Orwell appreciated: just months after he died

One of the first appreciations of Orwell, published in June 1950 just months after his untimely death, came in a special edition of World Review. Interestingly, it mixed both celebration and critique. Orwell’s personality as much as his writings clearly fascinated many – and this is reflected in the articles here.


Around selections from Orwell’s Notebooks (from 18 May 1940 to 28 August 1941), which lie at the core of the journal, are contributions from a glittering array of (all male) journalists and intellectuals: Bertrand Russell, Tom Hopkinson, Aldous Huxley, John Beavan, Herbert Read, Malcolm Muggeridge and Stephen Spender.

World Review, published by Edward Hulton, described itself as ‘a monthly devoted to literature and the arts and all other aspects of our cultural interests’. It had previously published Orwell’s Appendix on Newspeak from his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (then shortly to be published) though without any background explanation. *i


In a brief editorial, Stefan Schimanski says that Orwell felt, ‘strangely enough’, that his diary should not appear until ten years after the events described. ‘Today, the records as he left them in his notebooks, have, indeed, the value of a document that brings to life a forgotten and short-lived period of high expectation.’

The first article (pp 5-7) – just a few hundred words – is by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He highlights Orwell’s ‘admirable essay’ on Dickens and compares Animal Farm with Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s satire, he suggests ‘expresses universal and indiscriminating hatred, Orwell’s has always an undercurrent of kindliness’. But he concludes on a critical note (pp 6-7): ‘The men of our day who resemble Goethe, Shelley or Wells in temperament and congenital capacity have mostly gone through, either personally or through imaginative sympathy, experiences more or less resembling imprisonment in Buchenwald. Orwell was one of these men. He preserved an impeccable love of truth, and allowed himself to learn even the most painful lessons. But he lost hope. This prevented him from being a prophet for our time.’

Next, Orwell’s Tribune colleague T. R. Fyvel contributes a 13-page biography. It is split into seven sections: after a brief Introduction, the second section is a moving, personal memoir of his time visiting Orwell in hospital just before he died. He writes (p. 7): ‘In this private ward, a square pane of glass is let into the door of each private sickroom, through which patient and caller can see each other. I visited him fairly often during these months, and my first glimpse of him was always through this glass, and always a slight shock, at the sight of his thin, drawn face, looking ominously waxen and still against the white pillow.’ Orwell would then immediately start to chat. ‘His need to plunge straight into conversation was more than ordinary shyness. It had something of the schoolboy about it. And to the last, even on his sick-bed, Orwell retained those boyish traits which were so marked in his character.’

But Orwell did not like talking about possible death. ‘To the last he kept his form. He read newspapers carefully, watching out for journalist misuse of words – one of his pet worries – and noting down instances. The last piece of work he was contemplating was to be a study of Joseph Conrad. The interaction of the Continental and English mind held a special interest for him.’ The last time he saw Orwell he seemed ‘particularly cheerful’ and they chatted about his plans to leave for Switzerland by ‘special charter aircraft’ and about their early schooldays.

In the third section, Fyvel examines Orwell’s class background with special reference to his comments in The Road to Wigan Pier. He next moves on to Orwell’s time at ‘a preparatory school in the South of England’ (St Cyprian’s, in Eastbourne, though for libel reasons its name is never given) at Eton and then, at the end of section five, in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He comments (p. 13): ‘In personal affairs, Orwell was always extraordinarily reticent, so shy as to be almost secretive. Though he seemed to like to deal in personal asides, e.g. “When I was fourteen or fifteen I was an odious little snob”, this was always in terms of social classification: the self-revelation is only apparent. In his novels, on the other hand, he himself stands out; for, if he had sharp power of insight, he had much less of invention. From Flory, in his first novel, Burmese Days, to Winston Smith in 1984 [as the novel is consistently called throughout the journal, rather than Nineteen Eighty-Four], his last, all his heroes are Orwell himself, suitably transmuted.’

Section six (pp 14-18) moves rapidly through the biography taking in publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, The Clergyman’s Daughter and Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his essays on Dickens and Kipling, his fighting in the Spanish Civil War, publication of Homage to Catalonia and finally of Coming up for Air. Orwell’s success, he stressed ‘remained confined to increasing prestige among a few discerning critics’. Fyvel adds in parenthesis: ‘Once, in 1940, he told me that he reckoned – he loved making such calculations – that his literary earnings over the decade 1930-40 worked out at not quite three pounds per week.’

