Saturday, March 15, 2008

1984 - The Wrecked Rebel


The setting was done in very minimalistic style. Props that consists of little more than a few tables and chairs, with one long table serving either as a makeshift bed (plus a mattress and a piece of white knit material that was supposed to be a bedsheet) or a torture bench (plus a desklight and a wire-less headphone, the main 'torture device'.) There's the telescreens, two of them, represented by two monitors on stands that would show the face of Big Brother whenever they are 'activated'. The incognito face, a collage of multiple patches, with mismatched eyes, one blue and one black, hung ominously with the warning "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU" overhead the stage, in between three banners vertically proclaiming the three deathless Ingsoc slogans; the mantra of Oceania, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, WAR IS PEACE, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Last Wednesday, I had been to watch 1984, one of the plays presented during the University of Manchester's Drama Festival. It was based on George Orwell's novel of the same title. There was a whole array of tantalizing shows around since mid-Feb, including Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues, but I had to prioritize, what with all the work that I have to do, and made do by squeezing one 1984 presentation into my timetable.

As the would-be audience wander around outside the theatre, actors and crews wearing black suits and hard black military caps stood in attention or walked with military-approved upright postures among us.

"Comrades! The show is about to begin. Line up in a single file and enter the theatre, one by one. In a single line!"



The show began with images of war depicted on the big screen at the back of the stage. Then comes the Two-Minute hate, during which the actors wearing Party overalls sat on chairs cursing the fabled revolutionary leader Anthony Goldstein, led by a man in black overalls as a member of the Inner Party (O'Brien). The emotion produced by the facial expressions and the screams of hate are intense, I can feel the air vibrating. By the way, I forgot to mention that I managed to grab a front seat (as always hehe).

Winston Smith was played by a gaunt white young man, with a perpetual expression of confusion and distrust. At the beginning of the play I felt that he rather exaggerated the pain of varicose veins in his leg, it looks more like his leg was broken by the way he limped and grimaced. The story was told by his monologues, his hesitant writing in his diary which he read out loud in a convincingly shaky voice that grew louder and louder as he seemingly became more confident, protesting how the Party manipulated the minds of the people, "...last week the chocolate ration increased to 30%, then this week it increased to 25%, it's always increase with the Party, never decrease..." then all those confidence disappeared as the telescreen suddenly called all Party members to stand in front of it, whence he hastily hid the diary under a stool and shuffled to the front of the screen.

There's Parsons, the simple-minded man, sort of a comic relief, a portrayal of blind loyalty and almost pathetic innocence. "Guess what, Winston? The chocolate rations increased to 25% this week! Isn't it good?" He happily talked about how his daughter played the role of one of the Spies - children playing the role of eavesdropping and spying on family members, denouncing anyone who said the wrong thing or simply looked suspicious to their naive indoctrinated little eyes. Ironically, almost expectedly, it was his daughter who denounced him at the end, over the claims that he muttered 'Down with Big Brother' in his sleep. Even then he was apologetic, "...I'm glad they caught me before it's too late, that's what I'll tell them in the tribunal, thank you for saving me.." only to end up dragged, screaming, to the notorious Room 101.

Syme the intellectual was not spared. Voraciously slicing down the vocabulary of the language into fewer and fewer words, "...soon, no one will ever revolt or protest, because even if they have the idea, they wouldn't know how to express it!" He seemed to know exactly the mind-controlling plans of the Inner Party, and to understand perfectly his role in the department of linguistics towards achieving that goal. Winston's prediction was correct; 'they' didn't let Syme get away either. Remember Hang Nadim anyone?

Language and literature play timeless roles in waking up people's minds, fuelling revolutions and idealisms, or suppressing them altogether. When the media is kept under chains and shackles, it is not difficult to feed the people with all sorts of lies and dramas which they will believe without hesitance. When the media belches all sorts of nonsense and rubbish, one can bet one's little finger that the people's minds will be full or rubbish as well. Just forget about idealisms, revolutions, or even substantial thinking.

