on the personal level every day has to face do I do the pragmatic thing, do I do the idealistic thing, do I - what, you know, do I make that phone call, do I take that job, do I quit that job, do I make up with this person, or do I pull the covers on that person.

It's - we have these dilemmas. We do this play every day ourselves in our own lives, and sometimes we're the mayor, and sometimes we're the doctor.

FLATOW: Very well-put. Boyd?

GAINES: Well, I think what's interesting - Richard and I have noted, we share a dressing room, and so we get our after-show visitors every night seem to take away a very different story depending on their political or scientific or ethical points of view.

Some people - I think it's a play that insults everyone across the board as only that little Norwegian man could do. Whether you be conservative or liberal or Libertarian, it cuts across, it cuts across the board. But it's so relevant. We're in election season right now. There's a line in Ibsen's fifth act, when my character says to my father-in-law, you can't - I can't change the fact, and he goes yes you can, anyone can change facts.

FLATOW: And that's right out of the original...

THOMAS: I think our two most interesting performances will be election night and the day after. I think it's going to be - no matter what happens. I think it's going to be very interesting.

GAINES: The night after the last debate, oh, lots of lines jumped, you know, off the page into the audience.

THOMAS: Yeah, the audience likes to participate, and because in the fourth act we have a town meeting where we are actually addressing the audience...

GAINES: We incorporate the - right.

THOMAS: The fourth wall is broken. They - last night we got, you know, you got lots of support from the house, you know.

FLATOW: Yeah, they jumped in?

THOMAS: Yeah, the bad comes in, and they applaud, and then he comes in, and nobody's applauding, and the audience, well, we're going to applaud for him. We'll applaud.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: And it's very exciting when they participate, and I would imagine when young people come to see it, they like that scene a lot.

SHOOKHOFF: I'm excited to have the students come see this play more so than perhaps many of the other shows we've done because it's such a rich template for wrestling with values and choices, moral and ethical choices. And indeed the way we're approaching the play with students is I think at one point Richard's character talks about the situation as a conundrum, that there's a complexity to this. There are two points of view.

And what we're asking the students, we're not making it easy for them to make a decision. You know, what about the mayor's point of view? What about the cost of rebuilding the town? So it isn't just - you know, Ibsen was a sensitive and smart enough artist that he doesn't make it, you know, a polemic. It's really, it's a conundrum, it's a complex, rich issue with all sorts of personal and ethical questions.

It's the scientist in the moral domain.

FLATOW: What other plays would you compare it to? You say you bring students to other plays.

SHOOKHOFF: Well, we, at Manhattan Theatre Club, we bring students to virtually all the plays that we do, and the fun and excitement most recently, I guess, the end of last season we did a play about another public - areas of public policy. We did a play called "The Columnist," which Boyd played a featured role. And we had students there wrestling with the power of journalism and so forth.

And we try to again make - help them personalize and see the play both as drama but also as something that's personally meaningful.

FLATOW: Yet there are always little touches of comic relief in the play.

THOMAS: Well, he did consider it his comedy, if you can believe that.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: But it's a Norwegian comedy.

SHOOKHOFF: It's a Norwegian comedy.

THOMAS: But it is funny.

GAINES: The audience laughs. It's a social comedy. I mean, really it's about social foibles, and, you know, the fact that everyone covers their little bailiwick and does - turns on a dime is funny but true.

THOMAS: Yeah, the ironies are very rich in the play, and the humor is there for people who want - sometimes it takes a little while. They're coming to see Ibsen. They're coming to see this play. They don't - they're ready to be serious. They're not quite ready to have as much fun as they're able to.

SHOOKHOFF: It's not the slapstick of when we did (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I was trying to figure out where that - the drunk in the audience fit in there.

SHOOKHOFF: Well exactly, and I mean, that's pure Ibsen. And then in fact just - there's some running gags that didn't make it into this adaptation just in the - in to save time and to...

FLATOW: Yeah, it's a longer play, then.

SHOOKHOFF: Yeah, we - it's quite a bit - there's quite a bit cut out but nothing essential. I mean, that's the remarkable thing about it.

FLATOW: It's a terrific production.

