October 17, 2018

James Joyce, H.L. Mencken and Steve McQueen Stage a Rally for “An Enemy of the People”

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to the five-word Molotov cocktail Donald Trump threw at the news media shortly after taking office, I’ve been rereading Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

The last time I read Ibsen was out loud with a friend many years ago on a student tour of Europe. The other reader was an aspiring actress from Erie, Pa., recently the site of one of Trump’s red-meat rallies. I can’t recall how Sally and I each happened to have a copy of the plays. Perhaps we bought them in Oslo to keep us sane in the immediate aftermath of our tour leader’s psychotic meltdown and subsequent incarceration. One aspect of his mania was the notion that he was leading a company of actors, musicians and writers he called the Golden Bear, after the name of the tour.

When Sally and I came to Enemy of the People, she took the part of Peter Stockmann, the Mitch-McConnell-esque mayor, while I hammed it up as his progressive, politically correct brother Thomas, the medical officer of the lethally polluted Municipal Baths. To the mayor’s claim that in his “blind obstinacy” the doctor wanted to cut off the main source of the town’s welfare, I had the pleasure of passionately declaring, “The source is poisoned, man! Are you mad? We are making our living by retailing filth and corruption! The whole of our flourishing municipal life derives its sustenance from a lie!”

It’s at this point that the brothers almost come to blows, with the mayor sneering, “All imagination,” which could be translated as Trump shouting “Hoax!” at scientists warning about climate change. Next comes the titular line: “The man who can throw out such offensive insinuations about his native town must be an enemy to our community.” There it is. The protector of the poisoned source is branding the man documenting the danger an enemy of the people.    

The elements singled out in that exchange are depressingly timely — blind obstinacy, the poisoned source, filth and corruption. Think Flint’s water supply, global warming, Access Hollywood, porn stars, hate speech, and the demonization of any media that refuses to tell the president that he’s the fairest bigliest leader in the world. 

Looking on the bright side, Trump’s demagoguery has given me an excuse to reread Ibsen and some early Joyce while downing a shot of H.L. Mencken on the rocks with a Steve McQueen chaser.   

Joyce’s Ibsen

In the fragmented early draft of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man published as Stephen Hero (New Directions 1955), James Joyce describes Ibsen’s impact on his fictional alter ego Stephen Dedalus: “It must be said simply and at once that at this time Stephen suffered the most enduring influence of his life.”

Joyce’s devotion was such that he published, at 18, an appreciation of Ibsen’s most recent play When We Dead Awaken. His first work to see print, the essay appeared in the April 1, 1900 Fortnightly Review. After giving a sample of the “perplexities” of diverse criticism in which the dramatist is portrayed by some “as a religious reformer, a social reformer” and by others “as a meddlesome intruder, a defective artist, an incomprehensible mystic,” Joyce praises Ibsen for not condescending “to join battle with his enemies.”

According to Richard Ellman’s landmark biography James Joyce (1960), Ibsen read “or rather spelt out” the essay and was moved to send the Fortnightly editor a note saying that “I should greatly like to thank the author if only I had sufficient knowledge of the language.” This simple word of thanks fell upon Joyce “like a benison at the beginning of his career. He had entered the world of literature under the best auspices in that world.” Before Ibsen’s note, “Joyce was an Irishman; after it he was a European.”

In the long letter he subsequently sent to Ibsen, Joyce seems to be rephrasing Dr. Stockmann’s last line, “That the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone,” when he suggests that “in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends, and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism.”

Mencken’s Ibsen

H.L. Mencken’s introduction to Eleven Plays of Henrik Ibsen in The Modern Library offers a characteristically forceful, flavorful account of the dramatist’s fate during the period Joyce was describing: “He was hymned and damned as anything and everything … symbolist, seer, prophet, necromancer, maker of riddles, rabblerouser, cheap shocker, pornographer, spinner of gossamer nothings. Fools belabored him and fools defended him; he was near to being suffocated and done for in the fog of balderdash…. The product of all this pawing and bawling was the Ibsen legend, that fabulous picture of a fabulous monster … drenching the world with scandalous platitudes from a watch-tower in the chilblained North. The righteous heard of him with creepy shudders; there was bold talk of denying him the use of the mails; he was the Gog and the Magog, the Heliogabalus … of that distant and pious era.”

Ah Mencken, thou shouldst be living at this hour. What a rhetorical circus you could convene around the abominable showman! What a fabulous enemy you would be as you staged your own one-man rallies. And in this era of fake news, consider the definitive newspaperman’s summation of Ibsen’s work: “He was, in brief, not a preacher, but an artist, and not the moony artist of popular legend, but the alert and competent artist of fact.”

McQueen’s Ibsen

Publicists for Steve McQueen’s ill-fated film version of An Enemy of the People tied themselves in knots trying to sex up the presentation of a moody action hero taking on Ibsen: “You cheered for him in The Great Escape, prayed for him in The Cincinnati Kid, and held your breath with him in Bullitt. Now Steve McQueen plays the most striking hero of them all.” In the center of the poster, surrounded by images of the star as biker, tough guy, and paragon of cool is a bearded bespectacled intellectual.

An anonymous source quoted by Aljean Harmetz in the New York Times (“McQueen Goes for Ibsen — But Hollywood Doesn’t”) says “At first we thought it was a joke. It was as if John Barrymore, at the height of his career, had decided to play Tarzan. Quoted in the same article, McQueen’s then-wife Ali McGraw explains, “He didn’t want to do another shoot-’em-up. Steve is a combination of all the things he wants the world to think he is — macho, tough and insensitive. But he is also the most sensitive man I know. He began to read: Chekhov, Strindberg, Gogol, tons of people. An Enemy of the People touched him.”

McQueen went so far as to base his makeup on photographs of a 1902 Swedish production of the play. The actor who liked to keep dialogue to a minimum gamely gave his all to Dr. Stockmann’s marathon speeches. He also financed the film through his own production company before handing it over to Warner Bros, who shelved it for a year before risking a tentative release in March 1978, quickly withdrawing it when audiences stayed away. The film wasn’t available on home media until Warners released it on DVD in 2009. Maybe Princeton’s Garden Theatre will screen it on one of its Hollywood Nights.

So Long, Steve

I’m thinking now of another Steve, a member in good standing of your local “enemy of the people” until a week ago. For 15 years Steve Marks was the man who set each week’s edition of Town Topics, which means for 15 years he’s been my co-pilot, the patient responder to last-minute revisions spoken over his shoulder even as he typed. When he drove off after the lunch celebrating his tenure at the paper, I was driving right behind him all the way from Kingston into town, down Nassau to Snowden, then left on Hamilton to Harrison, where I turned right. I flashed my lights as he kept going, on his way home to Delaware.