1984 Today

by Sam Pynes

Aquila Theatre’s 1984, as adapted for the stage by Michael Gene Sullivan, was pretty full for a non-musical play on a Tuesday in a venue as big as the Lied Center.

This adaptation begins near the end of the book, and the majority is told in flashbacks and memories, as the interrogators pull out Winston’s story. They also play Winston’s memory of himself and the characters in his past, even as they beat and torture him, convincingly trading between several roles.

Winston, or 6079 Smith, W, wears a hospital gown and limps because of a varicose ulcer on his ankle. His interrogators wear black.

The memory of Julia, as portrayed by an interrogator, advocates for living and rebelling in the present rather than trying to affect the future, as she does in the book. At one point, however, she confusingly becomes the vehicle to explain things to Winston instead.

The memory of O’Brien, Smith’s contact in the underground resistance, is introduced near the end of the first act, which seems to me very late in the story. Act One ends with Winston declaring his love for Julia to the interrogators and being punished for it. They had said that the only thing the government could not make them do was betray their love for one another. Act Two questions that belief.

Joanna Bending gives a strong and compelling performance in the last crucial scene of the show as the unmasked O’Brien, who was the voice behind the screen, torturing Winston into mental and emotional compliance.

The screen above the stage shows an abstract eye for most of the show to symbolize Big Brother, and the mirrors beneath it intermittently show projections, or become windows to the outside as needed.

As much of the show is Winston’s dreams and memory, the role of the interrogators is sometimes obscured. For example at one point they ask him where he got “The Book.” As Winston later finds out, he was given the book by The Party, so who were they representing when they asked him that? At another point they argue among themselves about whether they are acting as good party members, and whether perhaps they are also guilty of Winston’s thought crimes, before being admonished to silence by the voice behind the screen. Is the audience supposed to gather that they are being infected by Winston’s assertions of absolute truth? Or are they perhaps surrogates for the audience?

Though I can see the convenience of turning the whole story into a confession, since they can jump around the story at will, perhaps it would have been better just to tell the story linearly, or the complete opposite, do an interpretation based around the spirit of the story that wasn’t quite as beholden to the beats of the novel. The show itself is concise, clocking in at under two hours.

Many of the striking lines will be familiar from reading the book in high school:

“They can’t get inside you.”
“We are the dead. Our true life is in the future.”
“In the place where there is no darkness.”
“I love Big Brother!”

But I’m not sure that the full force of the nightmarish world of the novel would really come through for someone who hasn’t read the story recently.

There is also a much-repeated phrase which is not present at all in the novel: “Remember, you must be precise.” What is the significance of this phrase and what does it mean?

There were also, I think, some misjudged moments of attempted levity which felt out of place in this nightmarish story.

1984, written by Eric Arthur Blair under the pen name George Orwell, is often compared and contrasted with the other great 20th century dystopian novel, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Now that we live in the comparatively far future, it is common to take a side with regard to which of these novels has proved the more prescient in its warnings of future societal dysfunction. I’m not sure this is an important question, especially since both novels are fairly similar in that they both imply that the solution to both their societies’ dysfunction somehow lie in the underclass which has retained their humanity. Both novels have certainly remained influential in the public consciousness.

In 1984, the forces of oppression are on the outside, impressing their will on the minds of the citizens, reconstructing truth, memory, and reality in their search for power. In Brave New World, the people are controlled by conditioning and lulled into complacency and compliance through comfort and pleasure.

It seems to me that Brave New World has much more relevance to the way that our current society has developed, at least in our part of the world, and the dangers that we face than 1984, though the latter may be rightly argued to have been more compellingly and sharply written. 1984 was a political book, and has remained so.

But even if I am right, and we have more to fear from our societal cult of youth and drugged-fueled search for pleasure than we do from the power-hungry totalitarian state, the reminder to be a guardian of the freedom to seek and disseminate truth is always a pertinent one, even more so in other places that suffer under actual totalitarian regimes. Pertinent to all places and peoples is the reminder to keep hold of the legacy of the past, both the good and bad, so that we can take its lessons with us into the future.

Orwell of 1984 seems to despair of a future that can improve from the lessons of the past, and rightly distrusts the illusion of a naive ever-improving future, but I don’t think that means that we can’t work to achieve a better apprehension of inviolable truth and work to build charitable relationships with those within our sphere of influence, even if we harbor a healthy distrust of society’s inevitable perfectibility, or even that our government’s motives do not really include our true welfare.

The core of both novels is the same, in that they display a dystopia which has lost its humanity. In both cases it is when people stop loving each other that the goals of society warp, as individuals outsource to the state what should be their real commitments to sacrifice for the sake of others and form real relationships with other people.

Aquila Theatre’s 1984 was only available for one performance at the Lied Center for the Performing Arts, on February 18, 2020.

Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless.

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