When President Trump tweeted the media is “the enemy of the American people” on February 17, 2017, he inadvertently referred to Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political drama, An Enemy of the People, instantly inspiring revivals and adaptations of the show throughout the nation.
North Texas gets its own adaptation of the Ibsen classic with Blake Hackler’s Enemies/People, now playing at Second Thought Theatre at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus in Dallas through July 7.
Alex Organ, Second Thought Theatre’s Artistic Director, reached out to Hackler about adapting the play in November 2016, shortly after Trump’s election. “My desire to do this came out of the 2016 election. It was just a very volatile time and certainly hit me in a very personal place. My immediate thought was how do we respond with our artform?” Organ said. “My job is to confront what is happening in the world.”
Initially, Hackler hesitated. “At first, I wasn’t attracted to it. I’m a huge Ibsen fan - huge. An Enemy of the People was my least favorite of his originally, but Alex really wanted to do it and asked me to take a second look at it,” Hackler said, recognizing its relevance and an opportunity to put his stamp on it. “It’s always really intimidating to try to do an adaptation of a play by one of the greatest writers of all time. I’m going to mess with it. I’m going to do my own thing with it, but it turned out to be a really fun puzzle, in a way, and a different way of writing than what I’ve done before.”
While Hackler plays with the structure of the original play, he stays true to the spirit of Ibsen’s creation. The original drama is about a doctor, Tom Stockmann, trying to warn his town about contamination at the town’s profitable baths. Hackler resets the play in a fictional Texas town inspired by Marfa and Flint, Michigan. Tom, played by Organ, is an urban planner who is concerned about the new city-sponsored hot springs project, only to find himself at odds with his brother, the mayor of the town.
The opportunity for a Texas writer to develop an adaptation of an important classic is a critical development for Dallas’ theater community. “We’ve always been an importer primarily of scripts and plays and texts,” Organ said. “So, what does it look like if members of our own community are creating the material we then present?”
This adaptation pitting environmental protection again economic development encourages audiences to ask questions about truth, divisiveness and reality in the United States of America. “One of the things that the play talks about is what happens when reality no longer matters, when facts no longer matter, what happens when there is no standard anymore,” Hackler said.
“To me, this play is about what it means to live in a Democracy and even perhaps, what it means when Democracy goes wrong. What do we do when the majority makes a potentially terrible choice? I’m interested in the model of Democracy we hold up to be this ultimate good. I’m interested in picking apart the possible flaws in that system. I think it’s a play about civic responsibility and about what responsibility we have to ourselves as individuals and also what responsibility we have to the whole and how those two things are always in conflict,” Organ said.
Hackler deliberately represents both sides of the show’s central debate. “One of the things I tried to do is to be even-handed because I think people make choices so much based on feelings and choices we can understand,” Hackler said. “I think the beginning of the healing anything is empathy. Conversely to that, Tom says things I deeply believe, but the way he says it and the approach to saying it is so abrasive and so aggressive that I stop listening to that message too.”
“To me, this is one of the cleverest things that Blake has done with the adaptation,” Organ said. “The original is so black and white. This man is right, and this man is wrong 100 percent of the time. The character Tom Stockmann in the original is not particularly flawed. He is just correct, and he is a hero and I think Blake was smartly more interested in telling a more complex and more true-to-life story. So, he has crafted the character of Tom to be a pill.”
The nuances of this adaptation reflect the concerns of a society reevaluating its values. “I think any writer – Ibsen, Shakespeare, Checkov – they talk and write about the human condition and so many of those plays are open to being reinterpreted through the lens of each generation that comes up,” Hackler said. “This war between fact and fiction, between civic responsibility and individual responsibility is always appropriate. It’s just the lens through which we see it.”