Ig­no­rance Isn’t Strength How Broad­way Is Re­sist­ing the Trump Agenda

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Jesse Oxfeld

The tele­screens mounted above the door­ways from the Hud­son Theatre’s lobby to its au­di­to­rium — you might call them Sam­sung plas­mas, but you’d be miss­ing the point — dis­play some fa­mil­iar slo­gans: “War Is Peace”; “Ig­no­rance Is Strength”; “Love Is Fear.” “This Bill That Cuts Bil­lions From Med­i­caid Does Not Cut Med­i­caid” is not among them, but it could be. This is the new opened stag­ing of Ge­orge Or­well’s “1984,” and dou­ble­think is the lin­gua franca here.

“1984,” adapted by Robert Icke and Dun­can Macmil­lan from the 1949 novel, was a hit in Lon­don a few years ago, and, not long af­ter in­au­gu­ra­tion day in 2017, pow­er­house pro­duc­ers So­nia Fried­man and Scott Rudin an­nounced that they would bring it to Broad­way. But it is far from the only Trump-tinged play that has been pre­sented in to­day’s re­sis­tant New York.

“Build­ing the Wall,” by Robert Schenkkan, whose LBJ bio-play “All the Way” won the Tony for best play three years ago, is set in a not-tood­is­tant fu­ture, where Trumpian plans have gone awry. It had a trun­cated run off-Broad­way this past spring. The now-fa­mous Oskar Eustis stag­ing of “Julius Cae­sar” in Cen­tral Park out­fit­ted Shake­speare’s (and his­tory’s) as­sas­si­nated em­peror in a dark suit and a too-long red neck­tie. And “Come From Away,” a thor­oughly medi­ocre mu­si­cal about Cana­dian com­pas­sion on 9/11, has be­come a hit sim­ply be­cause a mes­sage of ba­sic de­cency is so wel­come and even nec­es­sary right now.

“Build­ing the Wall” was the most di­rect re­sponse to Trump. It imag­ines our coun­try just a few years in the fu­ture, af­ter a never-quite-spec­i­fied ter­ror­ist in­ci­dent has prompted the ad­min­is­tra­tion to en­act dra­co­nian de­por­ta­tion poli­cies to­ward im­mi­grants. It tran­spires as a jail­house in­ter­view be­tween an African-Amer­i­can aca­demic and a man who has been im­pris­oned for a hor­rific crime. Slowly we learn that the man worked for a pri­vate prison com­pany re­spon­si­ble for ware­hous­ing in-tran­sit de­por­tees, and that as more poured in and few went out, and he re­ceived no guid­ance or re­sources from his su­per­vi­sors, he in­stead, for lack of other op­tions, com­mit­ted an atroc­ity.

Writ­ten, the play­wright has said, in a week­long “white-hot fury,” it had a suc­cess­ful run in Los An­ge­les but closed early in New York. It’s de­signed to be a plau­si­bly dystopian view of our fu­ture, a vi­sion of hor­ri­ble things that we’d think could never hap­pen but in this new world just might. It’s a bit schematic, its hor­rors less in­evitable than they should be, and it — like any po­lit­i­cal play in New York — is preach­ing to its choir, but it’s also a thought­ful look at just how bad things might get.

I didn’t see the con­tro­ver­sial “Julius Cae­sar” (though I did help or­ga­nize a rally in sup­port of the Public The­ater), but in some ways what hap­pened there was the truly Or­wellian the­atri­cal event of the sum­mer. Count­less pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare up­date the Bard’s work for the cur­rent time, in one way or an­other. (“King Lear” seems like the most apt work for this

When lan­guage and thought are con­trolled and ma­nip­u­lated, it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to know the truth.

mo­ment, although there’s no chance of Ivanka not in­her­it­ing the en­tire coun­try.) Sev­eral years ago, the Guthrie The­ater, in Min­neapo­lis, cast a black ac­tor as a Barack Obama-like Cae­sar, with­out any con­tro­versy. Here, though, af­ter the Cen­tral Park pro­duc­tion, with its Trumpy Cae­sar, had run for sev­eral weeks with­out com­ment, a sen­sa­tion­al­ized “Fox & Friends” seg­ment prompted an an­gry tweet from Don­ald Trump Jr. This led Trump­ist Twit­ter to gang up on Public spon­sors, who promptly with­drew or re­al­lo­cated fund­ing. The Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts put out a state­ment em­pha­siz­ing that it does not fund Shake­speare in the Park. In our newspeak world, what was ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing, the ac­tual mes­sage of the pro­duc­tion — that vi­o­lence to de­fend democ­racy will not work — was im­ma­te­rial. Rather, state TV and Big Brother’s son ma­nip­u­lated the masses into cow­ing ma­jor com­pa­nies. It was dou­ble-plus un-good.

Now there is this new “1984” that squeezes more anx­i­ety and dis­com­fort into 100 the­atri­cal min­utes than one pre­vi­ously thought pos­si­ble (at least since they ren­o­vated those tor­turecham­ber seats at the BAM Har­vey The­ater). It tells the fa­mil­iar story of Win­ston Smith, ev­ery­man, who is de­ter­mined to re­tain his hu­man­ity by keep­ing a di­ary, and by find­ing se­cret love, amid the to­tal­i­tar­ian com­pelled group­think of Big Brother’s regime. But it cuts back and forth in time, from the height of Big Brother’s power in 1984 to a mid-21st-cen­tury point when peo­ple are study­ing the his­tory of that time; it re­peats some scenes; there’s con­stant dron­ing noise and mu­sic, keep­ing the au­di­ence off­bal­ance and un­easy. You never know what’s real, what’s not, whom to trust, what to be­lieve.

That, of course, is the point of Or­well’s book. When lan­guage and thought are con­trolled and ma­nip­u­lated, it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to know the truth. And that’s what’s so scary about watch­ing this pro­duc­tion at a time when our pres­i­dent and his ad­vis­ers lie rou­tinely and re­peat­edly, when they con­struct an al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity just as surely as Win­ston spends his days edit­ing old doc­u­ments to make his­tory con­form with what Big Brother tells you is true.

In fact, that’s the scari­est part of this play — scarier than the much­bal­ly­hooed tor­ture scenes at its end, as Win­ston is de­stroyed. (All the hype around the show’s pur­ported grue­some­ness is both not quite true — strate­gic black­outs keep us from see­ing any ac­tual abuse, only its ef­fects — and quite pos­si­bly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, as the show has been sell­ing poorly.) In a play that leaves you deeply un­set­tled, it’s the re­minder of gov­ern­ment’s power to ma­nip­u­late truth that is most har­row­ing.

But there’s also a glim­mer of hope for us in “1984.” Win­ston thinks he’s joined “the re­sis­tance” — led, natch, by one Em­manuel Goldstein — but in fact the regime has been watch­ing him all along, and the re­sis­tance, and Goldstein, may or may not even ex­ist. Here, across the United States and es­pe­cially in New York, the re­sis­tance is real.

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