Saturday evening, out on the town, we had finished dinner and were strolling to the theater. I was about to draw my wife’s attention to the dead body on the sidewalk across the street, then thought better of it.
We were on the northeast corner of Dearborn and Lake, heading to the Goodman Theatre, attempting to cross west, when we came upon the tableau. The cop standing beside the corpse gestured for us to go south instead. We took his direction. Acting on instinct, I raised my iPhone up and snapped a photo: cop, yellow tape, 7-Eleven, police SUV, and a body wrapped in a white sheet.
It didn’t take a sleuth to figure out where it came from. Balconies directly above. It was St. Patrick’s Day. We had threaded our way through mobs of costumed revelers, lining up to get into places I never imagined anyone would line up to get into. Moe’s? Really?
So either suicide or tragic, booze-induced, hey-look-I-can-balance-on-this-railing accident.
A photo wants to be shared. I considered posting it to social media, Facebook and Twitter, with a wry remark about Chicago on a Saturday night. But I immediately dismissed that idea, for a value that doesn’t get touted as much as it should: because there are people other than myself, friends and family members of the man on the sidewalk. They were about to get the worst news of their lives. Why add a note of indifference if not mockery just so I can flash sardonic?
Lately I’ve been thinking that people can be roughly divided into two types: those who sympathize with others and those who don’t. Those who can shift their perspective away from themselves to contemplate the condition of someone else. And those whose small well of sympathy is drained dry sprinkling concern over themselves and those immediately around them.
The play we were seeing, “An Enemy of the People,” reflected this dynamic. Robert Falls decided to adapt and direct this Henrik Ibsen classic last year, after Donald Trump called the media “the enemy of the people.” Our president no doubt was unaware of the play, where the phrase is wielded against Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the medical director of a resort town’s spa, who discovers that the water is poisoned by the local mills and sounds the alarm, confident that townsfolk like his brother Peter, the mayor, will understand the gravity of the situation and act immediately.
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That’s all I knew of this 1882 play going in — to me, Ibsen is for people who find Eugene O’Neill impossibly light-hearted — but there was another aspect that Falls brings out. Dr. Stockmann, inflated with the moral certainty of his scientific knowledge — “The water is poisoned” — proceeds to browbeat the town residents, who depend upon tourists visiting the spa for their entire livelihood. “Stupid people put stupid people in control, and the rest of us suffer for it,” he exults.
The townsfolk — spoiler alert — do not warm to this path of persuasion, and Dr. Stockmann is lucky to escape with his life, his prospects dim.
Still, we do not sympathize with him. In the end, he’s another one of the stupid people messing things up: he never for a moment pauses to even try to consider the viewpoint of his neighbors. We witness a kind of dueling blindness, a pas de deux of self-interest, the mayor, desperate to keep the money flowing, the doctor fixated not so much on keeping people from being poisoned as with exposing their folly.
“An Enemy of the People” is not the finest piece of drama the Goodman has put on in recent years. Nor does it contain the kind of jaw-droppers that we come to expect with Bob Falls. Nobody’s naked. Nobody dies. No human eyes sizzling on a grill. Instead Falls does something even creepier and more unsettling: he not only skewers the money-obsessed myopia of the Right, but the frequent practical indifference and grandiose extremism of the Left.
Put another way, when Donald Trump is re-elected in November 2020, I will not be surprised at all, and will reflect ruefully back on the lesson of “An Enemy of the people” — a lesson about empathy, ignored by both sides.