What it’s like seeing 1984 in 2017

By: Tori Chin

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Sound familiar? George Orwell’s classic novel and popular high school required-reading “1984” hit the stage recently and provides more than just two hours of entertainment.

While I was unable to see the Broadway play starring Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge, Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre presented a comparable adaptation featuring locals and University of Florida students.

“1984,” in brief, is Orwell’s warning against totalitarian authority inspired by his personal experiences with the wars and dictators of his time. He tactfully issues this warning by depicting a society where “Big Brother” is always watching and manipulative propaganda is omnipresent. The worst crime you could possibly commit in Oceania is having free thought, and questioning the legitimacy of the ruling power (“crimethink”) is practically begging for torture.

The Hippodrome transformed its mainstage into an unrecognizable dystopian setting, equipped with a telescreen that played an integral role in the show.

Winston (played by Niall McGinty) opened the show with his “typical” daily tasks— following a daily workout conducted by an instructor on the telescreen, dressing in a dusty prison-like jumpsuit and heading to work, where he compromises war footage to make it seem pleasant to  Oceania’s residents.

A glimpse into Winston’s work is where the dystopian environment is fully established: it’s commonplace to yell “traitor” at a monitor showing the enemy, to turn on each other at the mention of “crime-thinking” and memories are as disposable as scraps of paper. The characters in “1984” seem like they have lost all ability to be human, and they mindlessly believe whatever they are told (“two plus two equals five,” being a commonly recited metaphor).

While the majority of characters in the play had a robotic nature to them, Winston’s love story with Julia (played by Maya Naff) showed the uncanny product of authoritarian opposition: a salvable humanistic nature. This “opposition” is a secret society led by an elusive “Goldstein” who plots against the current central power.

“The Broadway Julia and Winston were darker and less connected,” said Diana Weng, an accounting Ph.D. candidate. “I liked that the [Hippodrome’s production] made them more lovable as a couple.”

The Hippodrome’s stage adaptation of “1984” was the first in the southeast region, but it was considered unsatisfactory to some who read the book.

“I think the message was vague and not transmitted well,” said Michael Contu, a freshman biology major. “They could’ve explained better the terms that are used in the book. If I hadn’t read the book, I would’ve been confused.”

Despite the varying audience reaction to the Hippodrome’s “1984” production, any portrayal of Orwell’s work is extremely relevant and important to today’s society. As seen through the uncanny correlation between President Trump’s election and the rise in “1984” book sales, some are finding parallels between the dystopian novel and Trump’s presidency.

It may have been hard to picture any of Oceania’s societal ideals becoming reminiscent to today’s society as a high-schooler, but if you can’t recognize the current similarities, consider yourself  among the likes of a typical Oceania citizen.We are free from extremities like physical memory-manipulation and treating free-thought as an excuse for torture, but I find it hard to find a distinction between “1984” and today in terms of humans possessing inhuman qualities.

Every article or piece of information that does not fit our president’s agenda is deemed as “fake news” or “alterative facts” because plain old disagreement is a thing of the past (“two plus two equals five”). Unlike the characters in “1984,” we have the ability of free thought and the ability to question—natural instincts that should not be taken for granted.

At the end of the day, we can take any political stance, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are all human and own the ability to question, disagree and swallow our pride to empathize with others.

Egocentrism, blindly following without thought and fear of questioning in 2017 have drawn us closer in similarity to “1984,” and if considering the relevancy of a dystopian novel still seems silly, maybe it’s time to start questioning things so two plus two remains four.

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