In times when the people are seen as a threat to democracy, and facts are continually twisted beyond recognition, risky truth-telling is our hope.
by Kurt Borg & Raylene Abdilla
Photo: Christine Muscat Azzopardi
A fascinating thing about Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People is that it rings true irrespective of when you see it. Like most classics, it is timeless; or always timely. Which is why Brad Birch’s adaptation of this play, put up by Unifaun Theatre Productions at Blue Box in Msida throughout March, resonated so much. It is a play that says something universal that can be applied to various societies and various histories.
The key theme of the play is the risks of speaking truth to power, and the various attempts to either keep the truth hidden or make it more easily digestible. The play follows protagonist Tom Stockmann (Mikhail Basmadjian), a medical officer and occasional columnist who discovers that there is something wrong, possibly a water contamination, in the town spa. He intends to expose this truth, but encounters various hindrances. For starters, the town spa is the pet project of the town mayor Peter Stockmann (Anthony Ellul), who happens to be Tom’s brother. Tom, in fact, is employed as a medical advisor to the town spa board, and so can be seen as implicated in this project. This employment, which can be seen as reeking of nepotism, had brought Tom and his family out of a financial bad patch and, in fact, Tom’s family feel morally indebted to Peter.
Despite this, Tom feels he ought to blow the whistle and let the public know of this negligence, and is convinced that the spa project should not go forward unless the necessary repairs are done. Peter, the mayor, begs to differ and feels that these repairs, and the truth, are too expensive. Instead, he feels that they should be economical with the truth. Peter implores his brother Tom not to release the report he drafted detailing all the negligence and the required repairs. Yet Tom had already shown the report to a journalist of the town newspaper, Hovstad (Simone Spiteri) and its editor Aslaksen (Philip Leone-Ganado), and is in talks with them on how to report this story; a story so important that, in the characters’ words, “it changes everything.”
But even though Tom is resolved to publish this truth, it starts becoming clear to him how difficult it will be to put the truth out, and the detrimental personal and professional consequences that will follow if he presses on. He becomes subject to the grand machine of truth-twisting, fact-denying and reality-bending. What should appear like an easy and straightforward task – issuing a truth to a people and acting responsibly in its interest – transforms into a battle. Tom the truth-teller must fight his way through, even against the media, whose task it is to ensure that the public is kept informed, and that politicians are held up to scrutiny.
Tom faces various hurdles in his attempt to reveal the facts. His mayor brother appeals to their sibling ties, and even reminds his brother of the ‘moral debt’ Tom has toward him for offering him a job. When these fail, his brother patronises him and tells him that he should know better, and condescends him by telling Tom that he’s always a trouble-maker. His brother even questions the scientific rigour of Tom’s tests on the spa, before ultimately using the most cowardly of tricks: threatening his brother with a frame-up and with firing him from his job.
Tom encounters other hurdles in the form of the press: at first, the newspaper is keen and willing to publish the report until the mayor intervenes and informs the editor that should the report be published, he will have to raise taxes in order to finance the spa project (which, by the way, is a private investment), and that this new tax would put small businesses, such as the newspaper, in possible financial trouble. Moreover, the mayor instils doubt into the editor’s mind by suggesting that if tests done by another ‘expert’ (who, perhaps, would present truths in a form that is more amenable to the mayor’s interest) contradict Tom’s findings, then this would put the newspaper’s reliability into question.
This and other tactics by the mayor – none based on truth – further marginalise Tom, placing him in an increasingly vulnerable and solitary position. He grows increasingly disgusted by these tactics and at one point, he confronts his brother and the newspaper by saying something on the lines of “Ah, so it all boils down to money! You cannot afford the truth. The truth is too expensive for you.” The play ends with Tom jobless, with his wife Kate (Antonella Axisa) irritated by his actions, with his financial and professional future uncertain, unsupported by the free press, a lone wolf, an ‘enemy of the people’. Nonetheless, he takes matters into his own hands and the play ends with Tom deciding to expose the whole truth to a larger national newspaper.
How does this adaptation of Ibsen’s play speak to us? What are we to make of it? Here are some thoughts:
A striking point was the element of risk involved in revealing truth. When journalists, bloggers, and individuals reveal facts that could lend politicians in serious trouble, they are often also revealing themselves. When a truth is exposed, so too is the truth-teller exposed to danger. Battling the status quo often involves risky truth-telling. Despite what one might think, the courageous truth-teller isn’t always the hero type; to the contrary, that truth might leave its speaker vulnerable, unprotected. The revealed truth might not be celebrated; it might be ignored or unwanted. The work of critique, therefore, demands courage. Critique is risky, both because it implies occupying previously uninhabited and unsupported spaces, and also because it exposes the speaker/writer to the wrath of the mighty.
Clickbait material is often preferred to critical pieces; the so-called ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ phenomena make it ever-difficult to discern critical voices from chatter.
