In the home of Dr. Stockmann, Mrs. Stockmann is offering Mr. Billings, an assistant on the local paper, some more food. She thinks she hears the editor, Mr. Hovstad coming, but it is her brother-in-law, the Mayor (or Burgomaster). He is somewhat shocked to see that the Stockmanns have meat for supper. Mr. Hovstad appears and tells the Burgomaster that he is here on business. Dr. Stockmann often writes an article for Mr. Hovstad's liberal paper. The present article Dr. Stockmann is having printed is about the medicinal value of the new baths which are soon to open up in the town. The Burgomaster speaks about the great value of the baths to the town, but he resents the idea that his brother is credited with being the founder of the baths because he himself was responsible for the execution of the plan.
Dr. Stockmann comes in bringing with him another guest, an old friend named Captain Horster. He greets his brother and explains how great it is now to have a job where he can afford to eat meat twice a day and to buy little items. For many years, he has had to live on almost starvation wages, but now that the Burgomaster has gotten him a position with the baths, he is always in good spirits. The Burgomaster wants to know about the new article Dr. Stockmann is publishing, but Dr. Stockmann tells him it isn't to appear until he checks on a few more facts. The Burgomaster knows that the article is about the baths and demands to be told immediately all about it. When Dr. Stockmann refuses, the Burgomaster leaves in anger.
Hovstad comes in and intimates that the Burgomaster left because the crowd was too liberal for him. There is a town election coming soon and Hovstad's liberal paper has not been supporting the Burgomaster. Petra Stockmann comes in from the school where she teaches and tells her father that she has a letter for him. Dr. Stockmann becomes excited and goes immediately to his study to read the letter. His wife explains to the guests that Dr. Stockmann has been waiting every day for a week for some mysterious letter.
Petra tells the group how difficult it is to teach when the little children have to be told so many things that are not true. She would like to open a school of her own. Captain Horster offers her the bottom of his old house which stands empty most of the time, especially since he is about to sail for America. Hovstad thinks she would do better to come over to journalism and asks her if she has finished the translation of the English novel. She promises to have it completed in a short time.
Dr. Stockmann comes back in and is excited about the news he has just received. He thinks he has made a great discovery. He tells them that he has found out that their magnificent, lovely, highly praised baths are nothing more than a poisonous, pestiferous hole. He explains that the pipes are laid too low and all the filth from the tanning mills is infecting the water. He has spent the entire winter investigating the affair and has sent off samples of the water to the university for analysis. The water contains millions of putrefying organic matter called infusoria. These are detrimental to health whether they are used internally or externally. He explains that this was why so many people were sick last summer at the baths. At the time he thought the people brought the disease with them, but now he knows that they became sick from the water. To correct the situation, all of the water pipes will have to be re-laid.
Dr. Stockmann explains that the town has often laughed at his ideas and proposals, but now everyone will see that he is not out of his head. He particularly wants Petra to tell her grandfather who has thought Dr.
Stockmann was "not quite right." Furthermore, he has prepared a statement for the directors of the baths and is going to send it to the Burgomaster immediately. Hovstad wants to put a short announcement of the discovery in the paper, and it is suggested that the town should do something to honor Dr. Stockmann. Dr. Stockmann thinks, however, that it is a blessing to have served his native town and its citizens.
The first act is concerned with providing background information and other matters of exposition. We are not far enough in the play yet to draw definite character personalities. The exposition (i.e., the handling of background material) provides us with the knowledge that Dr. Stockmann has often been on the verge of extreme poverty, that his brother the Burgomaster has obtained a nice post for him with the new baths in the town, that the idea of the baths were originally Dr. Stockmann's, but the Burgomaster took over and directed the building of the baths along lines which Dr. Stockmann did not approve of. Furthermore, we find out that the two brothers have very little in common. The Burgomaster adheres to old and traditional views and Dr. Stockmann is a man of modern and liberal views. At this point, it is suggested that Hovstad is in agreement with Dr. Stockmann and opposed to the Burgomaster, but this will later be dramatically reversed.
There are also enough hints in this first act to indicate that Dr. Stockmann is an impulsive man. He writes articles for the newspaper on any new idea he has. He does things impetuously and without consultation. He has had many "crackbrained notions" in the past, and has refused to consult the proper authorities.
Dr. Stockmann is also somewhat naive in thinking that the community will be proud of him for discovering that the baths are poisonous. He fails to realize that as important as the discovery is, it is one which will cause an immense amount of expense and inconvenience. Furthermore, there seems to be some ambiguity in his motivations. We know that he was annoyed at the Burgomaster for refusing to lay the pipes where Dr. Stockmann wanted them. Now that he has found out that the pipes are causing the baths to be poisonous, there is a hint of personal satisfaction in proving the Burgomaster wrong. In fact, his happiness can derive directly from his vindication against the Burgomaster who refused to follow Dr. Stockmann's specification for building the baths.
In the statement that Dr. Stockmann has prepared, the reader must inquire whether this statement is an explanation or an accusation. Dr. Stockmann is somewhat naive and innocent when he thinks that the Burgomaster will be pleased at this discovery.
The act ends on a note of irony. Dr. Stockmann thinks that he is going to be honored as a hero and feels good that he served his town and fellow citizens well. It will be only a short time before he will be declared an enemy of the people.
At the end of the first act, the problem has not yet been fully presented. Now it is only that the baths are unsanitary and the conditions of the baths must be changed or altered.