SHOOKHOFF: And these guys are too modest to discuss the audience reaction, but they're - the audiences are cheering and standing up and shouting.

THOMAS: And booing and hissing occasionally.

GAINES: Richard loves nothing more.

FLATOW: We'll come back and talk lots more about the play, so give us a call, our number 1-800-989-8255, here with Boyd Gaines, who plays Thomas Stockmann in the play; and Richard Thomas, who plays Peter Stockmann; also David Shookhoff is here. Our number, as I say, 1-800-989-8255, "An Enemy of the People." Hope we are not. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with actors, as you can tell, and they love to talk.

(LAUGHTER)

GAINES: What?

FLATOW: Which we do ourselves, sitting here with Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas. You know Richard Thomas from his Broadway and TV work, and also because you are also the honorary chairman of the National Corporate Theatre Fund. Tell us about that.

THOMAS: I am the newly invited honorary chairman of the National Corporate Theatre Fund. So I'm busy doing my homework and learning more and more about it all the time. It's a terrific organization. It's a liaison organization, basically, between the private sector and resident not-for-profit companies around the country, which is very important these days, because as we know, that getting money to the arts is very, very difficult.

And this organization's not just about getting money to the arts. It's about the dialogue between corporations, the private sector and these creative, you know, these artistic organizations. But the thing that's exciting today, vis-a-vis what we're talking about, is that NCTF has just launched a new initiative called Impact Creativity, which is working with the theater education departments in these theaters and cities all around the country, 19 different cities, trying very hard to keep alive these particular programs for using theater to teach.

FLATOW: Right.

THOMAS: And it's an extraordinary thing. People go into the schools, professionals go into schools and work with young people. People come to the theater. Young people come to the theater. It's very much along the lines of what you're talking about with your discussions, post-show discussion.

Trinity Rep works with young people with autism. The Goodman Theater, in its production of, you know, "A Christmas Carol," talks about - talks about physics by showing the kids how they get the - how they get the actors to fly, you know, the pulleys and cables.

There are so many, many exciting and fun and interesting ways that theater can be used, and Impact Creativity is very, very committed to keeping this relationship going using one side of the brain to teach the other, I guess, because - and it's not just about creative students or kids who are studying the arts. It's really very much for kids who are studying science, technology and mathematics.

It's amazing how theater is applicable across the board. But if you want to know - people want to know more about it or donate or are interested to find out about it, they can go online to impactcreativity.org for more info.

FLATOW: We also, on sciencefriday.com, have a link to that (unintelligible).

THOMAS: That's great. Yeah, it's a wonderful initiative, and it's a wonderful organization.

FLATOW: And we're talking about a terrific play, "An Enemy of the People," which Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas star in. And it's a science-based play, all these plays that we like to talk about on SCIENCE FRIDAY. It's going to be running for how long now?

THOMAS: We play through the 18th of November.

GAINES: Of November.

SHOOKHOFF: It's been extended two weeks. So you'll still have a chance to come see it.

GAINES: Right. And if you're in the New York area, please come see us. It's a great time to be supporting the New York theater with the hurricane and...

FLATOW: The lights are on?

GAINES: The lights are on, shows are playing. Come see us. We had a woman who walked across the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday.

THOMAS: And two people who came to see the show spoke to me afterwards and said they'd come across various - walked across various bridges to come and see the show.

FLATOW: It is a great show. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Mordecai(ph) in Rochester, New York. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MORDECAI: Thank you. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I wanted to comment on Henrik Ibsen. You mentioned the words of this play, "An Enemy of the People," jumping off the page. Well, not long ago, (unintelligible) the play "Hedda Gabler," which he also wrote, people were saying, well, this is all settled. This play is old-fashioned. We don't think about those things in that way anymore. But in my opinion, that would jump off the page today, too. What do you think?

THOMAS: Absolutely right.

GAINES: It does. I would say the vast majority of his plays jump off the page, especially if they're presented in a way that keeps them from being museum theater, without the sense of, you know, that being bored is good for you.

FLATOW: David Shookhoff, do you agree?

SHOOKHOFF: Absolutely. And the specific play the caller mentioned, "Hedda Gabler," is just an extraordinary play about a woman with great genius and no talent, if you will, we find in a repressive society, not knowing, you know, what - how to live, finally. And it's a tragic dilemma and a commentary on social repression and women's issues.

