1984 on Broadway: We are Big Brother
by Samantha Holle
It was a humid, sweltering day in September, and the clocks were striking three. It was time for the Sunday matinee of 1984.
In case you evaded reading it in high school, 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, an average Joe living in a not-so-average world: after tremendous world-wide territorial battles, Earth has been split into three superstates that are perpetually at one another’s throats. Winston lives in Oceania (what used to be London) and works at a government agency called the Ministry of Truth. His job is to literally rewrite history: when a person has been “unpersoned” — erased from society for going against the government — it is Winston’s job to go back into the files of history and remove any mention of this person’s name. The goal is to keep up the idea that Big Brother, the entity which governs and controls everything in Oceania, is never wrong, is never defied, and always comes up victorious.
But when we meet Winston, he is growing tired of this life. He has seen proof in his work that people who were labeled “government enemies” were not where they were said to be nor were they doing the illegal acts for which they were vaporized. Winston hates Big Brother and the society that lives for war, destruction, and the beating down of the human spirit.
Then he meets Julia, a coworker who, on the outside, doesn’t seem to be Winston’s type: She is a diligent worker at the MiniTruth (as the Ministry of Truth is called in the new vernacular, Newspeak). She screams the loudest and with the most vigor during the Two Minutes Hate, a daily event in which everyone watches a televised murder of an enemy of the state by government officials. It comes as a complete surprise to Winston when Julia quietly reveals that she, too, hates Big Brother and wants to defy the government by feeling love and experiencing freedom.
But there are no secrets in Oceania. Television screens can watch you as you watch them. Neighbors listen at keyholes for any sounds of dissent. People throw one another to the wolves to save themselves. And Winston and Julia soon find themselves biting off far more than they can chew when they get involved in the underground resistance movement called The Brotherhood. Their relationship — and their secret opinions of Big Brother — become more than an act of rebellion. Soon they have to decide which is preferable: a difficult life of defiance and secrecy, or an easy life of love for only Big Brother.
The novel has recently gained popularity, and it’s not hard to see why: Phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” pervade our conversations. People communicate via screen more frequently than they communicate in person, and the concept of handheld devices monitoring one’s actions and locations is now a definitive reality. There is little room for intelligent conversation between people of differing opinions, as the ability to argue without screaming has almost entirely disappeared. In these times, it seems every day has a little bit of a Two-Minutes Hate.
It is a dark thought: are we living in the world Orwell imagined almost 70 years ago?
That is the question that Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan pose to their audiences through their stage adaptation of the novel. The two brought Orwell’s 1948 publication to life in 2013 in the UK; the play was brought to the Big Apple for previews this past May. Just a little over a month later, it began to make serious headlines because people began to fall ill as they watched, especially during the extreme torture scenes at the end.
As an English teacher who has read the novel twice, I went into the play fully aware of this. How bad could it be if I already know that what I’m going to see is disturbing?
The answer to that question: no number of articles about the play or my understanding of the book could’ve prepared me for it. I left the theater uneasy, nauseous, and dizzy. It wasn’t the strobe lights and sound effects, or the fake blood, or the electrocution scene, or the revelation about what really happens when a dissenter is brought into room 101. It was the way some things hit close to home: the bastardization of the English language in order to reduce meaning (and thus kill meaningful conversation), the discomfort between people of varying opinions, the confusion of trying to balance what one feels is right and what everyone else is doing. Yes, 1984 takes place in a dystopian future, but there are present day elements. The lines between the fictional content and our reality blur.
Content and nausea aside, what made this play stand out from any I’d seen previously was the incorporation of media. The production utilizes overhead projectors and hand-held video cameras to capture action that the audience cannot see from their seats: Winston’s diary entries are projected onto a screen above his head as he writes; Julia and Winston’s secret trysts are recorded off stage in a secret room and played on this same screen. This allows the audience to feel like Big Brother in that we have access to people’s privacy, but it also creates sympathy for those being watched.
Ultimately, the novel comes to life in disturbing vividness on Broadway. There is no better indicator of this play’s construction of confusion than the opening scene: Winston is writing in his diary, questioning if the year is actually 1984 or if that’s just what he’s been told. He is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a group who are discussing “the book” and that the act of writing it is, in and of itself, a small act of rebellion. The group explains that without the book, we’d have no way of knowing how bad the past really was and how to avoid these mistakes in the future. It is, at first, unclear about whether or not they are talking about Winston’s diary. Later, the audience comes to understand that this group was the resistance, and they were discussing the book of Emmanuel Goldstein, public enemy number one of Big Brother and leader of the Brotherhood.
However, is it such a stretch to imagine that they might have been talking about Orwell’s book?