Summer is either the shortest or longest season, depending on your slant. If waiting for the next season of Tarragon Theatre to start, the months seem to drag on endlessly while its first play of the 2014/2015 season, “An Enemy of the People” doesn’t seem to get any closer in the distance. But if you’re a politician intent on constantly being in the news, then the days aren’t nearly long enough to keep the publicity machine well-oiled.
The length of summer also has to do with your viewpoints on truth. Invest in in and hold it up as a paragon of virtue, and the days will whirl by in a flash of effort and busy-ness. Dismiss its value, though, and there won’t be enough time available to cover your tracks.
“The truth is hard, the truth is complex, the truth will cost you money, the truth means more taxes,” explains Richard Rose, artistic director of Tarragon Theatre and director of its opening night play, “An Enemy of the People”. “In this play, one of the truisms of the play that, in fact, ‘what is the truth?’ is the enemy of the people. And in a democracy, the truth is the enemy of the people.”
Rose initially got the idea to stage “An Enemy of the People” at Tarragon after seeing it performed in Berlin last year, strongly affected by its themes of truth, idealism, and positional weight of ideas. Ibsen’s protagonist, Stockmann, is a young doctor who discovers the price of free speech and democracy the hard way, and Rose used modern Canadian politicians to root “Enemy” in the contemporary.
I asked Rose which politicians he was thinks audiences will see in “Enemy”, he laughed and said, “All of them!” He became more serious after reflecting for a couple of seconds, and then added, ” I think the play goes past slagging real life politicians, but actually starts to look at our participation in democracy. And why they are the way they are is because of us: we think it’s because of them, but they keep playing us to our needs. And we keep putting them in power and we also ask of them not to tell us the truth.”
He makes an interesting, self-evident point about when truth — or the lack of it — matters most to us, and how much we’re willing to tolerate. It’s not that we demand complete honesty from public figures immediately, which says more about us than it does about them, but to ‘fess up if they’ve been proven dishonest. If we ask our public figures not to tell us the truth, Rose says, “then they have to lie, and then they get caught in a lie; then they have to cover up [and] then they get caught in the cover-up.
“And usually it’s the cover-up. If they get caught in the cover-up…it’s the cover-up that causes the outrage: Nixon and Watergate. It was the cover-up that killed him, you know?”
To hear Rose tell it, the public welcomes a great deal of lying but it has to be carefully handled and meted out in very specific doses. You can lie up to X point, but then it becomes impossible to do what’s right (telling the truth) if it’s not what the majority wants. But carry it past that fine balance, and then not doing the right thing suddenly becomes intolerable. In Ibsen’s play, Stockmann faces a Sophie’s choice where the outcome is the opposite of what we theoretically expect.
In an ideal world where we can control all the factors, it’s easy to plot out a course of action. But in Ibsen’s world, in our world, where the box is open to change and variables, the picture gets muddled up. We want our public figures to tell the truth when we demand it and lie when we’re in need of coddled comfort. Our politicians, therefore, aren’t so much independent figures as they are mirror reflections of us.
To quote Rose, “they are the way they are because of us.”
“An Enemy of the People” opens Wednesday, September 24 at Tarragon Theatre in the Mainspace and runs through October 26. For more information and tickets, visit Tarragon’s website.