Environmental catastrophe. Political conflict. The ugly breakdown of a society that had previously seemed harmonious and peaceful. Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People contains much that speaks to our present-day anxieties. Dr. Paul Walsh of the Yale School of Drama has been thinking about this play a lot recently, because he’s the translator for a brand-new version of the play, which recently premiered as the first production of the Yale Repertory Theatre’s 52nd season and runs through October 28, 2017. Paul joined us to talk about Ibsen’s surprisingly comic take on serious issues, as well as the process of translation itself.
- Learn about Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People, which featured Paul’s translation.
- Find out more about Paul and his work.
Michael Lueger: The Theatre History podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and HowlRound.com.
Hi, and welcome to The Theatre History podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. In a world unsettled by conflicts over politics, social issues, and the environment, Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People seems as important and topical as ever. Today, we're speaking with the translator behind a new version of this classic play. Dr. Paul Walsh is professor in the practice of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama and his translations of Ibsen's works have appeared at theatres nationwide. His new translation of An Enemy of the People was the opening production of the Yale Repertory Theatre's 52nd season.
Paul, thank you so much for joining us.
Paul Walsh: Thank you, Mike. It's great to be able to talk to you.
Michael: Paul, for those of our listeners who don't know what An Enemy of the People is about, could you just tell us briefly about the play itself?
Paul: Sure. Dr. Thomas Stockman, he's the medical officer at a new health resort that's been opened in a small Norwegian town, a coastal town. The resort's been open for a couple of years and it's starting to gain prominence, but he's discovered that the water in this bathing resort is actually being poisoned by organic waste that's coming down from canneries where the water intake pipes were laid. He has come up with a plan of how to fix this, but his brother, the mayor, is also a member of the Board of Directors of the baths, and he opposes the plan because it would be so costly.
Dr. Stockman believes that if the people of the town knew the extent of the danger here, then they would come to his aid and there's been suggestions that the newspaper would come to his aid in trying to force one of the owners of the baths to make these changes for the wellbeing of the society. All of this turns into a big kerfuffle within the town and eventually Dr. Stockman is called out as an enemy of the people because his plan to save the town, they feel, is the road to financial ruin.
Michael: What can you tell us about An Enemy of the People in terms of its background? When was it written, first performed, and how does it fit in with the rest of Ibsen's work?
Paul: An Enemy of the People is a very interesting play. It's somewhat of an enigma in that Ibsen wrote it more quickly than he wrote his other plays. He usually spent about two years contemplating and thinking about what he was going to write and then sat down and worked through drafts of it, but An Enemy of the People he wrote in one year. Some scholars have suggested that it has much of the vehements that grew out of the press response to his play Ghost, which was the previous play that he had written. Not well received by the press. Not well received by the theatres, most of which refused to produce it because they found it obscene.
In fact though, Ibsen wrote a letter in 1881 to his publisher saying that he had returned to this play An Enemy of the People, that he had been working on prior to writing Ghost. It's a play that had been in his mind for some years before he actually sat down to write it. He said he had set it aside to write Ghost, which had taken up all of his time. Interestingly enough, he said in that same letter in 1881, that he was working on a five act comedy called An Enemy of the People. We tend not to think of Ibsen as being a very funny guy and we tend in general not to think of Norwegians as having a sense of humor. This play is outstanding both in its sense of humor and its lively tempo. Those are the things that come through, I think, in the Yale Rep Production that's up right now.
Michael: Yeah. I'm really struck by this. Like you said, we don't think of Ibsen as a particularly funny guy, but you talked about this letter to his publisher and how you are approaching this in the spirit that he needs. In the sense of it being a comedy. Could you tell us a little bit about how that has influenced your approach to the translation as well as to how Yale has produced it on stage?
Paul: Well, interestingly enough I vaguely remember his notion that this was in some sense a comedy. He wrote a letter subsequently when he sent the manuscript to his publisher saying, "I don't know whether to call this a comedy or a play. It has all the characteristics of a comedy, but it has a serious theme." I vaguely remember this as I sat down to read the ply before beginning to translate and reading it in the weeks before translating it. It's a play that I've taught before. As I was reading it, it's actually very funny. The lines are funny. The characters are funny. That's what struck me as I was sitting down to translate it. Although I didn't have in my mind that I was going to translate it as a comedy. It's just that the play itself, when you read it in Norwegian, is very funny.
