Freedom and expression in Krannert’s “1984”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

The first productions of the season are upon us in central Illinois, with shows going up at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Station Theatre, and the What You Will Shakespeare Company, among others. Due to travel this fall I was sad to have missed the Station’s take on Will Eno’s The Open House and WYW’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Eno is one of my favorite playwrights working today on the problem of disfunction in the myth we call the “All-American Family.” And Dekker’s Renaissance satire on the influence of audience tastes, alongside Eno, are interesting selections considering Illinois’ Theatre’s themed season around Censored/Free Expression. The adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 makes sense on the surface: the novel hits the problem on the head in a distopic portrayal of a Big Government whose agenda is to control even our very thoughts through the promulgation of continuous warfare. It inaugurates a season I am especially excited about, particularly in its spring offerings: The Other Shore (an ensemble consideration on the definition of “freedom” across cultures), Kingdom City (a mediation on the influence of the religious right on debates of contemporary freedom), The Grapes of Wrath (an adaptation of Steinbeck’s chilling migration epic), and In The Blood (a retelling of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter where “A” stands for abolitionist).

Julia (Alexis DawTyne) shouts in hate as Winston (Ryan Smetana) looks on. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

I would have liked to have seen 1984 at the end of the season, however, for several reasons: a) the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago is also mounting a production of the novel, saturating the landscape with the same source material, b) because the play hits the topic so hard on the head some of the complexity of Orwell’s arguments might have demonstrated more complexity—particularly in terms of religion—after say Kingdom City and In The Blood, and c) performing abstract, absurdist drama is a tough one right out of the gate for many of these otherwise skilled undergraduate students. In a world where on “a bright cold day in April” the clocks strike “thirteen,” there is no way to lend it a realism that we might desire from a Tracy Letts play or Edward Hopper painting. I can understand that there might be some logic to try to give a production some ethos by playing the world “straight,” but as in this production, the effect is more often flat than believable. For example, while time was easily described in different increments, the omnipresence of telescreens and loudspeaker announcements of productivity and troupe movements startled the ensemble. They were overtly afraid of being seen by the screens; they stopped what they were doing to take note of the announcements. If these aspects had been truly inculturated, wouldn’t the response have been to treat them as far less novel?

I have written about the tricky nature of abstraction and morality drama elsewhere: for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s recent production of Pericles, for last fall’s production of Oh! What a Lovely War! at Krannert, and the film Calvary, among others. These were largely successful because they do not attempt to recreate the real but rather naturalize the absurd—that that is without and undermines reason: that kind of theatre that works as a “site of passage for those immense analogical disturbances in which ideas are arrested in flight at some point in their transmutation into the abstract,” according to Antonin Artaud. What is chilling about 1984 at the level of text is the way in which it manipulates syntax and diction into suggesting the a absolutist government operates with a measure of reason. For example,

  • “Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.”
  • “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
  • “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

Each of these quotations are striking and terrifying on there own. Yet, in the lengthy adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan, they get swallowed up by repetitions of dialogue about needing to be precise and the incantatory “War is peace; Freedom is slavery; Ignorance is strength.” Yes, we live in a society at seeming unending war with the Middle East and one that has never been more litigious with our day-to-day movements. For me, 1984 is most illuminating in terms of not what the government can and does do to censor us, but the ways in which we willingly censor ourselves.

Winston (Ryan Smetana) and Julia (Alexis DawTyne) are almost too convincing as Smith (Ford Bowers) narrates. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

Stress on realism rather than attempting to naturalize the absurd  tends to produce a drone-like ensemble as well, where you do not feel gradations of emotion or commitment to the party amongst the individuals. Perhaps the is the sacrifice in conveying the oppressing terror of uniformity: “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” However, Alexis DawTyne (Party Member: Julia) and Ryan Smetana (Party Member: Winston) were the most compelling to me in there ability to show slippage and fluctuation in their character’s commitment to Big Brother and the Thought Police. While their ostensible goal is always and only exposition—to reenact Winston Smith’s (Ford Bowers) diary during his trial—the nudity and compassion required threatens to enliven the very thing the Ministry of Love is attempting to eradicate. In small moments where Winston seems to accidentally admit he loves Julia in the real rather than in the fiction (as in, not prompted by the diary entries), exposition gives way to the actual development of an argument for the production as a whole.

Smith (Ford Bowers) is tortured to undo his knack for thinking. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

The part of Smith is equally difficult: how to resist a mad government while not seeming to be an extremist yourself. Furthermore, the performance of torture, and repeated varieties of torture whose goals seem entirely unclear, requires a difficult layering of emotions (fear, distress, pain, etc.). The destruction of his body in the production is intended to be analogous to the destruction of his mind by O’Brien (Ninos Baba): “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” This was visually successful, in that it was disturbing and discomfiting certainly, but seemed ultimately excessive in that the destructive energies were misplaced. In my understanding of Orwell’s novel, Smith stands in for the suffering of everyman, any man, and is not evaluated or valued on the merits of his individuation. We as an audience should not be compelled to have him saved as the act of resolution to the drama because he matters. He actually doesn’t, on his own terms. He hasn’t done anything noteworthy, treated his neighbors or lover with especial or heroic care. It is the threat of emptying out the meaning, the plasticity, the polysemy of language itself that censorship poses. The scenes in which the dictionary is being rewritten and the party member (Brandon Rivera) struggles with the supposed “imprecision” of language as a system of communication are included to distill the real violence Smith’s body attempts to bear: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” Ultimately, the production underscores the threats to personal freedom and the importance of individuated expression, but falls short in conceptually uniting—or, rather, applying some double-think—these rights as freedom of expression. The season promises to unravel variations in the definition of “freedom,” which may give us pause and cause to return to 1984.