The Inner Party knew exactly what it is doing when it produces mass quantities of pulp art and literature - meaningless love songs and paperback churned out by machines with no human role whatsoever in producing them, a lot containing porn and violence - for the Proles (proletariats, the 80% of people in Oceania who are not members of the Party, regarded as 'animals who eat and breed' by the Party). This part is not included exactly in the play, except for the melodious "...'twas an 'opeless fancy..." sung over and over again in several scenes.

I mentioned it for I think there's a not-so-subtle sarcasm there, when Orwell the author told us how the pulp arts and literature were produced by machines without human intervention at all. In other words, when arts and literature lose their sacred role of sanctifying and fuelling human intelligence and spirituality, they're not human anymore, they're dehumanized, they're not fit for human consumption. And twisting the analogy in another way would reveal that humans who produce pulps in place of arts and literature are actually dehumanized, less human, undeserving to be humans.


Julia, Winston's counterpart, a young lady with the Junior Anti-Sex League belt tied around her slender waist. Her way of rebellion is sexual, by breaking the strict moral code imposed by the Party. She initiated Winston into his first act of actual rebellion in the bushes in the countryside. There's graphic sexual scenes in the play, them kissing passionately (although the act has a 'wooden', dispassionate, even vulgar characteristic in it - most probably intended), them lying together only half-dressed on the aforementioned makeshift bed. "... the more men you have done this before, the more I loved you." as Winston said to her during their first encounter.

People who are oppressed might resort to anything in order to show rebellion. Those with idealisms, might fight with ideas and structured actions, fruitful or not. Those without idealisms, only the notion of rebellion, the protest for injustice, would resort to their lower nature.

Winston, however, is a man of ideas. He began with questions, unanswered doubts and gut-wrenching confusions of the lines between the past and the present. He succumbed to sexual rebellion because - well, for one thing, he's a man whose needs hasn't been satisfied by his frigid ex-wife - and because that's the only outlet through which he can exert his protests.

When given the chance to have idealisms, through O'Brien's offer, he accepted without much ado. And driven by love (or lust?), without much thinking, Julia jumped into it. "...whatever you do, I'll join in." Uh. If there's anything I despise about people in love, it's about immediately adopting the other person's views and decisions without proper contemplation.

Even wifely loyalty is not a good enough excuse, and I mean it. =D

Winston Smith stated his willingness to do anything - murder, lie, break chaos, even throw sulphuric acid on a child's face - as long as disruption to the Party's ideals and schemes can be achieved. Machiavellian? Shows how people who are desperate for a change from the oppressive status quo are willing to descend to pretty much the same level, simply because they want to
protest, want to change. Rings a bell, anyone?

And in the end, it makes the fight against evil no less evil than the evil itself. There's no virtue in using murder to resurrect the dead.

Deceit and Pain

In the end, of course, Winston was caught. The old man who provided what he thought was a sanctuary where he can read 'Goldstein's manifesto', where he can enjoy Julia's company (and intimacy), was actually a Thought Police who would grab anyone who're not thinking in the prescribed manner. O'Brien who gave him the manifesto was involved with the Thought Police. Even the Brotherhood of revolutionaries doesn't exist. The manifesto doesn't exist, O'Brien wrote it. Goldstein doesn't exist. Refutation is futile. It's hopeless. Every time Winston screamed realistically, jerking spasmodically with pain upon O'Brien's fingerclicking (just how it was supposed to inflict pain in relation to the headphone on Winston's head, I don't think it matters), the audience is reminded of the power the Party had and the descent of hope in the future of men. As O'Brien said, "...Power is the end in itself. We seek power for power's sake." So was Winston and O'Brien's rendesvous in the place where there is no darkness. In the chamber of torture, in the Ministry of Love, where the light is never turned off symbolising perpetual pain and domination over the prisoners.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, for human beings.