The free media is an essential tool in any democracy which, like any tool, can be used productively or destructively. Leaving aside the media of the major political parties, for whom the work of critique is alien, it falls to the independent media to safeguard truthful information being given to the public, and to ensure that people holding public office are held accountable. But, of course, various independent media are owned or co-opted by people close to power, or close to a lot of money, thus possibly undermining their critical credentials. It is really hard to do the work of the independent media in today’s world. Clickbait material is often preferred to critical pieces; the so-called ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ phenomena make it ever-difficult to discern critical voices from chatter.
Moreover, many independent media, with limited resources, struggle against powers that are very resourceful at hiding themselves, and are trying to battle a machinery of power that is tiring, intimidating, and complicated. Power is always already more resourceful, economical and unscrupulous than a critical writer. Imagine yourself being a journalist working against all odds to uncover, verify, or dig deeper into a story, or trying to find a reliable source, or trying to join together what seem to be not-obviously-related dots.
Like power, the media has the capacity to create as well as shift public opinion. In one striking scene in the play, deliberating how the spa story should be reported, one of the characters says: “what mood do we want the people to wake up in tomorrow?” This highlights how the media doesn’t only function to reveal information neutrally (if there is such a thing), but also functions as lenses through which people interpret reality. Something is not an issue until it is made one by the media, and may we the people hope that we’re kept abreast with and we’re getting to the bottom of the real pertinent issues.
In various moments in the play, Tom the truth-teller is asked to compromise. We often hear this: one needs to compromise or to be realistic. Speaking the truth in the face of lies, ironically, often appears as the unrealistic, unreasonable and insane option. Truth-tellers are often patronised by being told they’re being naïve or idealistic. Peter the mayor strikes the viewer as being ‘the older brother’ who ‘knows how life works’ and condescendingly tries to speak sense to his younger brother. When fired from his medical advisor job, Tom is unironically offered a job by a businessman relative of his who had invested in the spa, Morten Kiil (Victor Debono), to assist his company in improving the spa and his business that is near the spa and that might very well be contributing to the problem in the spa. Tom scoffs at this idea, and is outraged at how other people cannot see beyond the scheming rationality of going out of your way to call a black thing white. Tom’s ethos is admirable in that he doesn’t suggest compromise at any cost.
Tom insists that there are limits to compromising, and if one goes beyond these limits, one becomes a guilty accomplice. Tom emphasises that to talk of principles and values is not necessarily a passé discourse. In a liberal democracy, it is important for critical thinkers to stand for something. It is important not to marginalise oneself by insisting on a rigid puritanism that prevents alliances. However, losing one’s soul amid excessively flexible scheming deprives critique of its value. Somewhere, someone must say no and stand one’s ground.
A point explored in the play which really stuck with me is the personal emotional toll that critical truth-telling brings with it. In a play full of characters who actively seek to be economical with the truth, the one character who doesn’t is the one who suffers the most. Not just professionally or politically, but on a personal level. In a society that doesn’t love the truth, the truth-teller is the one who is marginalised and cornered. Tom started off with being enthusiastic and resolved to speak the truth. He confronts his mayor brother with this truth, who is at first shocked and panicky to hear it. But over the course of the play, an interesting (tragic) reversal happens: the initially enthusiastic Tom becomes increasingly erratic, anxious, lonely and, at times, paranoid (while never losing sight of the over-arching nobility of truth-telling). He is even portrayed as a blood-thirsty Macbeth-like figure in the play poster. The originally worried mayor becomes progressively cool and calm, weighing his options economically and executing his devious tactics (including threatening his brother) in a clinical cold-blooded manner. This is the harsh reality that truth-tellers face: they will struggle, but their opponents will probably live on lavishly and comfortably. At worst, this personal toll of trying to expose truth and abuses of power results in physical violence, and we only need to have a cursory look around us to see this violence.
This play shows us that power is a nuanced and complex phenomenon. Power isn’t a matter of good guys vs. bad guys. To our dismay, but also to our fortune, power is more complicated than that. There is no one big thing called ‘power’ which only a few possess. Power is plural, polymorphous, and comes in various forms. In its most naked form, power acts to censor, to punish, to repress and to exclude. But, more frequently, power acts to influence, to sway, to make some things harder or easier, and to guide action. Furthermore, there also exists the citizen’s power to act, to criticise, to refuse, to protest and to counter. The media too has its own power to decide what’s on the agenda and how certain issues are discussed. In the ‘author’s note’ in the play programme, Brad Birch remarks on the how the play deals with power:
Power doesn’t want to be seen acting. If power can work quietly, then we can forget about it, and it can go about its business undisturbed. It is only when they make mistakes that we notice it. And it is in these moments we should start asking questions.”
So, inasmuch as power is everywhere, so too is resistance everywhere around us, oftentimes in places where we wouldn’t ordinarily think it is. May we be more sensitive to such improbable sites of resistance and may we grab them as opportunities.
