Big Brother sings

Room 101, Newspeak, the Thought Police. The terrors of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' have been translated from page to TV to cinema - and even to pop music, says Orwell biographer DJ Taylor. But will they work as opera? And would their sniffy creator have approved?
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The most curious name to be discovered in George Orwell's address book shortly after his death in January 1950, belongs to Sidney Sheldon, then resident at Westholme Avenue, Los Angeles. Sheldon, now the octogenarian doyen of the American thriller, was at this point in his long career a promising young screenwriter with a recently acquired Academy Award among his credits. His object in writing to Orwell in the summer of 1949 had been to ask whether he could adapt the newly published Nineteen Eighty-Four for the Broadway stage. For a writer regularly hailed for his profession of an unworldly detachment, Orwell's response gleams with commercial nous. He had no particular objection to a stage version, he informed his agent, "though I should not have thought it lent itself to stage treatment. On the other hand I should think it ought to be filmable."

The most curious name to be discovered in George Orwell's address book shortly after his death in January 1950, belongs to Sidney Sheldon, then resident at Westholme Avenue, Los Angeles. Sheldon, now the octogenarian doyen of the American thriller, was at this point in his long career a promising young screenwriter with a recently acquired Academy Award among his credits. His object in writing to Orwell in the summer of 1949 had been to ask whether he could adapt the newly published Nineteen Eighty-Four for the Broadway stage. For a writer regularly hailed for his profession of an unworldly detachment, Orwell's response gleams with commercial nous. He had no particular objection to a stage version, he informed his agent, "though I should not have thought it lent itself to stage treatment. On the other hand I should think it ought to be filmable."

Like Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, this was a prophetic remark. In the 56 years since its first publication, Orwell's great novel has undergone countless transformations and re-inventions. It has been filmed, adapted for the small screen and routinely synopsised for the airwaves (most recently last month on Radio 4). It has inspired concept albums and served as the founding text of Seventies-era Mod Socialism. With half-a-dozen of its catchphrases permanently at large in the public consciousness, it is as much a part of the iconography of recent Western life as the Einstein photograph or Churchill's cigar. And yet no one, until now, seems to have thought that this terror-strewn 250-page novel, ground out in the chilly upper room of a Hebridean farmhouse, as the gulls skirled in the wet air and rain descended over the distant sea, offered promising raw material for an opera.

What would Orwell have thought of Lorin Maazel's 1984: An Opera in Two Acts, which receives its world premiere on Tuesday at the Royal Opera House? In the end, such speculations are profitless; all bets are off. What would Dickens have made of the spectacle of Simon Callow impersonating him on the London stage? How would Anthony Trollope have reacted to one of Andrew Davies's fruity adaptations of his novels? The creator of Winston Smith, Julia and Big Brother was not, the evidence insists, a great one for music. Such references to the form that occur in his compendious 20-volume collected works tend to cover comic songs heard on the music-hall stage, or popular ballads recalled from childhood, in which the song is somehow less important than the mental atmosphere it conjures back into life. The one aspect of this operatic treatment of which he might have been expected to approve, consequently, is its careful cannibalising of Thirties-style light-musical entertainment. The result may count as high culture - a subject on which Orwell could occasionally turn rather sniffy: at the same time, its origins lie deep in the compost of "ordinary life" where the novel took root and grew.

That Orwell, five and a half decades after his premature death, should now find his final work being ransacked by composers and librettists, is a testimony to his status as a moral prophet. Most dystopias - here defined as "malign future shocks" - have a fairly limited shelf-life. The material is usually contemporary; the plot projects some current anxiety. The predictions vouchsafed having failed to come true, the result (and such books tend not to be written by performers of the highest calibre) quickly loses its lustre. Twenty-one years after its date-line, on the other hand, Nineteen Eighty-Four is still boiling up an impressive head of steam. Like Dickens or Shakespeare before him, Orwell is one of that tiny band of writers whom people mysteriously know about at second-hand and whose creations, consequently, take on a secondary existence far beyond their original framing. "Big Brother is watching you", for example, is a slogan that most advertising copywriters would give a limb for, and, as such, instantly comprehensible to people who barely know who Orwell is and have never read a line of his work.

