Did Somebody Say … George Orwell?

Inside Crystal Palace by B.B. Turner
Source: vam.ac.uk

Shortly before he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), George Orwell read (and reviewed) Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), a dystopian satire imagining a glass world populated by nameless human beings known only by their state-assigned serial numbers. For the hapless numbers of OneState the very idea of a private sphere has withered and died – not least because all buildings are made entirely of glass. Amongst other things, Zamyatin’s dystopia was written in response to the utopian impulse of a text like Paul Scheerbart’s Glass Architecture (1914), the influence of which is traceable in some of László Moholy-Nagy’s paintings from the 1920s, as well as other early projects of the Bauhaus. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Emmanuel Goldstein’s book-within-a-book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, takes account of this milieu when noting that “[i]n the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient – a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete – was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person.”

Walter Benjamin, for example, enthused over such architectural prospects in conversation with Bertolt Brecht and in his essay on ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929): “To live in a glass house”, he wrote in discussing Andre Breton’s Nadja (1928), “is a revolutionary virtue par excellence. […] Discretion concerning one’s own existence, once an aristocratic virtue, has become more and more an affair of petty-bourgeois parvenus.” In Zamyatin’s dystopia, however, the transparency of glass architecture takes on a different metaphorical significance insofar as it refracts the problematic of political domination through state surveillance and control.

The tolerability of transparency depends, for the most part, on who’s doing the watching (or looking, or seeing) as well as the material interests that motivate such ocular fascinations. Winston Smith, Orwell’s already dead last man, knows that he is watched and he knows, too, blessed as he is with an uncanny degree of foreknowledge, precisely where his narrative will end. We had provided Orwell with a proto-narrative, so behind Winston’s dark premonitions lurked the fate of Zamyatin’s nameless protagonist, D-503, who had already been lobotomised. All that remains of the optimistic vision of the Bauhaus in Nineteen Eighty-Four is an antique glass paperweight, or, in the recent stage production, a snow-globe, which looks remarkably like a microcosm of Zamyatin’s glass-world (or, say, the internet, now that we know it is also a vast Panopticon).

László Moholy-Nagy, Composition. c. 1923;
Source: http://drawingminimal.blogspot.co.uk

For much of the twentieth century, many interpretations of Orwell’s dystopia were heavily over-determined by the geo-political, inter-imperialist rivalries between the USA and the USSR. Isaac Deutscher once described Nineteen Eighty-Four as “an ideological super-weapon in the cold war”. Philip E. Wegner has more recently acknowledged that the text functioned as “a significant boon to efforts in both Great Britain and the United States to discredit any form of intellectual political activism”, allowing conservatives and liberals (or conservative liberals), like Lionel Trilling, opportunistically to co-opt Orwell into an anti-communist pantheon – without pausing to draw any distinction between the c-word and its Stalinised, bureaucratic distortions. For such readers, the icily cold Inner Party apparatchik, O’Brien, appears as a convenient bogeyman with which to frighten impressionable young undergraduates, warning them away from the inevitably disastrous consequences of committed intellectual activism, which, so it is said, only ever masks a proto-authoritarian will-to-power, thus proving, once and for all, the Fundamental Truth-Value of liberal paradigms of disinterested and ‘objective’ scholarship. Those in long-besmirched glass houses, however, should always have known better than to throw stones.

In part because of its status as a Bible for anti-communists, Nineteen Eighty-Four continues to occupy an almost unassailable place in the late-capitalist cultural imaginary. Such liberal-humanist appropriations of the novel might need to be re-cast, however, in light of the recent revelations about mass surveillance which have exposed the hypocrisies of the so-called ‘Free World’ (as it was once known). Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s stage adaptation of the novel makes a number of interesting choices in that regard. The novel invites adaptation – of which there have been quite a few other notable examples on film and television – not least because Winston’s job in the Records Department of the Ministry of Information Truth acknowledges textual instability as a necessary condition of any social formation geared towards the consolidation of class domination. In Oceania, the past is mutable, which entails constant tampering with the historical and textual record; in production, Orwell’s text is mutable and can be manipulated in all sorts of ways. Ogilvy, for example, the fictional war-hero whom Winston dreams up in Nineteen Eighty-Four in order to fabricate a story by which to unperson the unfortunate Withers is, in Icke and MacMillan’s 1984, presented to the audience as a ‘real’ person, himself requiring to be unpersoned: a neat joke at the expense of the diligent reader.

