There was a time in my life when I was the worst at actually reading books for school, and that time was nearly all of high school unless I was specifically interested or invested in a story. I remember liking David Copperfield. I remember disliking A Tale of Two Cities. So many of the books that I did read, I perhaps read part of, and then didn’t read the rest. I’m not quite sure how I got through high school English class without flunking out of school, since having gone back and re-read A Tale of Two Cities as an adult…I quite liked it, and I remembered very little of it.
Part of our reading when I was a sophomore was a section on the dystopian science fiction that came out after the end of World War II. We read Farenheit 451, and we read 1984. Or at least, my class read it. I read bits of it – enough to be able to tell the boy as we sat down to watch the Headlong Theater adaptation of the novel at the Shakespeare Theater Company that I remembered one particular scene. And that scene was definitely there…about 1/3 of the way in. And I’m quite sure I stopped sometime thereafter. But after seeing this intense production, I’m interested to go back and read the book again.
Did you read 1984 in high school? If you didn’t, the story is this: Winston Smith lives in a world where Big Brother is always watching – two way screens exist everywhere (nearly everywhere), and you can’t escape them. You can be persecuted and detained for independent thinking, which leads to thoughtcrime, which theoretically leads to actual crime. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting newspaper articles, public documents, and the history books to remove any mention of those who have been found guilty of thoughtcrime, and been deleted. He becomes involved with a woman named Julia who he previously hated because of her association with the Party, but together they hope to become underground agents, working to overthrow the Party. If you haven’t read the rest…I’ll leave it there.
This production is intense and amazing. Before the production even arrived in town, we had to reschedule our tickets because the time to reset the stage each evening was taking more time than anticipated, and the construction of the stage mechanism also required more time. I personally wondered – really? How complicated could it be? Well, it’s pretty amazing – there are obviously projection screens, as you can see in the pictures. The set also begins the evening well maintained, and is slowly broken down over the course of the show. Just when you think you are beginning to understand what’s going on, and are having hope for the future of our main characters, it is all physically taken apart, and we are left in something starker and more hopeless.
The acting is intense as well. Matthew Spencer as Winston is in nearly every scene and has to act as emotional guide for the audience. Perhaps most breathtaking in this production is Hara Yannas, who playes Julia. In the beginning Julia is the stone-faced ice queen that we all think is secretly a member of the Thought Police. While she is secretly rebellious and has been excellent at hiding this, she has not done much more than sneaking around having sex with men. When she is with Winston, she slowly becomes a true-believer in the cause against Big Brother, and Yannas turns this jack-booted character into someone with more tender feeling and true emotion. And as a shout-out to the rest of the cast – I’m so impressed by how they used the set and lighting to their advantage, and were able to make this dystopian world so startlingly real and simultaneously surprising with the simple act of movement around the stage.
The best dystopian fiction forces us to look at the way that we live our lives now, and to think about how it’s possible to get from here to there. We’ve known about the world of 1984 for decades now, and this production – with its deft transition from page to stage – gives its viewers the chance to re-examine what we know, or what we think about surveillance and the the state’s involvement in it. Unfortunately for you, my readers, the production has moved on: their short run at the Shakespeare Theater ended yesterday, so it makes me even more glad that the Boy and I were able to see it when we did. If you happen to be in London this summer, you can see the production on the West End when it restarts in June. And if you do go, it will be well worth your time.
Details: “1984” at Shakespeare Theater Company, ran through April 10. In London June-September.
Ugh I am so disappointed to hear that it’s moved on already!! I had been seeing those 1984 ad flags hanging around downtown for-gosh-must be about a year now. I had really wanted to see it, but assumed that with such a long ad campaign, the production would be around for a while, too. Oh well.
I did read this book in high school, too, as part of my IB English program in 11th or 12th grade (11th I think). I really enjoyed it, but it’s one of those books that everyone co-opts for their own agenda. Everyone sees the seeds of 1984 in what they already believe is wrong with society, and point to it as a cautionary tale of what we’ll become if we continue to allow “that sort of thing,” (whatever that thing is to them). I don’t have much patience for that sort of rhetoric.
Dystopian literature is fascinating to me, though. I think it sort of narrows in on that part of our brain that is wired to imagine, in a sort of masochistic way, the worst that can happen, and to give us a sense of control over our futures, and perhaps a sense of superiority, too, by letting us imagine that we are avoiding, or can avoid similar fate by being smart and better than those fictional societies. And we also get to imagine the best versions of ourselves in the role of hero in a dystopian world. Think of the Hunger Games and Divergent series, for example. But 1984 is different because there is no hero. Not really. SPOILER ALERT – the 2 protagonists join a resistance that may not even be real, are caught, betray each other, and are successfully reprogrammed to love Big Brother. End of story. The reader is left with a sense of impending doom and futility. Perhaps the best lesson from the otherwise rather heavy-handed 1984 is how fragile the human will actually is. In contrast to most other dystopian novels, which depict humanity overcoming oppression and tyranny through strength of character, 1984 shows us our weaknesses, and reminds us that we are all capable of being controlled and manipulated and scared into submission, no matter how much we would like to imagine ourselves as heroes.
The other thing that fascinates me is the societies that product dystopian literature. You mentioned that your high school teacher created a unit around post-WWII literature, so he/she must have drawn some connection between the societal conscious of the time and the production of so much dystopian lit. I would love to hear more about that. Distopian lit has also had a resurgence in Western society today, which I’ve heard some scholars connect to the upheaval of traditional ways and means, via the Great Recession, the influx of immigrants, climate change, and the Millennial Generation coming of age, with such wildly different values from their parents and grandparents.
Similarly, I know that apocalyptic literature tends to be produced by societies undergoing huge cultural or political shifts.