Significantly for a novel which explores the theme of human resilience in the shadow of mighty oppressors, Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in the shadow of its author's death. Still only in his early forties when he began work on the follow-up to his bestselling Animal Farm (1945), Orwell - almost literally - killed himself to complete it. Cadaverous, chain-smoking and tubercular, he finished a final typed version at the end of 1948 in a state of collapse, and was straightaway sent off to the succession of medical establishments in which he saw out the last 13 months of his life. Undoubtedly the tense circumstances of its composition (the phrase "feeling unwell" runs through his Jura diary like a litany) gave the book its lurid, end-of-tether quality. Written in good health at a Hampstead desk, you suspect that it might have been a very different animal.

At the same time, many of its darkest fears and obsessions come from far back in Orwell's early life, long before tuberculosis and ravaged lungs arrived to claim him. The "telescreen", with which intrusive authority keeps tabs on the cowed citizenry of Airstrip One, is not an adventitious fictional device, but something integral to the view that Orwell took of the world. He was, investigation confirms, paranoid to a degree. Even as a young Imperial policeman in Burma in the 1920s, he believed he was being "watched". Come the Hebridean days of the late 1940s, he was convinced that spies were opening his mail. In the same way, Nineteen Eighty-Four's great horror fixation - the cage of starving rats with which Winston is threatened by his torturers - can be located deep within Orwell's psyche. His writings are full of fascinated descriptions of swarming furry broods - the rodents he had shot as a teenager, the bloated specimens that had waddled across the table-tops during his days as a Parisian skivvy, or the subject of WH Davies' atmospheric poem "The Rat" who, seeing an old woman asleep, warns that "With these teeth that powder stones/ I'll pick out all of her cheek-bones".

Less ominously, the novel is also stuffed with tiny scraps of personal detail, hoarded over the years to surface, finally, in a work of fiction. "He put my brother in his book," a long-retired Southwold shopkeeper called George Bumstead proudly informed me when I was researching Orwell's life. I went and looked. Sure enough, in the scene where Winston, snatched from his love-nest above Mr Charrington's antique shop and awaiting interrogation at the Ministry of Love, watches a man attempting to feed a starving fellow-prisoner, the telescreen suddenly shrieks "Bumstead! Bumstead J. 2713. Let fall that piece of bread!" Jack Bumstead, in other words, the son of the Southwold grocer, whose premises had lain across the road from Orwell's parents' house and whose brother had been kept awake at night (he told me) by the sound of his typewriter.

Like many of the dystopian novels with which it is occasionally linked - Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, for instance, or Ernest Bramah's The Secret of the League - Nineteen Eighty-Four has an obvious grounding in contemporary social or political developments. "1984", after all, is only "1948" reversed. The central geographical premise, by which the world is parcelled up into the land masses of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, each forever at war with the others, is a projection of the Yalta conference at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin effectively divided their collective territory into spheres of influence. Set against these contemporary reference points, though, is the effect of a mental process whose origins can be tracked back at least as far as the late 1930s.

Whatever else it may be, Nineteen Eighty-Four is, at heart, an exposé of the totalitarian mind and of a world (imaginary, but bearing frightening resemblances to our own) conducted by tyrants who believe in power for its own sake, and whose main weapon in the preservation of this power is a contempt for the idea of objective truth. History is their ally, for it can be falsified to suit the demands of the present. So, too, is language. Simultaneously, the novel is a warning about the way in which words can be used to hoodwink the unwary. "War is Peace", "Freedom is Slavery", "Ignorance is Strength" run the three party slogans, in a clear reference to "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes You Free), the motto of the Nazi concentration camps.

