An old script with relevant content: “An Enemy of the People”

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Photo courtesy of Crain's Custom Media

As a testament to the endurance of literature, an adaptation of a nearly 150-year-old Norwegian play reflects the political and economic turmoil of the current pandemic.

Despite the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Dallas Drama department was able to connect with Tony-Award winning director Robert Falls. In a Zoom conversation with the director, the cast of “Fridays @ 8” discussed his modern adaptation of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen.

Falls is one of the most recognized American directors. He received a Tony Award for his production of “Death of a Salesman,” and in 2015 he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. He currently works as the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

The virtual conversation occurred before UD’s  live audio performance on Friday, April 9. During the two-hour talk, Falls described his decision to revisit the oldest English translation of “An Enemy of the People”originally completed by the daughter of Karl Marx–following the political fallout after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  

Drama professor Kyle Lemieux, a former colleague of Falls, contacted him earlier this year and received permission to perform his 2018 unpublished adaptation. 

Falls’ adaptation keeps the basic plot featuring the political and moral dilemma between two brothers contending over their responses to a contaminated spa endangering a community. However, he “captured it in an American-sounding way,” Lemieux said.  

“I think it is essential to blow the dust off of plays that are over a hundred years old,” Falls said in a 2018 promotional video for his production of “An Enemy of the People” at Goodman Theatre. “It was a response to a sense of where this country might be headed.”

Falls’ adaptation shortened some of the lengthy monologues and removed extraneous characters. Instead of stiff verse, lively dialogue in Falls’ version shows “what the characters’ motivations are,” Lemieux said.

Junior Chris Young, who played the printer Aslaksen in the UD “Fridays @ 8” radio performance, participated in the conversation with Falls.

During their conversation, Falls discussed “how he did things on stage when he first produced the play” and provided insight into cast members’ questions about their roles, according to Young. Falls’ familiarity with the play meant he could explain his plot and character changes directly to the cast.

“It felt like it could be written today,” Young said of Falls’ adaptation. He considers it a privilege to have performed the adapted play and to discuss it with Falls.

Senior Ann Urbanski, who played Katherine Stockmann, also enjoyed Falls’ adaptation of “An Enemy of the People.” Urbanski especially appreciated the script’s language, which she described as having “a clean, fast, moving feel to it.”

Through the arguments in Falls’ version, Urbanski said, the audience is invited to reflect on “what kind of language politicians use.”

Especially during this semester, when the UD Drama department adapted their mainstage productions into live radio drama, cast members have been learning to use sound to “enliven the imagination of the audience,” Lemieux said. Falls’ changes to the English translation revived the dialogue so it has a contemporary quality. 

Junior Gillian Jones, who worked on sound production, does not agree with some of the political ideologies expressed in the play, nor some of the changes in Falls’ adaptation.

“I felt like he didn’t really look at the mob very charitably, because he said he wanted to explore the mentality of someone who would elect a man like Trump,” Jones said. “I didn’t feel like he explored the mob mentality.”  

Falls’ version of “An Enemy of the People” does not censor the play’s controversial ideologies, including socialism and fascism, nor the chaos that erupts in the community in response to a health crisis, similar to the mixed responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. Lemieux, who chose Falls’ adaptation of “An Enemy of the People” to be the fourth of the five live radio productions this semester, appreciates the play as a meditation on what pure democracy might look like. Lemieux said it makes the listener think, “Who gets to decide what the rules are?”

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