There's two little chase scenes that, when you put them on stage, they're extraordinary. You think, "I don't remember Ibsen writing other funny scenes." Well, there's a little bit of the same thing in an earlier play called The League of Youth, which was another satirical attack on the politics of this day. This play struck me as being so pertinent and being so lively because Ibsen recognized that these characters were flawed human beings in a comic sense. That's what he chose to bring out within the dialogue. As I said, I didn't set out to make any of the people funny. I just found humor within the play as I was translating it.
In the production, because we have an extraordinary cast of actors, they have also found ways to keep the play lively and active and very, very personable at the same time. Those are hallmarks, I think, of both contemporary comedy, which tends to always deal with some kind of serious subject and also a hallmark of this particular play by Ibsen.
Michael: Now, every generation it seems since Ibsen first wrote this play has reinterpreted it and made it about whatever their particular concern is at the time. Could you tell us a little bit about past reinterpretations of An Enemy of the People? What other artists and translators have made of it?
Paul Walsh: It's very interesting. I think that not always consciously do people approach a play from the past with an intention of making it livelier or making it present, pressing it from the moment, but I think that inevitably whenever a theatre company or a director or a producer or a translator chooses to do a play it's because it strikes something in their immediate subconscious that speaks to a particular issue of today. I think that through the years this has certainly been true with An Enemy of the People. It's a play that's often produced and often produced because there's something within the play itself that speaks to the concerns that we continue to address because we haven't solved them. There's a great line in the play where Dr. Stockman says, "A good idea should last seventeen or eighteen years, twenty at most. After that, it's on its way to becoming a lie."
The tragedy of An Enemy of the People is that it's 135 years old and it's still really present. It still hasn't become a lie yet. It simply points to lies. Over the years, I think we've been very [inaudible 00:06:59] to this play that I call the echo warrior approach, where Dr. Stockman is a righteous warrior on behalf of ecological issues. To a certain extent, that is in the play. It's also a play about the corrosive effects of politics as a divisive force within society. That's very much present in the play. It's also a play about family dynamics, something that Ibsen was very tuned into. The sibling rivalry within the play is really active. That's another aspect which various productions have emphasized.
Last night, former President Obama, but we'll call him President Obama, said something very interesting. He said, "Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we've got politics infecting our communities." That's exactly, I think, the theme that is so resonant today in An Enemy of the People. Thomas Ostermeier did a production a couple of years back, the great German director, in which he emphasized the conversation with the community. In fact, he broke the play in the fourth act and had members of the audience express their opinions about particular political issue. There's the adaption that Arthur Miller did many years back now, in which he really emphasized the heroic nature of Dr. Stockman.
As I read the play, I found Ibsen very particular about showing the flaws, not only in Dr. Stockman and his arguments, but also in all of the characters thinking about the future and the issues of self-interest that are raised in the play and how self-interest overwhelms a sense of moral conscience is particular pressing to me today.
Michael: That's a really, I think, compelling explanation of what you find so important and interesting about the play. Hearing it, I'm now curious. What's the process like for you when you go about translating work like this? What do you do in terms of starting and then finishing the work of translating?
Paul: I find that translating is not nearly as much fun as having translated. The actual process of translating, it's time consuming and it's maddening. I tend to throw things and curse. In this particular case, James Bundy, the assistant director of Yale Rep and also my team, called me in April, towards the end of April, and said, "We've just lost a show that was in the season we were going to announce this week. A major actor that we had planned on is no longer available." I'm thinking, "Can we do An Enemy of the People? An Enemy of the People is a great play and right now I think it's really timely." He said, "Can we do it as the first show of the season?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Would you do a translation? We would love to have it by June 1." Time was very, very limited here. I knew that I could probably do it, I could probably get it done in time, in about four weeks. That's about the time I had to translate it.
I knew the play because I have read it, but I hadn't read it in Norwegian for years. The first thing I did was sat down and read it a couple of times in Norwegian and got a sense of the characters. It's very different when you're reading a play for analysis and when you're reading a play to translate because it's the moment to moment interaction of the characters that matters. Then, I get a pencil and paper and my Norwegian texts and my dictionaries out and I just start working, word by word, line by line, impulse by impulse. The first third of the play is really time consuming and it's really aggravating and then it gets easier as you get into the second third, and by the time you get to the final pages you just want to get done with the first draft.
James asked me at graduation when I saw him on the street, he said, "How's the translation going?" I said, "Well, if they would stop talking it would go a lot faster." Ibsen's characters don't stop talking. The key is to find why they continue to talk, why they say the words that they do. Why do they choose to say things this way and not that way? I'm meticulous in terms of using the same English equivalent when I find those words or those impulses in the Norwegian text. I keep a little side paper where I say, "This time I translated the word this word that way." Then, I can refer back to it.