In the last resort, nearly any literary career can be seen in strictly teleological terms: with the benefit of hindsight, each bygone step seems a logical progression in the completed journey. Viewed from this angle, the roots of Orwell's totalitarian fixation go back to the months he spent in 1937 fighting for the Spanish Republicans against Franco. From the Italian militia man who shook his hand at the Barcelona barracks (source of the poem about no bomb that ever burst being able to shatter the "crystal spirit") to the sniper's bullet that missed his carotid artery by a few millimetres on the Huesca Front, Spain had a dramatic effect on Orwell. As a member of the Trotskyist POUM militia, he narrowly escaped with his life the Moscow-backed purge of dissenting Republican elements. It was in Spain that Orwell, for the first time, saw newspaper articles that bore no relation to the known facts, read accounts of battles where no fighting had taken place and saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors. Spain, in fact, supplied the first evidence that the concept of objective truth was, as he put it, "falling out of the world", and that the history books of the future would be written according to the dictates of whoever was in power.

However expansive its ideological focus or wide-ranging its literary influences - Orwell was a fan of dystopian fiction and there is a certain amount of cross-referencing - Nineteen Eighty-Four's geographical focus is surprisingly narrow. One of the merits of the Royal Opera House production, it turns out, is an ability to convey something of the war-torn atmosphere of Blitz-era central London, from which the novel takes its physical dimensions. It takes only a short walk around WC1 and WC2 to show how closely each of Airstrip One's significant landmarks corresponds to a real-life equivalent. The Ministry of Truth, where Winston and his colleagues gamely tamper with the past, "an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete", is the University of London Senate House in Malet Street, where the Ministry of Information had been based during the war. Its interior of rabbit-hutch offices and ominous corridors, on the other hand, reproduces the BBC studios at 200 Oxford Street where Orwell had been employed as an Eastern Service talks producer, and where there existed a door marked "Room 101". "Victory Square" is Trafalgar Square, where Nelson's Column has been replaced by a statue of Big Brother. Even Mr Charrington's down-at-heel emporium looks as if can be traced back to a visit Orwell paid to an Islington curio shop in the autumn of 1946.

This geographical precision is, and was, a crucial part of the novel's allure. Like the political arrangements that loom behind it, the landscape is a projection from existing materials, anchored in the physical present and the physical present's consciousness. From a strictly literary point of view, this was something rather rare. Previous dystopian novels had tended to be set on remote islands or in transparent never-never lands. For many of its first wave of readers, the resonance of Nineteen Eighty-Four stemmed from its origins in a world they already knew, now twisted horribly out of kilter. At one point, for example, Mr Charrington, the shop-keeper who furnishes Winston and Julia with a refuge, only to betray them to the Thought Police, recites the nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons". Winston, who has to have the line about "the bells of St Martin's" explained to him, realises that the church in Victory Square has been turned into a propaganda museum filled with waxwork tableaux of enemy action. It was this sense of physical immediacy - unimaginable terrors enacted on the other side of the street, as it were - that gave the novel its sinister attack. Orwell's publisher Fred Warburg reported that a group of booksellers, given advance copies in the weeks before publication, had been so frightened they were unable to sleep.

Published in June 1949 - with seven months of his life remaining, Orwell was about to be transferred from a sanatorium in the Cotswolds to what would be his deathbed at University College Hospital, London - Nineteen Eighty-Four was an instant bestseller, greeted with especial rapture in Cold War-conscious America, though inexplicably dismissed by Pravda's critic as a "filthy book", slobbering with "poisonous spittle". Almost from the day of publication, though, it became clear that here was a book ripe for transferral to other media. In the wake of Orwell's demise, Sidney Sheldon's proposal for a Broadway play quickly lapsed, but the human skeleton in the bed at UCL was sufficiently interested to endorse Sheldon's insistence that his target was not merely Soviet Communism but totalitarianism per se and seems to have believed that Sheldon had the book's best interests at heart. "What I was afraid of was that the meaning of the book might be seriously deformed..." he told his agent, "but from the letter he wrote me recently I don't think he intends doing this."

