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The Debate Over Snowden's Asylum in Germany Comes to Brooklyn

The American reaction to Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the extent of spying by the NSA is a trifle compared to the reaction in Germany—where robust legal protections and a historically-minded wariness of surveillance makes the NSA’s actions truly indefensible. Things were bad enough this summer, when the scandal played a significant role in the federal election. (“Frau Merkel, are you grateful to Edward Snowden?” the chancellor was asked during the election’s only debate.) Since October, with the bombshell that Merkel’s own phone had been tapped, the objection is total.

“Asylum for Snowden!” shouted the cover of last week’s Der Spiegel, not a magazine known for idle provocations. Heiner Geissler, a staunchly pro-American former leader of Angela Merkel’s party, told the magazine he was “deeply saddened” and that Snowden had “done the western world a great service. Now it’s up to us to help him.” The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk called Snowden “a hero who believes that a tear is worth as much as the ocean.” Nearly everyone in German public life got on board: the head of the Bundesliga, a billionaire drug store owner, one of Wagner’s great-granddaughters.

One comment in that Spiegel stood out for its bitter irony. “In actual fact I’m for it,” said the theater director Thomas Ostermeier. “But because I’d like to be able to travel to America next week to present An Enemy of the People, the first play about a whistleblower, I’m against.”

We Americans should be glad that Ostermeier, after a fashion, held his tongue. His breakneck German-language production of An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen’s blunt and depressingly relevant play about a doctor punished for telling the truth, recently arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—and in a season during which the Wikileaks movie bombed and Glenn Greenwald has shopped his story to Hollywood with little success, the play from 1882 offered one of the most thorough indictments yet seen of our overreaching government and moribund media.

It was an indictment of our theater too. New York had seen a mothballed Enemy of the People just last year, with frockcoated television actors woodenly playacting middle-class Scandinavians. This, by glorious contrast, was a Berlin Ibsen, an Ibsen for the Snowden age. From the first scene, when two actors sang an acoustic cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” to the climactic moment when the company threw paintballs, it was clear we weren’t in nineteenth-century Norway. Ostermeier’s Ibsen was an Ibsen for today, and it’s hard to know whether to be happy or blue about the revelation that the long-dead Norwegian has much more to say to us than the political thriller writers frustratingly adapting our grim present in the writers’ rooms of southern California.

An Enemy of the People is not Ibsen’s best play. It’s certainly not his most subtle; its characters aren’t drawn with the sensitivity of Hedda Gabler or Nora of A Doll’s House, and its furious anti-Victorianism can come across as a little one-note on the page. The enemy of the people is Dr. Stockmann, a well-regarded citizen in a Norwegian spa town; his elder brother is the mayor. The town has spent lavishly to build new medicinal baths, which are expected to bring tourists and raise housing prices—but Stockmann discovers that chemicals from a nearby tannery are poisoning the water and making people ill. He expects that blowing the whistle will bring him glory. Instead he is denounced. Stockmann’s discovery threatens the political order and, much more importantly, the economic one: keeping tourists from being poisoned is much too expensive. The local newspaper, which had planned to publish Stockmann’s findings, shuts him out, for fear of losing advertising and subscribers. His brother the mayor argues that perhaps poisoning people is not so bad. And eventually the whole town turns on him.

It’d be easy for a less ambitious director to adapt Ibsen’s play to modern times as a parable for, say, climate change denialism or some other individual political problem. But what makes Ibsen so modern, and what makes An Enemy of the People so pertinent to the Snowden moment, is his understanding that whistleblowers, contra the happy-hacker image of bad Hollywood movies like The Fifth Estate, do much more than reveal secret knowledge. The whistleblower, in Ibsen, indicts not just a single secret wrongdoing but the unsecret entirety of a political and economic system.

The poisoned baths, like the NSA’s spying programs, are not themselves the big reveal; who was surprised that the government watches the internet? Rather, they are epiphenomena of a larger disease. “The contaminated water comes from a different kind of swamp,” says Hovstad the newspaper editor: “the swamp where our political life takes place.”

Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People understood this, and scaled up appropriately. In his production Stockmann and his wife live in a very Berlin-looking bourgeois apartment; they have iPhones and a couple of electric guitars. But the more fundamental modernization came in the famous fourth act, when Stockmann presents his findings to the town at a citizens’ meeting and is attacked. (Ostermeier staged the meeting with the house lights up, and at the performance I went to some audience members began shouting at the actors, who, like most Berliners, spoke perfect English.) As Ibsen writes it, Stockmann pivots away from talking about the poisoned baths and proclaims that “the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.”