As Winston cowered on the floor in fear, in the depiction of his ordeal in Room 101 - in the play they don't use the cage fixed on his face, they simply darken the stage and put him in an imaginary place, with an overhead voice telling him about the rats, about what the rats would do to him, with a horrible crunching noise, that impending doom of the rats coming to tear his flesh to pieces - we were again reminded of the brittleness of human nature. The brittleness of everything that men fought for, in the absence of power.

"....Power is the ability to make other people suffer.." as Winston said to O'Brien, while he was laid on the torture bench at the latter's mercy, before he was sent to Room 101, where he finally denounced everything that made he feel worthy as a human, where he finally crossed the invisible line that kept his mind in one piece however shattered it might have been, finally reducing it to little more than the contents of pulp literature for the Proles.

"...Pain alone won't break people. A lot of persons can bear pain, intense pain. But for everyone, there is just something that they cannot tolerate. It has nothing to do with cowardice or courage. There is just something that they cannot bear. For some people, it's being buried alive. Or being starved to death. For some people.. it might be.. rats."

The Last Stand?

The human struggle is futile and brittle, the struggle of the hoi polloi, the powerless mass who themselves are dependent upon the oppressive power. Freedom is slavery, for in being slaves, they wouldn't have to compromise their superficial freedom as opposed to a life of pain and imprisonment. War is peace, for when a people is constantly threatened with an outside menace, perpetually kept in fear, they would be docile, too concerned with their own survival than in any efforts to fight. Focusing on an outside menace would also keep the people's attention away from the rot inside that must not be noticed for the benefit of the Powers That Be. Ignorance is strength, although for whose strength, definitely not the people's. The people's ignorance, not knowing things, would strengthen the hold that the bearers of power exercised over them. Strengthen the hierarchies within a society and the stability that goes with it, regardless of the individual freedom and justice. They don't even know that something is wrong, why would they protest to get their rights?

The human struggle is futile and brittle, the struggle of the hoi polloi, the powerless mass who themselves are dependent upon the oppressive power. The power that holds economic supremacy and political superiority, rendering the people irreversibly dependent. The power who utilised all means possible to maintain their herd - deception, mind-control, higher-level conspiracies - the big hands that arrange everything for the little men, constructing a Matrix of sorts, where the men feel that they're in control, that they're doing something, when they actually aren't. Even the Brotherhood of revolutionaries doesn't exist. The manifesto doesn't exist, O'Brien wrote it. Goldstein doesn't exist. Refutation is futile. It's hopeless.

The human struggle is futile and brittle. The fighters as individuals are human beings, who would break under pressure. As O'Brien confirmed Winston's statement, "...Yes, power means the ability to make people suffer. To inflict pain and humiliation." As what was, and is still happening, everywhere in the world. How idealistic one can be in the mind, one would still succumb to the physical constraints. Secret detentions where no one, not even the detainees, know where on earth they are and what will happen to them. Governments who are not totalitarian in principle but exercising principles of one - media control, glib languages, endorsement of hedonism, detention and torture, double-standard treatment of its people, utilization of fear techniques to keep the people toeing the line - this rang true of more than one country in this big world, countries that claim to be civilised.

The less aware mass would fall under the mind-control. The ones whose minds are awake would be physically broken until the mind gave away, like Winston who, in the end of the play, was cheering for Big Brother with a psychotically-happy expression that is enough to make a revolutioner weep.

I'm not offering any solution. After all, these dark pictures are simply reflections of a low-cost play one Wednesday night.

And yes, I think the best 'special effect' was when O'Brien put his fingers into Winston's mouth and pulled out his 'tooth' (something white, a brief glimpse told me it looked more like a piece of chalk) and threw it somewhere under the audience's chair.

"...Your teeth are rotten. Look at that. And so is the rest of you and your rebellion."



"Oranges and lemons"
say the Bells of St.Clement's
"You owe me five farthings"
say the Bells of St Martin's
"When will you pay me?"
say the Bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich"
say the Bells of Shoreditch....

And yes, again, these rhymes are not prominent in the book (and the play) for no reason. This site is one of those that explained its, erm, not-very-angelic history.

1 comment:

Peri said...

Well written article.