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Review: ‘1984’ on Broadway Strikes a Chord With a Polarized America

An import of the West End adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” which opened last week on Broadway at the Hudson Theater, is offering American audiences a window into life under a totalitarian regime.

A new Broadway production of George Orwell’s landmark novel “1984” opened at the Hudson Theater on June 22 after a successful run on the West End in London. The media hype around the Broadway production has largely centered on audience reactions to the adaptation’s depictions of torture, which, aside from the prerecorded murder of a thought criminal that is shown on a video screen towards the beginning of the production, will be bearable for the average theatergoer. The real torture on Broadway will take place down the street from the Hudson Theater when Michael Moore’s one-man show opens at the Belasco Theater at the end of July.

The production is an import of London’s West End adaptation by Olivier Award-winning director Robert Icke and Olivier Award-nominee Duncan Macmillan, who have been working on the project since 2013. Tom Sturridge’s Winston Smith is fragile, accessible, and inspiring in his relentless desire to return to an existence in which truth is not a relative entity controlled by the state, but an objective reality that exists as a consequence of the human condition. Olivia Wilde, in her Broadway debut, compliments Sturridge’s performance aptly as Winston’s secret lover, Julia, who joins him in his resistance effort against Big Brother. Reed Birney’s masterful portrayal of O’Brien, a leader of the Party, is eerily sanguine. Birney’s performance during the torture scenes will most likely be the part of the production that sticks with audiences most once they have left the theater.

While the performances are strong, the star of this and any adaptation of “1984” is the story and its themes. Winston Smith’s dreary existence in Oceania is marked by restrictions on personal freedom put into place by the totalitarian regime. Thinking outside of the “truths” derived by the Party is strictly forbidden and punishable by death. Winston, both in the novel and this production, is enamored with the notion of “objective truth,” which has been wiped away by the Party in an effort to exert control.

The modernized Broadway production arguably serves as a direct repudiation of the postmodern spirit that has incrementally gained control of academia in the United States over the past few decades. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, postmodernism is defined, in part, by the radical belief that “there is no such thing as human nature.” The entry continues: “Postmodernists insist that all, or nearly all, aspects of human psychology are completely socially determined.

Orwell’s O’Brien, the leader of the party, echoes this postmodern view on human nature in a passage from the novel.

You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals. Humanity is the Party. The others are outside – irrelevant.

This sentiment plays heavily in Icke and Macmillan’s stage adaptation. Winston speaks to Julia about the existence of an objective reality resulting from the human condition that exists independently of the Party’s control of the truth. In the face of torture, he passionately tells O’Brien, who seeks to convince him that truth is relative and controlled by the Party, that “two plus two make (sic) four.”

At its core, “1984” is a story about power and how it is exercised. Icke and Macmillan claim that their adaptation draws inspiration from an appendix to the original novel called, “The Principles of Newspeak,” in which Orwell explains how the Party exerted power and controlled reality by controlling language. “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible,” Orwell writes.

Although Icke and Macmillan claim that their adaptation was brought to the United States in response to Donald Trump’s rise to the White House, it’s hard to read “The Principles of Newspeak,” without thinking of the American postmodernists in academia that have increasingly sought to control language.

Concepts like “microaggressions,” and “hate speech” have seen increasing prominence in the academic lexicon. Moderate conservative and libertarian students are often shamed and ostracized for daring to contradict the political consensus on their progressive campuses. Violence has erupted in response to events featuring conservative and libertarian speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. A column in the UC Berkeley student newspaper even argued that such violence has helped to ensure student safety from ideas that had been deemed dangerous.

But perhaps “1984” is less a window into life under totalitarianism for the viewer than it is a mirror that reveals our personal political biases. Conservatives and liberals alike consider the story to be an indictment of authoritarianism. But both sides see Big Brother as a vindication that their political opponents are the true totalitarians. So, who is right? After all, George Orwell was a self-identifying democratic socialist.

“There’s a lot of confirmation bias in reading this novel,” Macmillan said in a recent interview with the New York Times. “We like to think of it as much simpler than it is.”

Since its publication, “1984” has served as a cautionary tale for readers of all political persuasions who are wary of creeping authoritarianism.  For those on the left, it might be Trump’s tumultuous relationship with the mainstream media, religious-based restrictions on personal freedoms, or Kellyanne Conway’s remarks about “alternative facts.” For those on the right, it might be censorship in academia or the left’s incessant shaming of those who refuse to toe their progressive line. For libertarians, it might be NSA spying or President Obama’s practice of drone surveillance and bomb dropping.

This adaptation, which seeks to make Orwell’s original message relevant in our modern political world, hits all the right notes.

1984 runs through October 8 at the Hudson Theater at 145 West 44th St. in New York, New York. 

Tom Ciccotta is a libertarian who writes about economics and higher education for Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @tciccotta or email him at tciccotta@breitbart.com

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