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In 'An Enemy of the People,' public health discourse takes center stage

Dramatic readings from Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play will pair with guided discussions to shed light on a 21st century pandemic during two performances in Washington, D.C., this week

A doctor discovers pathogens causing a public health threat and outlines steps the community must take to save lives. He's respected at first, but public sentiment toward the medical leader sours once the cost and inconvenience of his intervention become known. The health emergency ultimately becomes politicized and the doctor discredited—publicly shouted down and branded "an enemy of the people."

"It's meant to spur some interesting conversations. It's an everything-old-is-new-again kind of thing."
Jeffrey Kahn
Director, Berman Institute of Bioethics

Such is the nutshell plot of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play An Enemy of the People. But this fictional tale set in a 19th-century Scandinavian village also calls to mind some place recent and real: the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, faced growing hostility over the U.S. public health response, which included mandates designed to slow the disease's spread. Pushback grew and at least one congressman literally labeled him an enemy of the people.

These parallels will be explored at "An Enemy of the People: A Public Health Project," two evenings on which professional actors join public health leaders and scientists in performing dramatic readings of Ibsen's play, with a moderated, town hall-type discussion to follow. It is a joint production of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, the National Academy of Sciences, and Theater of War Productions, a New York City theatrical company that uses classic plays to explore contemporary issues.

"It's meant to spur some interesting conversations," says Berman Institute Director Jeffrey Kahn, who will be among the readers. "It's an everything-old-is-new-again kind of thing. And it's also turning the tables where the members of the chorus—the citizens who shout down [Ibsen's] doctor—are the very people who were in the other position during the pandemic. So [former NIH director] Francis Collins and Hopkins public health faculty are all going to be in the chorus shouting down the doctor."

Feb. 22, Hopkins Bloomberg Center
An Enemy of the People: A Public Health Project

Acclaimed actors, public health leaders, scientists, journalists, and elected officials performing dramatic readings of scenes from Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play; registration required to attend in person or online

The pair of free and open-to-the-public performances can be viewed both in-person and on Zoom (registration required to attend in person or online), Thursday, Feb. 22 at the Hopkins Bloomberg Center in Washington, D.C., and Saturday, Feb. 24 at the National Academy of Sciences. Professional actors participating include David Strathairn (Nomadland), Kathryn Erbe (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Frankie Faison (The Wire), Peter Francis James (Oz), and Jay O. Sanders (True Detective).

Kahn will be among the Johns Hopkins performers this Thursday, alongside Keshia Pollack Porter, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School of Public Health; Nancy Kass, deputy director for Public Health at the Berman Institute of Bioethics and vice provost for graduate and professional education; and Joshua M. Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and communication engagement at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Saturday's event will include Ruth Faden, founder of the Berman Institute and a professor of biomedical ethics, along with Kahn, Pollack Porter, Kass, and Sharfstein.

Kahn first witnessed how historic dramas can emotionally connect with modern issues several years ago at a Theater of War reading of an English translation of Sophocles's tragic war play Ajax. Though Sophocles was writing about the Trojan War some three millennia ago, its military themes and messaging proved evergreen.

"An army vet stood up and talked about how a particular part of the play resonated with his experience having led a battalion in Afghanistan," Kahn says. As the poet Ezra Pound put it: "Literature is news that stays news."

During the pandemic, the Berman Institute and Johns Hopkins' Program in the Arts, Humanities, and Health worked with Theater of War to develop Theater of War Frontline, a series of Zoom readings of Sophocles' tragedies Philoctetes and Women of Trachis focused on themes of injury and caregiving. The aim was to help nurses, doctors, first responders, and other health care providers have constructive discussions around the pandemic's challenges.

Ibsen's play is one of the newer works Theater of War has turned to, though its public health themes are a good fit for both COVID and global warming. The play's would-be hero, Dr. Stockman, discovers that the water used in his town's new bathing spa is polluted by nearby tanneries. Though designed to bring the community much-needed income, he says the spa will have to close for an extended period while its water delivery pipes are reconfigured. The town's mayor, who happens to be Stockman's brother, doesn't want to lose the tourist dollars and suggests keeping mum about the problem while proposing a less obtrusive solution that keeps the spa open—despite a lack of scientific or engineering training. The press turns on Dr. Stockman once it learns that the repair costs will largely come from new taxes on the working class. Dr. Stockman takes his concerns to a rowdy town meeting where he gets branded with the play's title. Theater of War materials say the readings and discussions will explore the "corrosive influence of power and money in politics, the distortions of the media, and the many other challenges to public health in our culture today."

The major roles will be performed by the trained actors, with public health practitioners playing the roles of angry citizens. "I've been cast as a drunken man, so I guess I'll have to polish up on my slurred speech," Kahn says with a laugh. But while there will surely be moments of levity as scientists become actors, Kahn says he is confident the evenings will also provide meaningful food for thought.

"I think every one of such performances I've been part of or have seen has surprised me in some way," Kahn says. "People are touched. It's different than somebody giving a lecture or showing slides and giving a talk. It's another way for people to connect with the issues that we've lived with for now the last four years, and hopefully access some of those themes in a different way."

Clarification: An earlier version of this article noted that Anthony Fauci would participate in one of the events; however, Fauci is no longer available to participate.