At the Playhouse, the telescreens blast out a constant stream, not of propaganda statistics and military music, but, rather, ’40s Swing music – more Orrin Tucker or Anne Shelton than Glenn Beck – whilst the black and blue overalls of the Inner and Outer party are swapped for woollen cardigans and sweaters. Winston, who Icke and MacMillan cast several years younger than thirty-nine, only goes into a blue boiler-suit after the room behind Charrington’s antique shop has been revealed as a space of false refuge, whereupon he is transported to the windowless cellars of the Ministry of Love. The in-your-face posters of Big Brother are noticeable only by their absence – an apt enough comment on the more-or-less intangible and ‘invisible’, but no less pervasive, structures of ideological reproduction which animate our contemporary life-world. It is sometimes hard to recall that one is reading pro-capitalist propaganda in the mainstream press, for example, when it has been effectively naturalised as ‘news’ – which always carries with it that wonderfully ‘disinterested’ sheen of ostensible objectivity.

The directors perceive the importance of Orwell’s Appendix on ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, which is written in the past tense and which re-contextualises the foregoing narrative by situating it in a temporal and historical framework the very possibility of which has been radically de-stabilised by the narrative itself. The citizens of Oceania cannot remember the past and so cannot conceive of a future, because all they know is the austere reality of a continuous present. “Newspeak”, as the first sentence of Orwell’s appendix informs us, “was the official language of Oceania”, which must mean, somehow, that the state of affairs described in the tripartite narrative has passed out of existence – although precisely how this has come to pass is left unspecified. Robert Paul Resch suggests that the existence of the appendix frames the narrative in such a way as to make it appear as a fictional historical novel, written from an unforeseen future beyond that which is depicted in the story of Winston’s mundane routines of servile and sedentary record-swapping, his brief affair with Julia in the pastoral Golden Country, and his eventual descent into total submission and surrender. The only other section of the book which at all resembles the Appendix, in tone and style, is Goldstein’s book-within-a-book – banned by the Party because of the incisive clarity with which it elucidates the workings of Oceania’s society. Goldstein, a rebel against Big Brother, is, as is known, a cipher for Trotsky and his book offers something akin to Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, or The History of the Russian Revolution. O’Brien, who clandestinely supplies Winston with a copy of the book, later claims to have written it himself after it becomes clear that he is, in fact, a more-than-willing agent of Big Brother. However, the truth-value of his claim is, like so much else in the book, ultimately unfathomable. O’Brien also pointedly refuses to specify whether Goldstein’s cellular network of revolutionary militants actually exists or not. The possibility of revolutionary organisation is simply left hanging as a desperate question in the face of a fully-totalised regime of mass surveillance, but it is certain – to us, at least – that the regime must be overthrown.

Icke and MacMillan frame their adaptation of the narrative with two short scenes at the beginning and the end of the production which, so it seems, offer a jarringly anti-naturalistic depiction of a book group engaged in collective deliberation about the story of Winston Smith (who is played by Sam Crane). The book group exists in a future set some way beyond the horizon of the narrative. The happenings of the narrative are thus made to seem like historical events which are safely located in a past which has passed, or, at least, which seems to have passed. The frame narrative seems like it offers a new version of the ‘happy ending’ reading, the problems of which have been recounted by Richard Sanderson. ‘Winston’ initially seems to be participating in the book group, passes out, and wakes in Oceania thinking of Shakespeare. Then again, the thirteen chimes of the bell toll before the curtain goes up, so perhaps the book group is not entirely what it seems either: never send to know for whom the bell tolls.

