Summary – Act Two continued
Peter argues that it is in the public interest that the information is withheld. Thomas says too many people know already and this includes ‘the free and independent press’. After a slight pause, Peter calls him reckless and says this may also have serious consequences for him. Thomas defends himself and says it is one’s duty to tell the public about things that concern them. Peter questions this and says the public is better off ‘with the good old established ideas it’s been used to’. Peter then describes him as ‘impossible’ and tells him he has only him to thank for his appointment as Medical Officer to the Baths. Thomas queries this and says he was entitled to it and was the one who discovered ‘the town’s potentialities as a health resort’. He goes on to say that Peter and the others took his idea up and made a mess of it.
Peter sees him as now finding a ‘pretext’ for his usual hostility of ‘attacking your superiors’. He insists that Thomas must now contradict any rumours that are circulating and say the matter is not as serious or urgent as he first thought and express his confidence in the committee.
Thomas begins to say how it is his ‘absolute conviction’ that the job has to be done properly and Peter interrupts him and says ‘as a servant of the committee you’ve no right to any personal convictions’. This dumbfounds Thomas and Peter expands by saying that as a ‘subordinate official on the staff of baths’ he has no right to express a view that conflicts with his superiors.
Petra and Kate enter and Petra tells her father not to stand for this (as they have heard them shouting). Thomas asks Peter if he expects him to call himself a liar in public and what will happen if he does not do as he is told. Peter says the following: ‘Then we shall issue a statement ourselves to reassure the public.’ Thomas responds by saying that he will prove he is right and Peter says he will be powerless then to prevent his dismissal.
Thomas reiterates that he loves the town and must reveal the truth as ‘the source is poisoned’ and ‘the whole of our flourishing social life’s founded on a lie’. Peter’s riposte challenges this heroic stance: ‘The man who can make such vile suggestions about his own town is nothing but an enemy of the people.’
Kate comes between the two men when Thomas approaches Peter, and Peter leaves when asked. Kate points out that his brother has the power, and Thomas counters this by saying he has the press in front of him and the ‘solid majority’ behind him. Petra agrees he must stand up for himself, whereas Kate is more cautious and asks what good will it do. She worries he will lose his job, and he says that at least he will have done his duty to the town. He then questions the idea that he is an ‘enemy of the people’.
Kate asks about his duty to his family and he answers that he will never have peace if he behaves like a ‘miserable coward’. She reminds him of the old days when they used to live hand to mouth and how she does not want to go back to this. She agrees he is being treated disgracefully, but also argues ‘there’s so much injustice one has to put up with in this world!’
The boys return from school, and Thomas says he will never bow down to this. He wants to be able to look his sons in the face when they are adults, and Kate bursts into tears.
Analysis – Act Two continued
The pollution of the water supply is compared to the pollution and corruption of morality in this section, as Thomas defends his right to speak the truth about it and Peter uses threats to stop this happening.
The contrast between the reactions of the two brothers are also a reminder of Peter’s earlier point that the individual should subordinate him or herself to society. Whereas Thomas wants to speak out about it, and act as an individual, Peter prefers to whitewash the situation and calls Thomas ‘an enemy of the people’.
This invocation of the title demonstrates the irony of the insult, as Thomas wants to ensure ‘the people’ are not made ill by the water supply. It also, however, overlooks how acting alone (as an individual) can have the effect of weakening the group as Peter argues. In this instance, Peter is seen to be acting immorally but it is possible to see from a left wing perspective that the group is more powerful than the individual. The play does not engage with this aspect of the argument, though.