As the recent blockbuster success of The Hunger Games proved the only thing people may like more than envisioning the perfect society is envisioning an imperfect one. In fact hellish landscapes and cityscapes have been a staple of speculative fiction for over a century. Consider the following classic works.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895) One of the earliest entries in the genre by one of the founding fathers of sci-fi. Wells anonymous protagonist known only as the Time Traveler is a scientist and a gentleman inventor who travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Once there he finds that humanity has evolved into two separate species according to class divisions. The leisure classes have become the attractive but child like and helpless Eloi, while the working classes have become an underground ape like race known as the Morlocks. The Time Machine has spawned three film adaptions, two television versions, comic book adaptions and has been one of the most influential novels in its genre, inspiring countless other works.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935) This semi-satirical novel was published during the rise of fascism in Europe, and Lewis speculated how similar movements could gain power in America. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president on a campaign espousing patriotism and traditional values with the endorsement of a major religious leader. Once in office he consolidates power and establishes totalitarian rule along the same lines as Hitler and the SS. The novel’s protagonist Doremus Jessup tries to warn people every step of the way, only to constantly have his fears dismissed with the statement, “It Can’t Happen Here!” The novel inspired a hit play and is currently enjoying a massive resurgence in popularity.
1984 by George Orwell (1948) Set in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain) in the super state of Oceania a society racked by never ending war, constant surveillance and public manipulation. The main protagonist Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth actually the government’s propaganda unit only to begin an illicit affair with Julia who introduces him to the Underground Resistance. Considered THE novel on totalitarianism and living in a police state, being the one that coined the classic phrases “Big Brother,” “Thought Police” and “We Have Always Been at War With Eurasia.”
A Canticle for Leibowitz By Walter M. Miller (1960) Set in a Catholic monastery located in what once part of the American Southwest and now a nuclear wasteland, the novels spans thousands of years. The monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz have the sacred trust of preserving the few remaining shreds of mankind’s scientific knowledge until man is ready once more to receive it. But will mankind ever truly be ready? It won the Hugo award in 1961 for Best Science Fiction Novel, and has never been out of print with over 25 reprints and new editions having been published. It is thought to be the best novel ever written about nuclear apocalypse and is considered not only a masterpiece of science fiction but of literature period alongside the works of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.
The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood (1985) Set in the Republic of Gilead (formerly known as New England) where a massive drop in the white fertility rate has led to the rise of a totalitarian theocracy and the thorough subjugation of women. The narrator Offred alternates between her current life as a ‘handmaid’ used to reproduce children for a Commander and his infertile wife Serena Joy, and her past which included a husband and daughter. Along the way we learn of several classes of women under the new regime-none of whom have a very good deal. This one’s become a staple of women’s studies classes and a new highly anticipated tv series will be airing on Hulu in April starring Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella, and Yvonne Strahovski.
Top photo: Bigstock
Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell (1903–1950) was born in Bengal, India, but raised in England. He went to increasingly fine schools as a “charity boy” (on scholarship) after which, at loose ends, he spent five years in Burma as a policeman. Determined to write, the young man then lived in London and Paris taking menial jobs to support his first book Down and Out in Paris and London. In order not to embarrass the family, Blair adopted the nom de plume Orwell. As he says in the play, “Mr. Blair was Mr. Orwell before Mr. Orwell became himself.”
Politics took hold during and after the writing of his second effort, Burmese Days, a severe look at British colonialism. Two years later, he joined a group fighting against General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Best known for later, political novels, Animal Farm (whose two main pigs were said to represent Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky) and 1984, Orwell addressed imperialism, fascism and communism with passion and integrity as author and journalist. Himself a socialist, the author declared that Animal Farm was “a book about totalitarianism.” (Look up your isms.)
The fictitious premise of Joe Sutton’s play is an American book tour for Animal Farm shepherded by twenty-something, attractive Carlotta Morrison, a stand-in for editor Sonia Brownell, whom Orwell married a short time before his death of tuberculosis. A frisky widower who, in fact, had an open marriage, the author matter-of-factly proposes to Carlotta five minutes into the piece. Their push/pull continues throughout adding an appealing frisson without venturing outside British reserve or becoming unlikely.
Orwell accepted this uncomfortably public role in order, one surmises, to promote political beliefs “I did not agree to be muzzled” while Carlotta presses for concentration on Animal Farm “…people want you to say Communism is evil” and humanizing her charge in order to sell books. Segueing (with lighting) back and forth between excerpts of his lectures and often combative, sometimes flirty private conversations, the play both sketches Orwell’s background and illuminates the era.
The protagonist represents England/Europe in the aftermath of WWII and deprivations it continued to suffer affecting its politics. (A visual reminder of this is shocking.) The somewhat idealistic Carlotta thinks, “We’re in the midst of choosing what’s best for the human spirit.” A single allusion to the House Un-American Activities Committee echoes.
It’s neither necessary to know Orwell’s history nor to have read Animal Farm in order to enjoy the play. In fact, this is probably the best, most comprehensible retelling of the latter you’re likely to hear. It is helpful to know something about history and these political philosophies, however.
Playwright Joe Sutton has given us a completely credible character in this stubborn, Eton-styled Orwell (Jamie Horton) with strong beliefs and an appreciative eye. The presence of Carlotta (Jeanna de Waal) offers American public opinion, a balance to rhetoric, and the personal. Actor Casey Predovic acts as occasional off stage heckler and eventual reassurance of Orwell’s effect on people. A piece for those who think.
Jamie Horton, who here closely resembles his character, is marvelous. If the actor is not British, he could certainly pass in rarefied circles. Mannerisms are polished and conservative. Horton has a twinkle in his roving eye where apt and a pitch perfect, self depreciating laugh. He looks into our eyes when lecturing and at Carlotta with palpable attention. Orwell’s personal revelations are moving. Thought is evident; listening occurs in real time. A thoroughly engaging performance.
Jeanna de Waal offers just the right balance of historically subjugated Vassar smarts, ambition, femininity, and youth. She executes pauses, hesitance and switchbacks effectively and convinces us of some attraction for her charge.
Director Peter Hackett gives us two such distinctly different characters we can almost see class, geography and history . The piece is elegantly paced. Flares and reflections read equally well.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Northern Stages presents
Orwell in America by Joe Sutton
Featuring Jamie Horton & Jeanna de Waal with Casey Predovic
Directed by Peter Hackett
Through October 30, 2016
59 East 59th Street