As for Nineteen Eighty-Four's bedrock-level cultural impact in the ensuing five and a half decades, one need only look at the antics of the Big Brother house, the celebrities queuing up to confess their irritations to BBC 2's Room 101, or the serial use by newspaper columnists of words such as "doublethink", defined by its creator as the act of holding two contradictory opinions in your head simultaneously. Along with this lower-rung saturation, has come many a march into more elevated territory . The BBC adapted the book as early as 1954 - Peter Cushing terrific as Winston, and Wilfred Bramble, in his pre-Steptoe days, playing the nostalgic ancient to whom Winston stands a drink on his visit to a prole pub. Michael Anderson's feature film followed a year later (Michael Redgrave as Winston, score by Malcolm Arnold) then a title-year remake starring John Hurt with Richard Burton as his interrogator, O'Brien.

The 1984 film version featured a punchy soundtrack by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox. By this stage in the proceedings, Orwell's influence on the world of popular music could already have been detected in several 1970s rock albums. David Bowie's Diamond Dogs (1974) reeks with Orwellian scent: "When they haul you out of the oxygen tent/ You ask for the latest party" run the first lines of the title track; subsequent songs include "1984" and "Big Brother" ("Someone to rule us/ Someone to fool us.../ We love you Big Brother", etc). With the arrival of late-Seventies punk rock - politicised and keen to flaunt the books its songwriting teams had been reading - this kind of semaphoring grew yet more emphatic. Before The Clash, Joe Strummer played in a group called The 101'ers, while "London Calling", The Clash's epic single from 1979, supposedly transmitted from a capital afflicted by a "nuclear error", descries from a landscape through which Winston Smith might still be wandering. Or there is The Jam's "Standards" ("We make the standards, and we make the rules/ And if you don't abide them you must be a fool") in the course of which a 19 year-old Paul Weller warns, "You know what happened to Winston". Smith, you understand, not Churchill.

While punk anger is more or less absent from the forthcoming Royal Opera spectacular, "popular" music turns out to lie fairly close to its core. An early scene, set in Victory Square, opens with bands of prole children chanting a series of nursery rhymes, quickly followed by a pub quartet's rendition of "It was only an 'opeless fancy", the song that print-Winston hears sung by a prole woman from his eyrie above the junk shop. It is also - inevitable truncations and compressions notwithstanding - tethered to Orwell's text, with whole passages of dialogue transferred verbatim into the recitatives. The librettists, JD McClatchy and Thomas Meehan, are keen to acknowledge these borrowings: "We wanted to be very true to Orwell, and to keep as much as we could of his polemic." Whatever its merits as opera, their libretto is a spirited attempt to do justice to its presiding spirit. Given their professional backgrounds, this shouldn't surprise us. A proposal for Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Musical - book by Ben Elton, no doubt - would not perhaps occupy the licensees at the Orwell Estate very long. McClatchy and Meehan stand revealed as, respectively, a poetry professor and an old New Yorker writer hand in the old Penguin four-volume Collected Journalism, Essays and Letters.

There will, of course, be a whole lot more of this: a haiku version, perhaps, or a Michael Clark ballet with backing music from The Fall. Literature, it cannot too often be said, has a life of its own, capable of working far beyond the printed page and deep across time. Animal Farm, Zimbabwean experts point out with relish, was adopted as an authenticating text by the opposition to Robert Mugabe, who found himself caricatured as Napoleon, the corrupt and tyrannical head pig. The cheering thing about Nineteen Eighty-Four's incessant re-inventions is the close attention that, by and large, its adaptors pay to Orwell's original brief. No Hollywood director has yet tried to give it a happy ending or wondered how well the Two-Minute Hate will play in Nowhere, Nebraska. The hold that this paranoiac, 102-year-old Etonian servant of the Empire continues to exert on our moral imagination shows no signs of slackening. Here in the age of "sofa government", WMD and "collateral damage", we can only hope that the grip grows tighter still.

'1984': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), from Tuesday to 19 May. 'Orwell: the Life', by DJ Taylor, is published by Chatto