In the final section (pp 18-20), Fyvel returns to personal reminiscences. ‘It was probably my second or third encounter with him which remained in my memory. It was at his small mews flat near Baker Street, in London, a rather poverty-stricken affair of one or two rather bare, austere rooms with second-hand furniture. I saw an extremely tall, thin man, looking more than his years, with gentle eyes and deep lines that hinted at suffering on his face.’ Following publication of Animal Farm in 1945, to ‘instantaneous success, especially in America’, Orwell, for the first time in his life, became ‘comparatively well off’. ‘But I found him in character quite unchanged – and physically very tired. … In spite of his many new friendships, he remained a solitary and a lonely man.’

In a section of the journal subtitled ‘Revaluations’, Malcolm Muggeridge, Orwell’s friend, former intelligence agent and later editor of Punch, contributes a surprisingly highly critical assessment of Burmese Days (pp 45-48). He writes: ‘Considered simply as a novel, Burmese Days is not particularly satisfactory. Most of the characters are stock figures, and most of the dialogue is intended rather to present them as such than to reproduce actual conversations.’ He continues (p. 46): ‘The description of the Europeans in their club, of their discussions about electing a “native” to membership, their quarrels and their drunkenness and their outbursts of hysteria, is somehow unreal.’

Perhaps in an attempt to offer some ‘balance’ he ends (somewhat unconvincingly) on a positive note: ‘Burmese Days, as I have said, is not on any showing a great novel. It is, however, extremely readable and, in some of its descriptive passages, brilliant.’

John Beavan, who next examines The Road to Wigan Pier (pp 48-51), was London editor at the time of the Guardian. Little did he know that he featured on Orwell’s infamous ‘little list’ of crypto-communists handed over to the government’s newly formed secret propaganda outfit, the Research Information Department, in 1949. There is an attempt to understand Orwell’s complex attitudes to class: ‘As a child he was taught that the poor were dirty and immoral and he was denied their society, though they seemed to him to be the most interesting and friendly of people. He never quite got over this.’ And Beavan ends: ‘Orwell produced at least one book that touched men of his time deeply, and that even his slenderest writings helped many of us to examine our consciences with something of his fierce honesty.’

Poet Stephen Spender, in his short article on Homage to Catalonia (pp 51-54), also takes the opportunity to comment on his personality: ‘He was perhaps the least Etonian character who has ever come from Eton. He was tall, lean, scraggy man, a Public House character, with a special gleam in his eye, and a home-made way of arguing from simple premises, which could sometimes lead him to radiant common sense, sometimes to crankiness.’ On Homage, Spender (p. 53) says that it had encouraged him to reflect on the meaning of the phrase ’the living truth’. ‘This has all too often in history been exploited in order to trample on human freedoms for the sake of some authoritarian teaching which is supposed to bring happiness in this world or the next. Orwell was extremely sceptical of the claim of any cause to represent “the living truth”. But he himself in his own life was an example of “the lived truth”, which is perhaps the most valuable truth anyone can offer to humanity.’

Tom Hopkinson, then editor of Picture Post, another Hulton publication, next looks at Animal Farm (pp 54-57). Actually, his stint at Picture Post was soon to be ended abruptly after Hulton objected to his publication in October 1950 of reports by James Cameron and photojournalist Bert Hardy of UN atrocities in the Korean War – and promptly sacked him. In his article, Hopkinson provides a precis of the novel, ending in glowing terms: ‘Orwell’s knowledge of farming helps to maintain the necessary faint illusion of reality. Nothing is shirked – even the relations of “Animal Farm” with its human neighbours. Everything is treated with combined lightness and assurance that suspend disbelief. … Animal Farm is a work of genius in the lofty tradition of English humorous writing.’

The art historian, poet, literary critic, anarchist, pacifist and philosopher, Herbert Read, in considering 1984 over just two pages, provides a rather strange explanation for its success (pp 58-59). He writes: ‘In his last years he saw only the menace of the totalitarian State, and he knew he had only the force left to warn us. It is the most terrifying warning that a man has ever uttered, and its fascination derives from its veracity. Millions of people have read this book. Why? It has no charm; it makes no concessions to sentiment. It is true that there are some traces of eroticism, but surely not enough to make the book, for those who seek that sort of thing, a worthwhile experience. An element of sado-masochism in the public may explain the strange success of this book.’