Revenge is in the Air: Moral tragedies welcome spring to Illinois

Maybe it’s the lousy weather. Maybe it’s the news. Whatever the case, this spring there has been a great deal of revenge drama on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. The all-student run troupe, the What You Will Shakespeare Company, put up Two Gents, a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s play with a sociopathic rendering of Proteus. The Armory Free Theatre saw Dr. Andrea Steven’s directorial debut with a considered and considerate The Duchess of Malfi. But the surprise runaway hit of the spring has been John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, directed by Writers’ Theatre’s William Brown for the Department of Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Considering the college campus setting, it seems interesting that early modern plays invested in revenge and corruption are being targeted at and also successfully engaging our undergraduates.

Snuck a shot of the smart set design: a dramatic staircase, painted shutters to a bedroom, and a complex scrim backdrop did a lot of heavy lifting in this production.

Part of why I assigned in my “Intro to Shakespeare” class Ford’s play and arranged a field trip to see the production was so students could have a shared theatrical (not just dramatic, not just on the page) experience with which to engage one another. Their first responses were to the set design, which was indeed perhaps the cleverest part of the production with two main features. The first was the curving marble-esqe staircase dividing the stage in half. Used as a third entranceway, the staircase routinely underscored the power dynamics between characters: Giovanni begging his sister Annabella to take his love seriously, she standing halfway up the staircase, a figurative virginal pedestal; Vasquez coaxing a worried Putana from below that he will protect her despite her failure of guardianship—and then does not. Often the staircase was used to materially elevate women, put them in positions to be convinced and cajoled, only to be brutalized shortly thereafter. The staircase operated as a material reminder of the constructed nature of the dividing from and deifying of normative sexuality.

Giovanni (David Monahan) pleads with his sister, Annabella (Clara Byczkowski), to take his Petrarchan protestations of love seriously. Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann.
Much of the set design included painterly elements which professed both its historical Parma origins and the present day. Second of the main features was the scrim, which had two major tricks: projecting a kind of curved, stain-glass window for the conversations between Giovanni and his confessor, and then a blue-print like backdrop of a Roman collonade in acidic colors. At the top of the staircase was enough room for a bedroom with a louvered-panel that when open revealed the bed behind, and when closed became a Italian portrait, presumably of the incestuous siblings’ missing mother. These elements summoned up, in a minimal way, the accoutrements of an elite lifestyle, reminding us that these characters were not one of us, were not expected to obey the rules of the rest of us. Thus the architectural design of the production underscored issues of aberrance when it came to sexuality as well as class behaviors.

The louvered portrait also did a lot of work when it came to revealing transgressions, conscripting the audience into covert knowledge that siblings were sleeping together. Difficult to do tastefully, especially with college students, is stage nudity. There is also a strange decorousness of college theatre not run by students themselves wherein stage nudity somehow violates the “safe space” of the classroom as extended into the theatre. The morning after Giovanni and Annabella consummate their love, they talk in bed. The louvered painting is opened to reveal them chatting playfully, until they stand up to dress, when the stakes of their behavior is made clear. It is a brief visual cue that their demise, a product of this night, that the body will out. The suspended platform extending from the stairs, the collonade backdrop, and the movable louvers all evoke a panoptoconic sense: private knowledge is paramount, and as the audience, we are owners of blackmail material.

In a risky but tasteful moment, Giovanni (David Monahan) and Annabella (Clara Byzckwoski) banter about her marriage future the after sharing the night together. Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann.

But we audiences were not the only ones conscripted into bad behavior—or at least charged with keeping secrets we’d rather not. Perhaps what I liked most about this production was the way in which it took servants very seriously, maximizing the emotional ties between elite men and their lower-class bosom confidants. It is not with women, spouses, or even kin that the young and violent men of the play share their innermost desires and fears. It is with their day-in-day-out footmen with whom the bonds are strongest, and for whom we empathize the most. Despite her blinding, Putana’s cries for Isabella who we know is already dead and yet she cannot come to believe is heart-wrenching. At the death of Soranzo, it is unclear whether Vasquez is in laughter or tears at the death of man who he has served his entire life, and whose father had stolen him into slavery. Perhaps hardest to bear is Poggio’s despair at the death of Berghetto: the blithe and dull-witted gentleman whispers the name of his servant companion last of all and several times, suggesting his importance even over the new fiancé. These are all men without leaders, without moral guides over whom they do not hold power. So while the private lives these masters and servants share is sympathetic, it is also darkly Marxist in its implications: that men need other men of equal financial status in order to be morally policed correctly, or society will devolve into just this sort of bloodbath.

Vasquez (Neal Moeller) holds his dying master, Soranzo (Thom Miller), in his arms, while Anabella’s heart lays discarded in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann.

Brown’s production asks us to take the ethics of the play as its core concern. Private knowledges seems to conscript and pin characters to choices they would rather not make, but no one in the world of the play has the moral backbone to upset the norm of retributive violence as a substitute for reasoned justice. As the talk back with Dr. Andrea Stevens, Dr. Valerie Hotchkiss (of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, where we have the only first edition quarto of the playtext in the world), and dramaturg Sara B. T. Thile made clear, the jumble of issues in this play—of sexuality, religion, class—often make it difficult for directors to pick a consistent emphasis as these themes fluctuate in importance depending on the scene. Morally serious drama isn’t exactly what college undergraduates are looking for in their spectacle, but challenged with the aberrant justice of the play and their own conscription into private knowledges they would rather not have, the audience was attentive and fully engaged. With two more shows left in their season, I can only hope that the Illinois Theatre Department continues to select ethically challenging work to the obvious engagement of our students.