THOMAS: I think it's interesting that, really, the only two characters in "An Enemy of the People" who sort of come out of it unscathed by the author are the two women, the character of your wife and your daughter.

GAINES: The most true to themselves, one who protects the family, the mother, and the other, who is the...

THOMAS: Her father's daughter.

GAINES: Her father's daughter, the most revolutionary.

FLATOW: Yeah, you know, I was looking - I went back on Wikipedia, and I was looking up the years around the play was written, the late 1800s, trying to think of the catalyst that's why a playwright would suddenly write a play about this. What was going on at that time?

GAINES: He was mad.

SHOOKHOFF: He was angry.

THOMAS: He was - it's kind of - it's like if you want to get back at the critics, write "An Enemy of the People." There was such a firestorm about "Ghosts" and also "A Doll's House," which a woman does not the things that that woman does in that play. And in large measure, unless I'm incorrect, this play was written as an enraged response to what he felt was the small-mindedness of the critical reception of his plays.

GAINES: Quite quickly, I think, over a few months.

SHOOKHOFF: Exactly. And, yeah. But I think he also did it knowing what he was doing. I mean, he also expected it and was prescient in this respect, he expected it to be popular, and it was, because he also knew that he was tapping into things that, you know, people would resonate with.

FLATOW: And even though you feel sympathetic a bit for the scientist and his conflict that's going...

GAINES: A bit.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS: A lot.

FLATOW: But he also has a moment where he's thinking, the wheels are turning in his head, gee, maybe I can make something out of this myself. He considers it.

SHOOKHOFF: Right, well, he also talks about a torchlight procession that he's sort of...

FLATOW: Right, fame, he wants some fame.

GAINES: He's - well, he's a character who is happy to have creature comforts, a new prosperity. He's come - after having been banished to the hinterlands, through the help of his brother attains this position at the baths, is living high on the hog, entertaining his friends, sees himself as a hero. And even though he sort of pooh-poohs the idea of being celebrated, he clearly embraces it, and then runs into reality, which is that he won't be the hero. He'll be the whistleblower.

But he - and finally, the play takes this - Ibsen, and not the Arthur Miller version, which a lot of people are familiar with - is - comes to realize that to be an independent voice, you will stand alone. You will somewhat be banished from society. You will stand alone. And he is revealed to the audience to be a flawed, but noble person.

THOMAS: I think Ibsen beautifully portrays in the play the corruptibility of the pragmatist, my character, and the possibly inherent dangers of idealism and the idealist, who...

GAINES: Especially naive idealism.

THOMAS: Naive idealism, who would at - in his tirades, I - well, a small group of intellectually superior people should really be running the show, and people should be shot at dawn. I think that, you know, Ibsen didn't have much patience with any groups of any kind.

GAINES: He was not a joiner.

SHOOKHOFF: But what's also true is he takes those ideas, and he makes them juicy and rich and, you know, and his play is infused with passion. And it's a family drama. It's about two brothers.

FLATOW: Yeah, to make things worse, it becomes a family argument.

GAINES: It finally is, is a conflict between two brothers, and...

SHOOKHOFF: Which is the genius of...

THOMAS: You kind of wonder, if they weren't brothers, whether some sort of solution might have been reached.

GAINES: We've had that discussion, is that - you know, I mean, that scene that you played the clip from is a perfect example where fraternal conflicts reign.

FLATOW: Yeah. And just to wrap up, it's playing, "An Enemy of the People" is at the Samuel Friedman Theater until November 18th.

GAINES: Correct.

FLATOW: Well, maybe the SCIENCE FRIDAY bump will get you a little further.

GAINES: Well, we hope. Come see us.

SHOOKHOFF: West 47th Street.

FLATOW: I'm here with Boyd Gaines and actor Richard Thomas. David Shookhoff is the education director at the Manhattan Theatre Club. And I went through the whole interview without mentioning John-Boy once.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'm very happy about my (unintelligible).

THOMAS: Well, good night, Ira.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Thank you, gentlemen, for being part of our...

GAINES: Good night, Ira.

SHOOKHOFF: It's been our pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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