A timeless adaptation of '1984' will send important messages
“1984,” Dartmouth’s stage adaptation of Milton Wayne’s radio adaptation of George Orwell’s synonomously-named classic, gives a twist to the original setup of the novel to make it more relevant to the world today. Director and theater professor Peter Hackett adapted the script himself, incorporating multimedia components and excerpts from Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” that add a contemporary aspect to the production. “1984” opens tonight at Moore Theater in the Hopkins Center for the Arts.
According to Hackett, the production of “1984” was carefully planned out and anticipated. The faculty of the theater department always meets to discuss its termly plays, and there was a consensus that for this 2017-2018 school year, it would produce pieces that reflect the current social and political situation.
“This year, one thing we did know was that we felt, given the situation in the country politically, socially, culturally, everything else, we really wanted to do plays that had something particularly relevant historically and politically to what’s going on today,” Hackett said. “The first play was in the fall, and that was Cabaret, the musical and then we talked about the possibility of doing ‘1984.’”
Hackett has spent the past few years studying Orwell, directing a play in New York during the fall of 2016 called “Orwell in America.” When the theater department chose to produce “1984,” Hackett’s focus immediately went to the aspect of time and relevancy because the story is so “timeless.”
“I was intrigued because [the radio play] was done in 1949, which is just after the book was published, and so that was very contemporary reaction to the book,” Hackett said. “I wanted to see if there was a way to tell this story, so I could make that point . . . and here we are in 2018, where it is still relevant.”
Hackett emphasized his focus on important topics to college students and the Dartmouth community and properly communicating that message. During the development of the production, Hackett came across Snyder’s recent publication “On Tyranny:” Snyder, a professor at Yale University, studies 20th-century dictatorships and their common social, cultural and political trends. He found that there are many things similar to the dictatorships under Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin, and gives 20 lessons to take away from them in his book. Hackett, acknowledging the importance of this message and connecting it to “1984,” incorporated excerpts of the book that will be read throughout the play. The play will start in 1949 as a radio play, and then the cast will find themselves in 2018 continuing to rehearse “1984.”
“It gets progressively clear that the story being told is not about 1949, not about 1984, but it’s really about today,” Hackett said. “Hopefully it becomes clear by the end of the play that we’re talking about us now and the threats we face to our country and our democracy.”
Owen Page ’19 plays the role of Winston Smith, a beaten down man who starts writing a diary after having a moment of inspiration with someone in the party. He gradually becomes more rebellious and willing to take action and falls in love with Julia who is played by Kerrigan Quenemoen ’20.
“[Smith] really believes that he can make a change,” Page said. “It’s hard because he’s supposed to be kind of an every-man and identifiable with a lot of people. Well, I can definitely relate to the kind of feeling that you’re out of place, and that is something I think is completely natural to almost everyone. And so you’re never fully comfortable with where you are.”
According to Page, the production also features elements ranging from different time periods, including quotes from the book by Orwell, a video from the Russian band Pussy Riot and a Bill Maher interview.
“There is a sense of a past in it, and there is a sense of the present as well and there’s a sense of being out of time, kind of existing in a space that is not later,” Page said. “I think the play presents some incredibly valid points, and I think that it’s not coincidental that we are putting it on in this day and age.”
Venice Ohleyer ’21, who will narrate the production, noted the sentiment of controlling and manipulating truth, and the importance of taking action that is portrayed in “1984.”
“I think what’s really cool about “1984” is that although it’s a dystopian story, it’s almost always relevant to some situation in the world,” Ohleyer said. “I think now it’s particularly relevant in America and also to Poland and Hungary.”
“ really emphasizes that idea of controlling facts, and what it means for something to be a fact, Ohleyer said. “Just the notion of controlling what is true and what isn’t, and trying to abuse power in that way is very relevant right now— what it means when someone in power does that, and has the power to enforce their own rules and regulations.”
Ohleyer said she believes the idea of complicity present throughout the play is important to think about. “1984” is a story about protest and how one person can make a difference, Ohleyer said.
“There are people who will be vehemently against it and strongly in support of it, and there are always people in the middle who are unsure what their role should be and at what point they’re going to do something about it if anything at all,” Ohleyer said. “The effort of doing something, taking some concrete action or even just having the intentions, is better than being complicit and just accepting things for the way that they are.”
Dartmouth’s adaptation of “1984” intends not only to entertain but also to inform audiences of the importance of history. Hackett expressed his hopes of the production inspiring historical and political awareness in the audience.
“Americans are not terribly good about knowing things about their own history, and there’s that saying that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it,” Hackett said. “I don’t know if history repeats, but I do know — as [Snyder] says — that history can instruct. We can learn lessons from history, but young people particularly have to learn their history if they are to protect themselves.”
Hackett cited the attack on institutions such as the press, the justice system and the police force throughout countries like Hungary, Poland, Turkey and the United States.
“Those typically come under attack by people who want to consolidate their own power and their own rule,” Hackett said. “That’s happening in many countries in the world but it’s particularly disturbing to me as an American citizen, because it’s happening here right now.”
While the themes in “1984” are serious and at times depressing, Page has enjoyed explaining them and believes there are some positive aspects to the production.
“We do try to leave the audience with a sense of hope by the end, that there is something coming over the horizon,” Page said. “There is always something good — and with those lessons there’s also that kind of teaching aspect of saying these are ways that you can work actively to be the change you want in the world. Nothing begins on a national level — it talks a lot about small local organizations.”
Though “1984” may not be the most uplifting and happiest production, Page said, with the original adaptation and the enthusiasm of the cast, it will be an inspiring, energetic and thought-provoking experience.
“1984” opens tonight at 8 p.m., and there will be multiple showings until Feb. 25. There will be a pre-show talk called “Fascism, Resistance and the Politics of 1984” with Hackett and Dartmouth professors Mark Bray and Laura Edmondson at the Top of the Hop before Saturday’s performance at 7 p.m.