Some Thoughts on Common Enemy
by Founding Artistic Director, Writer and Director of Common Enemy, Preston Lane
1: First of all I want to go on the record that I love both college basketball and free speech. I’m a Carolina blue, card-carrying member of the ACLU. I cannot imagine not rooting for the Tarheels any more than I could imagine not supporting the right to freedom of expression. I am so extreme in my support of free speech that I even support the right of Duke fans to gloat over
their last national championship.
2: Loving collaboration as I do, I believe it takes a village to inspire a play. Common Enemy started when Joey Collins, a frequent Triad Stage actor, heard me speak about another Appalachian mythological play I was writing and suggested he’d like to see me
attempt something modern and political. Or maybe it started when former Board Chair Alan Tutterow said he wished I’d update Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People to present day Greensboro. It might have started when Peter Alexander, Dean of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance and I talked about producing Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo as part of UNCG’s “Globe and Cosmos” year-long conversation about Shakespeare and Galileo. Or perhaps it started when current Board Chair Kathy Manning asked why there are so few plays set in the contemporary South. All four contributed greatly to the impulse to write this play. I dedicate it to them – if they don’t object.
3: In the past 14 seasons, Triad Stage has returned to several key playwrights. Tennessee Williams, of course. Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Beth Henley and William Inge have all made more than one appearance on our stage. And Henrik Ibsen. The 19th century contrarian from Norway is the second most produced playwright in the world after Shakespeare, but wildly misinterpreted because of a book written by George Bernard Shaw which tried to make Ibsen into a Fabian socialist who wrote neat little plays with convenient morals promoting a particular political viewpoint. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ibsen said: “The only revolution that counts is a revolution of the human spirit.” Dr. Stockman, in The Enemy of the People, one of
Ibsen’s greatest characters, is either a brave individual fighting for truth and liberty or a monomaniac egotist determined to destroy himself and his family. Whether one agrees with him or not, he is committed to his fight. And it is the fight that matters. Ibsen once wrote: “One of the qualities of liberty is that, as long as it is being fought for, it keeps getting stronger. But the man who stops in the middle of the fight and says, ‘I have it,’ only shows by doing so that he has lost it completely.”
4: Contrary to Shaw’s portrait, Ibsen refused liberal/conservative labels and went his own confounding way. Like a character in one of his plays, he stood alone — always expanding liberty by the bold act of fighting for it. He was a philosophical anarchist and as such he threw words instead of bombs. Unlike Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, Ibsen didn’t see replacing right wing authority with left wing authority as a solution. He saw all authority as antithetical to the natural impulse for human freedom. As a result, Ibsen and other great philosophical anarchist writers like Eugene O’Neill don’t offer up a solution for our political entrapment. Their only job is to remind us that we are entrapped.
5: In our very highly polarized two party system of FOX and MSNBC, there isn’t much room for people who argue that neither side actually gets it right. But what if Ibsen and O’Neill were actually onto something? Such anarchic thinking radically re-imagines what we mean by political theater. All theater, some say, is political. After all, politics comes from the Greek words for “the affairs of the city” and theater engages with citizens of a city every time it is performed. But usually when we say political theater what we really mean is partisan theater, the kinds of plays that present a problem in the first scene and by the final curtain have suggested a solution. I don’t much care for these partisan dramas. My ideal political theater doesn’t tell us what to think; it asks us to examine why we think what we think we think.
6: Taylor Branch in his explosive essay “The Shame of College Sports” in The Atlantic pits tradition against ethics in battle over the role of academic athletics. From players on food stamps to athletic departments run amok, from multi-million dollar merchandising deals to indentured servitude, Branch explores an obviously broken system. But tradition dies hard, and those who raise their voices against the business deals or the academic scandals often find themselves very much alone. And I don’t know how I feel about all of it. Like I said, I love college basketball and I love free speech. When I find my values in conflict, the
energy of that turmoil make me question those values and my questioning compels me to begin to write.
7: The first United States whistle-blowers were Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven – U.S. Naval officers who exposed the torture of British prisoners of war. When they were sued for libel, the Continental Congress unanimously passed a whistle-blowers defense act. This is important not only because it was the first example of US whistle-blowing, but also because it was probably the last time congress acted unanimously to support anything controversial. Whistle-blowers provoke extreme reactions. Wise and ethical people disagree about whether such exposing of secrets and uncovering of inconvenient truths is civil disobedience or illegal action. Shaw and Marven were the first, but certainly not the last to unsettle the status quo. Herbert Yardley, Smedley Butler, Peter Buxton, Daniel Ellsberg, Frank Serpico, Karen Silkwood, Nancy Olivieri, Karen Kwiatkowski, Coleen Rowley, Sherron Watkins, Cynthia Cooper, Joseph C. Wilson, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are just some of the names of individuals who have blown the whistle in the US. Most learned the hard way the truth of Ibsen’s wise advice: “You shouldn’t wear your best trousers when you go out
to fight for freedom and for truth.”
8: Hawboro is a town not far from here. As the name suggests, it is perched on the banks of the Haw River. The Haw powered the first textile mills opened by a man named Edward Blessings. Mr. Blessings built the town and opened Zebulon College in 1893.
Some of you may remember that a young man from the mountains found his way to Hawboro in a play called Providence Gap. And most of you are well aware that Hawboro doesn’t actually exist. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Harington’s Stay More, Arkansas, it’s a created place for the telling of tales. But like most things fictional it is very much based in reality. You can find bits and pieces of it in the mill cities of the central Piedmont. And a word of advice: Links BBQ serves Lexington style with a prize winning secret sauce, but if you plan to visit town on a Sunday, pack a picnic, because they close up from Saturday supper till Monday lunch.
9: I started this play as a writer with questions, as a director I discovered more questions. The actors and designers asked even more questions. In a minute, you’ll watch the play. Please don’t look for answers. I hope you embrace the questions. I hope they provoke discussion, debate and dialogue long after you leave the theater.