Ostermeier’s Stockmann looks further: the director interpolates into the script a long passage from The Coming Insurrection, a nihilistic and surprisingly influential political tract published anonymously in 2008.  When Stockmann realizes that the townspeople want to keep the spa poisoned in the name of economic growth, he throws up his hands. “We’ve come to understand: the economy is not ‘in’ crisis. The economy is the crisis,” intones Stockmann, played by Stefan Stern in a leather jacket and with fashionably mussed hair. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music Stockmann’s adversaries were no longer bourgeois provincials, but an entire network of governmental, corporate, and media forces hellbent on enforcing the status quo even in the face of certain collapse, and hellbent too on punishing anyone who dares to blow the whistle.

It was a classically bold move from Ostermeier, who over the last decade has established himself as the most important theater director of his generation. His most aggressive productions are his reinterpretations of Shakespeare, among them a mud-spattered Hamlet that has toured the world and is bootlegged on YouTube, and a militaristic, video-saturated Othello featuring a white Moor. (He does not use verse translations; his Shakespeare speaks a coarse, demotic, Berlin-inflected German prose.)

It’s Ibsen, however, where he really shines. Since 2002 he has directed a Doll’s House in which Nora, instead of slamming the door on Helmer, shoots him in the chest; a Hedda Gabler featuring Hedda smashing Tesman’s laptop onstage; an icy John Gabriel Borkman; and a Dutch-language Ghosts. In all of them, he takes the realism of the nineteenth century as a starting point for inquiry rather than letting it sit in amber. Why Ibsen? Perhaps because Ibsen’s dramas of bourgeois society, though set in close quarters and sensitive to personal and familial struggles, are in fact deeply social plays. For decades Ibsen has been treated as a proto-Freud, a playwright of interior worlds, and too few directors have reckoned with the economic and social pressures that catalyze not only his great naturalist dramas of the 1880s but also Peer Gynt and the earlier verse plays. Helmer in A Doll’s House is a bank director. Hedda Gabler faces losing her house. John Gabriel Borkman is essentially the nineteenth-century Bernie Madoff. So, too, An Enemy of the People: played too long as a drama about courage and moral rectitude, it’s actually about how people live in a society that privileges economic relations above personal ones.

Locating that core of Ibsen is tricky, though, and it just can’t be done through allegedly faithful presentations of the text, complete with women in corsets and fjords out the window. By dressing his characters in the same plaid shirts and skinny jeans worn from Berlin to Brooklyn, and by changing Stockmann’s big speech from a local jeremiad to a global anarchistic manifesto, Ostermeier preserves rather than perverts what really matters in Ibsen: his insight into how social and economic forces shape our lives, and how our individual faults and disappointments in fact have a larger character. Ostermeier has found what was already there in Ibsen, and amplified it to deafening volume.

At the big meeting of the town, Stockmann decries his friends at the newspaper and the homeowners’ association fretting about property prices. But he saves his greatest wrath for “the sodding liberal majority.” Ibsen, in 1882, was excoriating Victorian models of correctness and respectability, and advocating a freer kind of citizenship that spoke uncomfortable truths. But here, at the play’s climax, Ostermeier found a creepily prescient description of our own historical moment. The mayor and the others accuse Stockmann of being an enemy of democracy, even a “red left-wing fascist.” But they have no means to engage with a whistleblower like Stockmann, because he refuses to play along with their charade and speaks in public what everyone already knows in private. They have one trump card, though, and it is exactly the one used against Snowden and others today: that by speaking out, Stockman has ipso facto proven himself to be against democracy, against freedom, against the people.

That use of democratic language on the part of antidemocratic figures underscored the fundamental vision that Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People brought to New York. Whistleblowers like Snowden and Chelsea Manning are so dangerous to the political order, and the government and media proclaim them enemies of the people so vociferously, not just because they reveal inconvenient truths about the NSA or the State Department. Much more deeply, they say what we all already know but cannot put into words: namely, that bad things result not from bad individuals or divine accident but from a whole morass of political and economic forces largely incapable of being reformed. Stockmann (perhaps a bit like Snowden?) is at first optimistic enough to think that the simple exposition of the truth will be enough to lead to change, and that the present system can accommodate small, ameliorative measures. By the end of the play, he has been cleansed of that naive notion.

Ibsen argued that the truth has no chance of flourishing in a society that subordinates human life to economic growth. He held out hope, though, that figures like Stockmann could make things new through the force of their moral character. At the end of the play Stockmann remains loudly, even comically defiant, surrounding himself with his family and proclaiming that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.”

But Ostermeier’s production was more skeptical of the power of personal rectitude. Stockmann and his wife sit alone on stage, their windows smashed, their house a shambles. As Ibsen writes it, Stockmann embraces poverty. But the Stockmann of our time seems far less certain. He looks at the stock certificates, looks at his wife, and the lights go out. It is a dark but realistic ending Edward Snowden would likely appreciate, if he didn’t face arrest by coming to Brooklyn.