FROM 1984 to 2004
Company members mentioned in this article: Andy White
by Michael Phillips
IN GEORGE ORWELL'S "1984," a new multimedia stage version of which is now in previews at Lookingglass Theatre, Big Brother is your totalitarian daddy. "Oldspeak" is verboten or, in the parlance of newspeak, "ungood." And if the Ministry of Truth officials choose their phrases carefully enough and stay on message, "reality control" -- Orwell's definition of spin -- becomes a mind-control mission accomplished.
This is why we return to Orwell's words come election time.
The first debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush served as an exercise in oldspeak (Kerry, with his complete, sonorous and clause-ridden sentences) versus newspeak (Bush, snitting his way through such assertions as "I know how this world works"). The format favored Kerry, largely because moderator Jim Lehrer succeeded in keeping the live audience quiet. No laugh track, no audible response to the zingers -- leaving Bush looking pretty lonely up there, midway through most of his two-minute allotments. "I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation," Bush once told Bob Woodward. In the first debate it showed.
Friday's "town hall" (read: infomercial) rematch brought the candidates out from behind their lecterns and intoguys-of-the-people mode, answering carefully pre-screened questions from the audience. It called for a different kind of reality control, also known by the euphemistic phrase "staying on message."
In years such as this one, the least playwrights can do is create a counter-message, as they unscramble the code of political doublethink so we can better hear what is said, what goes on in the world, and how one affects the other.
There's not much a Chicago playgoer need envy in any other theater metropolis.
Yet, while topical political theater isn't everything -- most of it's like milk; drink it up, because the expiration date is stamped on the jug -- in this season of presidential debates and Iraq invasion fallout I had to travel to England to see a major playwright (David Hare) take on the pressing issue of the day (America's war in Iraq and the subsequent chaos), financed by a prominent and vital subsidized theater (the National).
The play is "Stuff Happens," an example of the popular trend of verbatim theater, which relies heavily on transcripts, the public record, interview quotes, various streams of verbal flotsam floating down river from the power plant known as the Bush administration.
This is an administration that doesn't much like to talk, let alone justify its geopolitical actions. From Bush's fluid, murky and multi-pronged rationales for war the Hare play acquires its particular verbal personality.
Hare makes up plenty, to be sure: Every time a closed-door conversation in "Stuff Happens" occurs between Bush and Colin Powell, for example, it's not docudrama, it's fiction, some of it compelling, some of it faintly absurd. (I don't think Powell's speeches about how arrogant and idiotic American foreign policy became after 9/11 would've gotten much of an airing with Bush in the room.) But it is fascinating to see Hare wrangle all this recent, messy history into a history play. It is not great art, or Hare's best, but it's there on stage in a sold-out National run and it has people talking. "Stuff Happens" will eventually get a few productions in this country; first up is a Hartford Stage reading in Connecticut, Oct. 25-31.
So that came out of London, as did the widely heralded verbatim theater project "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom." What is the best America could come up on a related topic, on one of its major stages?
A crummy little Tim Robbins farce, that's what. It is "Embedded," which is sort of about embedded journalists, a little about the Jessica Lynch media spin and a kind of regarding the administration's neocons in charge -- Robbins gives them names like RumRum (Donald Rumsfeld) and Woof (Paul Wolfowitz). It opened at the Actors' Gang in Los Angeles and was picked up by a major nonprofit stage, New York's Public Theater.
I saw it at Riverside Studios in London in an indifferently received run. Given the general English fear and loathing of U.S. policies and politicians at the moment, believe me, if "Embedded" were any good even as cheap agit-prop, the town would've taken to this show big-time.
Preaching to the converted
Satire always follows in war's footsteps, like Brecht's Mother Courage, or Mother Courage's wiseacre nephew. Chicago has had plenty of its own Bush- and Iraq war-aimed material, especially on the storefront level and comedy stages. Yet the laughs often have a hollow ring. The jokes date very quickly. The preaching to the converted gets so intense, you suspect it may be persuading lifelong Democrats into crossing the aisle.
Mild, milky satirical revues such as the current Chicago offering "W!" make you appreciate the value of verbatim theater. Like on-the-moment revue material, verbatim theater often is more timely than timeless, but sometimes timely is more than enough. In "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," which began in London and then came to New York, Guantanamo Bay detainees tell their stories, and their stories are enough.
As part of Chicago's current "Playing French" festival, a salon reading of playwright Michel Vinaver's "11 September 2001" takes place at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Chopin Theater, along with a reading of Jose Pliya's "The Last Morning." From descriptions the Pliya play sounds more oblique and metaphoric about life under siege. "11 September 2001," even with its rather pretentious use of a chorus, comes out of the verbatim genre. It exerts a pull, at least on the page. Like David Hare, Vinaver keeps his ear tuned to a dizzying variety of verbiage: His play culls what we know of the 9/11 hijackers' instruction sheets, interviews with World Trade Center survivors, official government pronouncements.
The play ends with an intertwined series of statements made by George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden. When bin Laden declares the world divided into "two camps . . . the camp of the faithful and the camp of the infidels," it's with-us-or-against-us talk, and we recognize it. We have gotten an earful the last three years. Vinaver isn't callow enough to equate bin Laden with Bush. But the language is the language.
It's foolish to expect great art written in the heat and glare of current events. But events are history, and history shapes art. And the great dramatists find a way to hammer that history into a new shape. Then, future generations turn to the classics to help us understand life's verities: War, ravagement, power, revolution. "The Trojan Woman," "Hecuba," "King Lear" all speak to our senses of the world today -- even if you don't put one of your "Lear" characters in an Abu Ghraib prison hood, as does director Elizabeth Carlin Metz in the current Vitalist Theatre production.
We turn to the classics, or we adapt them. The Lookingglass "1984" opening Oct. 16 is written and directed by Andrew White. He acknowledges that he pitched Lookingglass the project because, as he says, "the political tenor of things after Sept. 11" inspired him.
"The kind of rhetoric you hear from any country," White says, "tends to become more Orwellian during wartime."
Prior to Friday's presidential debate, this much was certain: If the word "Orwellian" were going to pop up in a rhetorical argument, it was certain to come out of Kerry's mouth, not Bush's. Responding to Bush's claims as an environment-friendly president Friday, Kerry cited the "Clear Skies Initiative" as "one of those Orwellian names you slap out of the sky."
Indeed, in a junior-league Orwellian way there's a wonderfully bald-faced quality inherent in such inventions as the "Clear Skies Initiative" (not good for our air) and the "Healthy Forests Initiative" (very good for those who log). What's next, you wonder. Though Bush pledged Friday not to reinstate the draft, if push came to shove would the new draft be called the Healthy Soldiers Initiative?
A post-debate Gallup poll gave a slight edge to Kerry on Friday. Bush did manage to calm down in the final third and lay off what an old college acting pal of mine used to call "pointless Bill Shatner intensity." On Iraq, particularly, Bush appeared to be test-driving a new brand of Ticked Off and Blinking. Kerry, meantime, often indulged his old habit of answering a question by casting a net over several thousand topics simultaneously, when he wasn't beginning yet another sentence with the numbing catch phrase, "I have a plan." The most honest moment may have been Bush's odd, touching mantra near the end, the one that went: "I'm worried ... I'm worried ... I'm worried about our country." How we came to this worrying state is the great question of the day.
In one of the imagined portions of "Stuff Happens," playwright Hare pays homage to the Orwellian power of political language. His version of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld says to Vice President Cheney:
"I liked what you said earlier, sir. A war on terror. That's good. That's vague."
Cheney: "It's good."
Rumsfeld: "That way we can do anything."