Mostly, it's just a matter of going through moment by moment keeping in mind that my job is not to translate for the audience, but to translate for the actor's. To give the actors all of the clues that are in the original text that they can use to make it very present. It could be speaking like normal people do. I don't intend ever to update a text. I check things like little expressions, "They think I have a screw loose," is a line in the play, so I check my historical dictionaries to see if that was a phrase that was actually used in the nineteenth century, and it is. How I think about those things.
There are always moments when the things I've read that day in the newspaper are the things that are most contemporary at our moments will come into my translation. Sometimes consciously, often not. I noticed in listening to the play that the word collusion suddenly appeared. I had to check and see what the word was in Norwegian that I had translated from. It's a word that means collusion. I could have chosen another word, but that was a word that is in the contemporary consciousness. For me, it's a matter of never trying to update, but to keep the language of the play as present and immediate as it was to its original audience.
Michael: You're an accomplished dramaturg. You've done this work many times before. I'm wondering both in general how you do this with an eye towards creating a text for performance, but also in this specific case I'm curious what you want the audience to come away with after having seen and heard your translation?
Paul: Right. Oh, that's a great question. Ibsen was a very contrary man. In fact, I say that his final words on his deathbed were, "On the contrary." As I read the corpus of Ibsen's work, I'm amazed by the fact that there's almost never a villain in his plays, that there are just flawed human beings confronting each other over issues that matter. As with a play like A Doll's House, An Enemy of the People is very unresolved at the end. It's not about providing a solution. Right? I always say to my class, "Ibsen was a very moral playwright, but he was not a very moralizing playwright." It's one of the things that I have trouble with, Arthur Miller's version, because Arthur Miller is a moralizing playwright. He's writing at a time when a sense of rightness needed to be expressed in a moralizing tone. For Ibsen, that was not his project. He wanted to spark debate in his audience, a debate that took place after the play ends. What happens next? Right?
I remember sitting at an Ibsen conference listening to a fabulous paper about how each of Ibsen's plays can be made into a miniseries, a TV miniseries because there's so much information, so much background that Ibsen's got but not expanded upon. This provides a place for the audience to engage in a kind of personal debate, both the issues and the complexities that these characters face as they try to address these issues. I'm happy if an audience comes out confused and some of our audiences have. Confused, but entertained, and also engaged. Realizing that the things that are being discussed are still issues that we need to find answers to.
As the translator in the room, I have to keep my translator hat on and not usurp the role of the dramaturg in the room, but at the same time I have to think strategically as dramaturgs do. I'll help the actors find patterns, find those resonances that they may miss. Also, I'm not afraid to adjust my translation as we go. In fact, we made about 50 very small little changes in the translation over the course of the rehearsal process. One of the great values of having a living translator in the room with his Norwegian text in front of him is that you can go back and you can check and see if there are things that are just wrong. Or if there are things that could be done better and things that could fit into the mouths of these particular actors in a better way.
There was an obscure line in act four, the long meeting scene. The actor came to me and he said, "I just don't know how to make the transition from this thought to that thought. This line isn't really helping. It's obscuring the situation." I looked back at the line and I understood what Ibsen was doing, but I also understood why the actor was having a hard time with it, so I changed the line, keeping the intention, but not the literal meaning. That's the thing that both a dramaturg and a translator can do in the room, can bring to this particular production in a way that fits...so the words fit better into the mouths of these actors.
There's a line that Petra has and the director had staged this as a real confrontation scene with the editor of the newspaper. The line was, "I'm angry because blah blah blah." This very fine actor was having a really hard time activating this, making the outburst that the director wanted. I realized, after three or four days of watching her struggle, that the problem was in the line not in her. Because the line began with an explanation, "I'm angry because," she couldn't explode on it. We simply got rid of, "I'm angry because," and went right into blah blah blah. Okay? That's something that a dramaturg with a well-tuned ear can also view in a rehearsal process, even of a new play or a classic play. In this case, being the translator in the room and also more senior than the dramaturg, I was able to make the suggestion and help the actor in that way.
Michael: You can see Yale's Repertory Theatre production of An Enemy of the People now through October 28. You can also find out more about Paul's work with An Enemy of the People in our show notes, where we'll post links and additional information.
Paul, thank you so much for joining us.
Paul: Mike, it's been such a pleasure and thank you.
Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit HowlRound.com and follow HowlRound and Theater History on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net, where you can find links to all of our episodes. You can email your questions and comments about the show to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make this show possible. Our theme music is "The Black Crook Gallop", which comes to us courtesy of The New York Public Library Libretto project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to Tip Cress, which signed our logo. Finally, thank you for listening.