(Page 2 of 2)
Unlike Arthur Miller’s 1950 version, which scrubbed away some of Stockmann’s troublesome humanizing contradictions in order to more forcefully voice Miller’s outrage over the McCarthy trials, Lenkiewicz’s version allows Stockmann to be complicated, obsessive and deeply self-destructive, as flawed a character as has ever graced the stage. “I thought the play was about breakdown, mental breakdown. Not that he becomes insane or anything as black and white as that, but a huge change is happening in him at the time,” said Lenkiewicz. “Who is this man? Someone who chooses a way that is different and whether it’s negotiable in society and life. I’ve known a lot of people who have taken that path, who are on the edge, and who’ve either managed to negotiate it or who have lost their minds. Because it’s hard.”
It’s difficult to avoid thinking that Lenkiewicz is talking here about Robert Lenkiewicz — the infamous British Jewish artist whose last name she shares and who was for a time married to her mother, Celia Mills — and the community of social outcasts, vagrants, homeless and mentally ill people he painted, revered and supported. In an early chapter in his career that parallels the events depicted in “Enemy,” he was villainized and forced to flee London because the tramps and vagrants he encouraged to hang around his studio were seen as a public nuisance and a danger to the community by the police in his fancy Hampstead neighborhood. He eventually relocated to the dank working-class town of Plymouth in the south of England, and, unrepentant, created the same sort of community of outcasts there that had gotten him kicked out of London. He died of a heart attack in 2002.
Though Rebecca wasn’t directly related to him — “I was just this little illegitimate thing,” she says — she grew up inside the bohemian family that revolved around his studio next to the Jewish cemetery in town. One can sense his influence on her approach to art, both in what she does and does not think it can do.
Lenkiewicz is known primarily for her original work; she is, in fact, among the most respected young playwrights in England. Her play “Her Naked Skin,” about suffragettes in early-20th-century London, was the first play by a female writer ever produced on the British National Theatre’s main stage. She’s written about exotic table dancers and (how could she not?) derelict and sometimes defiant artists. She is now working on a new play about Marie Curie that will touch on an episode in Curie’s life in which, after having had an affair, she was chased from Paris for being a “vicious Jewess.”
“And she wasn’t Jewish, she was Catholic,” Lenkiewicz said. “I felt that was quite interesting. From being Paris’s darling, suddenly they were tarring and feathering her. And being incredibly anti-Semitic to someone who wasn’t Jewish. It was all just the mob mentality.”
If her stories often focus more on the characters than on her own political passions, the contexts in which she places these characters make clear that there’s a politics lurking not far under the surface of the work. Unlike Robert Lenkiewicz and Henrik Ibsen, though, she sees the limits of what art can achieve.
“I don’t think society will change hugely. I think art can make people think,” she said. “I’m doubtful that it can cause a revolution, but if anybody comes out with a slight shift, then something has been achieved.”
Joshua Furst is a frequent contributor to the Forward. He’s the author, most recently, of “The Sabotage Cafe,” a novel.