The Great Divide at Shotgun

Dave and I saw The Great Divide at Shotgun Players in previews. It’s a new play by Adam Chanzit inspired by Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People, moving the setting to Colorado and changing the crisis from contaminated mineral baths to contaminated drinking water due to fracking (hydraulic fracturing used to extract gas and petroleum from the ground).

The production is good, with fine acting and inventive staging. But I found the play itself ultimately unsatisfying. It’s driven more by the desire to present all sides of a difficult social issue, and to spur the audience into thinking about what could be done about this issue in reality, than by the desire to tell a good story. The result is rather earnest and not, I think, entirely successful on either level.

But I don’t really see how a play ever can succeed at being a fair presentation of the complexities of a general social issue. A specific actual historical incident, perhaps. But as soon as you’re presenting a fictional incident that is supposed to be typical of a whole slew of similar incidents, the playwright is completely open to charges of stacking the deck — which is fair enough, because the playwright has stacked the deck, cannot possibly help but stack the deck. The very act of creating the story is one of carefully stacking the deck, and the playwright can as much as possible stack the deck so as to maximize the illusion in the theater of not having stacked the deck, but he or she cannot stack the deck so as to not have actually stacked the deck.

So if your goal is to heighten the audience’s interest in a particular social issue, I think the better approach is to drop fairness from your list of primary goals — it’s unattainable anyway — and concentrate instead on creating memorable characters and putting them through a compelling story.

Which I think is what Ibsen did in An Enemy of the People. The play doesn’t try to be “fair” about any particular issue; Ibsen didn’t give a damn if we left his play feeling a fresh determination to find better ways of handling future cases of contaminated mineral baths. He wanted to tell us a strong story about how a particular social dynamic works, how a self-effacing idealist who genuinely loves his community can step by step, and through no extraordinary fault of his own, be driven to become his own opposite: an idealist who stands self-righteously in opposition to that very community. In the final act, we see him slipping over the edge into full-out zealotry, insulting and threatening people who are trying to compromise with him, pulling his children out of school just to spite his community, and beginning to savor his alienation not just for the sake of his principles but for sake of the zealotry itself, for the heady buzz he gets from it.

The play is a mix of seriousness and satire, and the characters are in part satirical types, Tomas Stockmann included. It should have been a Frank Capra comedy starring Jimmy Stewart as Dr. Stockmann.

Later: Dave tells me that he first read the play in high school, and it was Arthur Miller’s version, which I don’t know at all. And he tells me that at the end of the play Stockmann is a completely heroic figure, standing up for truth in the face of the entire community. That may be Miller’s Stockmann, but I don’t think it’s Ibsen’s; Ibsen’s Stockmann is going over to the dark side where he’s not only lost his compassion for his community but forgotten his love for his family as well, seeing his situation as a crisis so extreme that it justifies his ordering them around like flunkies — and taking it for granted that they will of course do anything and make any personal sacrifice necessary to support him in his cause.

In an earlier play, Brand, Ibsen painted a picture of a man so zealous that he would not budge in his idealist convictions, even slightly, even when there is nothing physically at stake, only his own pride — not even when the very lives of his wife and child are at risk. In Enemy, Ibsen shows Stockmann taking the first steps toward becoming another Brand. Only, unlike Brand, in Enemy Ibsen makes sure that we see the comic side of things, too, and not just the serious side alone. (By the way, Ibsen himself described An Enemy of the People to his publisher as a comedy on a serious subject.)

Here’s Stockmann in the last act of Ibsen’s play, the mild-mannered doctor turning into a bitter and unforgiving zealot — and with no idea how comical he’s starting to sound:

Dr. Stockmann And look, Katherine — they’ve made a great tear in my black trousers, too!
Mrs. Stockmann Heavens! And that’s your best pair!
Dr. Stockmann Never wear your best trousers when you’re going out to fight for freedom and truth! Not that I care about the trousers — you can always sew them up again for me. But that the rabble should dare to attack me like this, as if they were my equals! I’ll never be able to abide that!

“Not that I care — you can always sew them up again for me”, he says, without the least idea that if he’s going to expect his wife to spend the rest of her life patching up his trousers after his fights, maybe her opinion about all this ought to count for something with him!

Stockmann decides the only answer is to leave not just his town but the whole corrupt country, but even his dreams of becoming a hermit are grandiose:

Dr. Stockmann If only I knew where I could buy a South Sea island or some unspoiled forest —
Mrs. Stockmann But think of the boys, Thomas!
Dr. Stockmann How strange you are, Katherine! Would you like the boys to grow up in a group like this? You saw for yourself last night that half the people here have lost their minds, and the other half don’t have any minds to lose.
Mrs. Stockmann Yes, but, Thomas dear, you also said some reckless things.

A little later:

Petra You should just laugh at them, Father.
Horster They’ll change their minds, Doctor.
Mrs. Stockmann Yes, Tomas, sure as you’re standing here.
Dr. Stockmann Yes, but it’ll be too late! They can wallow in their filth and be sorry that they’ve driven a patriot into exile!

Friends come to try to talk sense into Stockmann, and he chases them out by threatening to clobber them with his umbrella. And then the revelation: Stockmann discovers that he is tainted by the community’s “filth” as well, that there is in fact no getting away from it. And does he gain from this the insight that all of us are in fact tangled up in the complicated web of nobility and guilt that we’ve built for ourselves in our civilizations, and that maybe the better way to deal with all this is with compassion and sympathy for our shared weaknesses and strengths? Of course not! His response is to cling even more intensely to his view of himself as the only noble and pure soul to be seen anywhere around, to become even more unforgiving toward his community, and to vow to stay in the town and renew his battle against them all — all the while oblivious to how his overblown ranting, his dwelling on his torn trousers, and his chasing people around the room swinging his umbrella at them are turning him more and more into a buffoon.

Now, this is just the comic side of things I’m stressing here, and Ibsen has also shown us all the serious things that have led to this change in Stockmann, in such a way that we see the heroic side of his character as well. It’s hard to journey through the events of the play and blame the guy for losing his sense of proportion. But Ibsen also makes sure we see that he is in fact losing his sense of proportion.

Still later: Dave’s put up a window display at his bookstore with some paperback editions of An Enemy of the People in various translations, to tie in with the Shotgun production (the bookstore is The Other Change of Hobbit, at 3264 Adeline, a couple blocks north of the Ashby BART station and a couple of doors down from The Vault Cafe — an easy walk from the theater, too, so go visit!), and one of them is the Arthur Miller version, so I’ve had a chance while at the store to skim through it and read the last act. The Miller adaptation seems a lot more serious and earnest than Ibsen’s original, and Miller’s last act removes most of the comedy and presents Stockmann as pretty much a thorough hero. Gone is what seems to me to be one of the main themes of Ibsen’s play, that at the start of the story Stockmann is very, very naive and foolish about the world, and the story ends he is really just as naive and foolish as ever. Ibsen was invariably harsh with the idealists in his plays, no matter what side of an issue they were on, and he often made both comedy and tragedy out of the way they refuse to compromise with their ideals and end up making a far worse mess out of things than they would have if they’d been realistic and practical in the first place. But Miller clearly admires Stockmann and wants us to see him as noble and dignified, and the comedy in Ibsen’s lines and stage directions is toned way, way down or eliminated.

And it seems to me now that The Great Divide is probably inspired not by Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People but by Miller’s, and those are quite different things. And I may have to give The Great Divide another chance — I may have come in with the wrong expectations to see it fairly.

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