‘The people’ occupy a central, and yet very marginal role throughout this adaptation. The people are central as, upon knowing the truth, all characters are instantly posed with the question of whether to inform the public at large or not. At the same time, however, ‘the people’ are completely out of sight. At no point in this adaptation do we see or hear the people’s concerns on the spa’s contamination, unlike the original play which included a town hall scene where the people got to have a say on the issue. The people are therefore passively (re)presented by the characters: In Tom’s view, the people have the right to know the truth as responsible citizens; he believes that they would react in a just manner, and hold those responsible for the contamination of the springs accountable. However, the mayor views the people as a threatening force which needs to be engaged with cautiously. He thinks that the people would unnecessarily over-react to the news, and the consequences of their actions would hurt business, his political credibility and, ultimately, themselves. Peter’s view is that the people need to be protected from the truth, as well as from themselves.
many a time politicians are weary and wary of ‘the people’ as they are deemed too passionate and emotional, and are not able to engage responsibly and rationally with politics. Thus, ironically, people are seen as a threat to liberal democracies.
In an open discussion after the play, Birch said that he intentionally left the original town hall scene out to reflect current political realities. He said that increasingly today, salient political issues are only dealt with by a few holding power behind closed doors. It seems that our politicians think that the only way to keep social order is to manipulate the truth in such a way as not to stir any commotion on behalf of an otherwise unruly people. In fact, many a time politicians are weary and wary of ‘the people’ as they are deemed too passionate and emotional, and are not able to engage responsibly and rationally with politics. Thus, ironically, people are seen as a threat to liberal democracies.
with people feeling increasingly estranged from mainstream politics, it is no surprise to see a surge in populist movements which tap into the people’s main concerns, fears and hopes.
The increasing reliance on experts is not meant to complement but, rather, to replace the people’s will, as the people are deemed not to possess the knowledge to make sound decisions on how to govern themselves. The play also touches upon the fragility of the supposedly objective and impartial knowledge of experts, after Peter proposes to run the tests once again with a medical expert of his own choice to ‘verify’ his brother’s dangerous findings. This highlights another thorny and hotly debated facet of current politics: populism. With people feeling increasingly estranged from mainstream politics, it is no surprise to see a surge in populist movements which tap into the people’s main concerns, fears and hopes. The distrust shown by mainstream politicians toward the people is in turn reflected in the people’s distrust of politicians’ ability to truly represent them. This is one of the reasons why we are experiencing occurrences like Brexit, or Donald Trump being elected as president in the US.
Cynicism and Hope
One might interpret this play from a cynical perspective and remark how it speaks about the cyclical tendencies of ‘human nature’ toward abuse of power and corruption. And, admittedly, the play often felt that way, as if what we’re witnessing is the necessary tragic ending of our protagonist. I’m personally tired of having to emotionally undergo this helpless feeling, which has become a trope of many recent art. But perhaps it’s not a trope: upon exiting the theatre, I checked my phone and read that Putin has once again won another six-year term to rule, with his main rival being sentenced to 30 days in prison for … trying to act democratically. This is not an anti-Russian jibe; one only needs to see what’s happening on the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ to notice that similar urgent matters exist.
Today, the temptation to be cynical is great. We urgently need reasons to remain inspired; ideally, without such reasons being composed of holier-than-thou moralising platitudes. Politically, it’s not easy to retain hope in anything. Tom’s character stands as an uneasy reminder that it’s possible to retain hope in sensibility and good judgement. Tom’s character reminds us that one doesn’t need to be a hero to be a truth-teller. Tom was an ordinary employee who simply couldn’t accept taking the people for a ride. Tom simply stood for exposing truthful information because he wanted the best for the public. Let’s all raise the bar of truth, and ensure that our threshold for deceiving others and accepting falsities is very low. May more Toms flourish among us.
I’d like to end this with a quote from director Toni Attard’s note in the play programme. Attard recounts how in the wake of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, and upon reading on how there seems to be a global attack on independent media, he felt the urgent impulse to pursue the topic further in the realm of theatre by finding a work that tackles these issues. He continues by writing that:
The complex relationship between politics, the media, business and society is not new to theatre and the original 19th century work set the perfect tone. As we try to decipher between fact and fiction in a media space cluttered with noise, filtering truth is a daunting task for those whose job is to present it to a public trying to make sense of the world around us. When the media and technical experts are trusted less than politicians, then fundamental processes in any democracy are at stake.”
He found this in Birch’s adaptation. Rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel, Attard turned to resources we already have to re-examine these issues. Birch, in fact, too remarks that rather than giving in to the contemporary “fetish of originality”, what we need to do more responsibly is “to tell familiar stories in new ways.” This is what this adaptation achieves, and may this sentiment of seeking to protect truth and truth-tellers in an ever-fragile democratic public sphere triumph. With Attard, I concur that “this performance is dedicated to all citizens, including journalists who stood up for truth and continue doing so even when left alone.”
Kurt Borg is a PhD candidate in philosophy, researching the ethics and politics of narrating trauma in institutional contexts, with a particular focus on the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. His interests include cultural politics, political & critical theory, philosophy and emotions, disability studies, mental health issues, and trauma theory.
Raylene Abdilla holds an M.A. in European Politics, Economics and Law. Her main research interests are European economic and political integration, current issues in the Eurozone, populism, discourse analysis, radical democracy and contemporary social and political thought.