Whistleblower: Enemy of the people

Ibsen on whistleblowing in 1882. 

In this extract Dr Stockmann finds that his discovery of the health risk arising from local industry is most unwelcome. There is a confrontation with his brother, the mayor of the town. From from a New York production (Manhattan Theatre Club).

Commentary

Dr Stockmann is physician to the new spa in a small town, a facility that he has himself promoted, believing in its medical benefits. His brother, who is also the mayor, is more interested in the financial opportunties. But it is discovered that the town’s tanneries are poisoning the spa water. Remedying this seems ruinously expensive, and many want the suspicions suppressed. The town turns against him. Stockmann stands firmly on the side of truth despite likely financial ruin, and determines to educate his children himself, and be doctor to the poor. The play ends.

The parallels to whistleblowing in healthcare in our time are painful.

Further info

  • Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was the outstanding Norwegian playwright of his era, but his reputation travelled widely and his plays are still produced today. An Enemy of the People was written in 1882, in the middle of the period in which his best-known works were produced. These including A Doll’s House (1879), which controversially challenged the male-dominated society of the time, and Hedda Gabler (1891), a dastardly tragedy centring on a woman who is married to a sympathetic academic, but not for love.
  • An Enemy followed the stormy reception for Ghosts (1882), another scathing commentary on morality, which dealt with syphilis, incest, and euthanasia. The Daily Telegraph wrote “An open drain … Gross, almost putrid indecorum”
  • Study Guide for An Enemy of the People (Michael J Cummings)
  • Script of An Enemy of the People (Project Gutenberg)
  • The Bristol Heart Scandal (Wikipedia) – archetype of UK whistleblowing scandals. There have been many other allegations, reports, and there are still concerns that whistleblowing remains high-risk.

Contributed by

Stephen Bolsin, Neil Turner

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