Fracking, Ibsen and New York City Drinking Water

The Sweeter Theater Company in New York commissioned me to write a play -- a modern, "green" version of Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People. Little did I know that the topic I picked for contemporization -- hydraulic fracturing or "fracking", a controversial way of drilling for natural gas -- would explode in headlines across the country from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. The debate is especially fervent in upstate New York, which provides drinking water for millions.

I think it's pretty clear that Ibsen didn't intend for Enemy of the People to be an environmental debate. He was out on a rampage against the tyranny of the majority. When Arthur Miller adapted the play during the McCarthy Era he was interested in this aspect, but this didn't ring true to me in current culture. Of course, modern corporations and governments silence the truth, but that's been done in movies like Erin Brokovich or The Insider. And frankly, in this information age, it seems the public is overly aware of what is happening across the country, and there has been a slow chorus of "hell no!" rising in the air.

What stood out to me was this: the conflict in Ibsen's Enemy wasn't a peon employee against a faceless corporation; it was between two siblings. One who sees one truth -- about the necessity of protecting public health and providing clean water, and one who sees another -- the devastating financial implications of local jobs and industry lost to regulation. It's personal, it's gritty, it's what every American experiences at the dinner table when Uncle Democrat and Cousin Republican get together to break bread.

This is about people, and it's about moral choices. When you have a country where one family member is drilling for offshore oil and another is earning their keep fishing in the same waters, the drama is real -- and devastating. And Ibsen was all about making people pay attention, especially to the moral inconveniences hidden just beneath the surface. That's why I decided to re-title my adaptation of Ibsen's play Fracturing.

While writing this play, I learned that there are many sides to each argument and tried to humanize each character. However, I find myself increasingly alarmed by the real threat that fracking poses. There is validity to economic need, job protection, and the honesty of who we are as an energy consuming culture. But the long term value of clean water and clean beaches is being subsumed by this short term interest of procuring fossil fuels.

I keep thinking of the people in the gulf who want to keep drilling, even as oil washes up on their shores. They now have few other options for making a living. This cycle can wreak havoc with fracking, just as it does with oil, on the resources of New York and the rest of the country; we must recognize the value of what we have before it is lost. Every single New Yorker needs to know that their drinking water is at risk.

Fracturing is running in New York City on the Lower East though July 18th.