Were we to speculate about filling in the gaps in the novel between the narrative and the appendix, or between the narrative and the frame-narrative in the stage production, we would immediately stumble upon the question of political agency. We might begin by considering Winston’s oft-repeated dictum that “if there is hope”, as he scratches out furtively in his diary, “it lies in the proles” – a thought which returns to him shortly before he and Julia are apprehended by the Thought Police in the room above – or is it behind? – Charrington’s shop. In this particular adaptation, however, Winston cannot bring himself to say the word ‘proles’ – which is an ugly abbreviation of that apparently difficult word ‘proletariat’ –  and so, in a ‘timely’ and ‘relevant’ populist gambit, he replaces it with the word ‘people’ instead. It is a telling sleight of directorial hand insofar as it serves to occlude and write out any explicit reference to the class politics palpably present in Orwell’s novel. It is symptomatic of a wider failing in the production which only tries to give us glimpses into the world of the Inner and Outer Party, whilst mostly ignoring – and cutting – those passages which describe the life of the proles who, after all, make up close to eighty-five per cent of Oceania’s society – if society is quite the right word to describe a life-world in which all traces of sociality and solidarity are constantly in the process of being erased (cf. the past forty years of neo-liberalism). Much more could be said on this score, were it not for the fact that that portion of the culture industry predominantly located in the West End has hardly ever provided a venue for A Good Night Out in John McGrath’s sense of the phrase.

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Still from the production featuring the snow globe
Source: http://headlong.co.uk

Orwell toyed with The Last Man in Europe as an alternative title for the novel which eventually came to be known by its now culturally ubiquitous numerical appellation. As O’Brien puts it to Winston when interrogating him in the Ministry of Love: “If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man”. Zamyatin’s We provides one stream of influence for Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) provides another, more distant comparator text. Winston Smith is, amongst other things, the last gasp of a humanistic romanticism – or the “human heritage” as he puts it – in a totally administered world, struggling to hold on to a sense of self and identity – a “lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear”. Winston, however, is neither a romantic nor a tragic hero. He possesses no powerful force of critical insight or intensity of perception, but he does dimly comprehend that “[t]ragedy […] belonged to an ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love and friendship.” O’Brien will later effectively eviscerate any claim Winston may wish to make about standing for the liberal-humanist tradition, pointing to Winston’s professed willingness to engage in the most nefarious of means when conspiring to overthrow Big Brother. The liberal anti-communism of a Lionel Trilling or a Richard Rorty already bore within it the moral crimes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the NSA and… the list could go on. The last man, in the liberal-humanist sense, is nakedly exposed by Orwell as a rotting bag of filth. If there is any hope, we are asked to acknowledge, it emphatically does not lie with the decaying and ossified remnants of the petit bourgeois intelligentsia, cherishing an illusion of private conscience and ‘independent’ commentary in the face of an all-powerful state.

This, then, is where another of Icke and MacMillan’s changes provides a moment of final provocation. In the novel, O’Brien goes much further than Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor or even Zamyatin’s Benefactor in granting that the Party is only interested in consolidating its power for power’s sake. The rule of Big Brother has nothing to do with guaranteeing an unfree and stupefied happiness for the masses. “Power is not a means,” O’Brien says, “it is an end”, before proceeding to undermine all of Winston’s claims to moral superiority. In the stage production, Tim Dutton succeeds, for the briefest of moments, in making O’Brien’s tirade terrifyingly convincing when he departs from the novel’s script to bark at Winston that all he, Winston, is really interested in is coffee, sex and chocolate – i.e. Winston is unable effectively to challenge Big Brother’s authoritarian state, because he is only concerned with securing slightly better rations for himself under the present dispensation, without fundamentally altering Oceania’s political coordinates. He nostalgically hankers after the bourgeois private sphere, as would any right-thinking petit bourgeois parvenu – but what if the bourgeois private sphere really should be abolished, as Benjamin hints in his discussion of Breton? Winston may well taunt Julia for only being a rebel from the waist down, but his own oppositional stance is no less rooted in the search for bodily pleasure. Unfortunately for Winston, though, the hedonistic utopia of continuous gratification is precisely equivalent with the liberal-democratic utopia of free-market consumerism which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is, at the present time, bringing the planet to its knees. If there is hope, then, it lies only with the ‘proles’ – which we might take as a problematic place-holder for the uncertain possibility of revolutionary socialist praxis. Winston does not need to finish Goldstein’s book to know that this is its final message, but it is not a possibility which is made visible in this production, for all its sparkle and slickness. The proscenium arch of the Playhouse frames a window onto a world which is both ours (glass, shards, surveillance) and not ours. It is time that we began learning again where properly to direct our stones.

Owen Holland is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of English in Cambridge. His research focuses on William Morris's utopianism. He has published work in the New Theatre Quarterly, Social History and elsewhere.