The novelist Aldous Huxley brings the collection of essays to a close with just half a page ‘Footnote about 1984’ (p. 60) critiquing the novel and at the same time promoting his own ideas. In his celebrated Brave New World (1932), Huxley says he prophesied the production of ‘Hypnopaedia’. It is now, he stresses ‘an accomplished fact’. ‘Pillow microphones attached to clock-controlled phonographs playing suitable recordings at regular intervals during the night are now being used quite extensively here by paediatricians who want to get rid of childish fears and bad habits, such as bed wetting, or to help backward children acquire larger vocabularies, and by students who want to learn foreign languages in a quarter of the time ordinarily required for the job.’ And he ends with a jibe at Orwell: ‘It looks very much as though the systematic brutality described in 1984 will seem to the really intelligent dictators of the future altogether too inefficient, messy and wasteful.’

Overall then, the various articles provide a fascinating if rather idiosyncratic insight into the early reception of Orwell.

Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln
and chair of the Orwell Society


*i See World Review: A Magazine Recommended By Orwell


An Index to CBC’s Orwell Tapes: Those Who Knew Orwell

“CBC is the only media organization with a comprehensive archive of recordings of people who knew George Orwell from his earliest days to his final moments.  There are fifty hours of recordings.  Some of this oral history was included in “George Orwell, A Radio Biography” which aired on CBC radio on January 1, 1984 – the first day of Orwell’s famous year. But much of it is being aired now for the first time.”

Link to The Orwell Tapes, Part 1

An index document to all three episodes of the Orwell Tapes

The direct links to the podcast mp3 files, along with participants lists, are in the index document. All this information is taken from the CBC website.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Steven Wadhams, thank you

One Died, One Arrived: 80 Years Ago

On or about December 28th 1936, John Cornford, who was fighting with the British Battalion of the International Brigades at Lopera, near Córdoba in Spain against Franco’s fascist forces, was wounded and subsequently died. He was 21. His poems and other writings were published posthumously: the collection has most recently been published as Understand The Weapon, Understand The Wound (Carcanet).


‘Then let my private battle with my nerves,
The fear of pain whose pain survives,
The love that tears me by the roots,
The loneliness that claws my guts,
Fuse in the welded front our fight preserves.’

On the day that Cornford died, George Orwell was on a train travelling south through France to cross the Spanish border near the Mediterranean and continue into the Republican heartland of Barcelona. He had soon enrolled in the POUM Militia, due to his letters of introduction from the Independent Labour Party in Britain which had an affiliation with the POUM, and received basic training in the Lenin Barracks. Quickly he was sent to the front, ahead of the arrival of a British ILP contingent.

orwell-spainHis wife Eileen followed him, running the ILP office in Barcelona and at least once (recorded in a photograph) visiting the squad on the front near Huesca. Probably due to his great height Orwell was to be shot through the throat, putting his already precarious health at even greater risk, even after he had been treated at a militia sanitorium on the outskirts of Barcelona. When the Communists turned on the POUM, alleging that it was a fascist organisation masquerading as Trotskyist, the Orwells managed to escape – disguised as tourists – back into France. Orwell’s commander, Georges Kopp, was captured and starved to half his weight before he was released just before the Second World War; another Briton, Bob Smillie was not so lucky, he died, probably kicked to death.

For where is Manuel Gonzalez,
And where is Pedro Aguilar,
And where is Ramon Fenellosa?
The earthworms know where they are.

Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie;

But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2016 we remember the fighters of 80 years ago with the words of Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler, Arrival And Departure.


L J Hurst

Last Updated: 30 December 2016

All Eyes Are On Wigan: Museum Events 2017

The Spanish Civil War and Wigan

Museum of Wigan Life
Tuesday 28th February
12 noon – 1pm
Price: £2.50 per person (incl. tea/coffee)  booking required

We mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama when the International Brigades helped stop Franco’s advance on Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. What made local people up sticks and fight for democracy and socialism in another country? What was the background to this international conflict? Find out more about the passion and sacrifice of the young volunteers of the International Brigades and their supporters both here and in Spain.

George Orwell – The Road to Wigan Pier at 80!
Stephen Armstrong

Museum of Wigan Life
Tuesday 7th March
12 noon – 1pm
Price: £2.50 per person (incl. tea/coffee)  booking required

Stephen Armstrong, author of The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, marks the 80th birthday of Orwell’s original book with this fascinating talk about Eric Blair (George Orwell) and his writing. Orwell researched his book in the old reference library, now the Museum of Wigan Life, and his work has sometimes been controversial in the town. Armstrong examines the context in which Orwell wrote and his approach to social reportage. Come along and find out more about Wigan’s relationship with one of the 20th century’s most important writers.

Our thanks to Community History Manager Lynda Jackson in Wigan for the details.


A Christmas challenge to you all!

What are the other five books in George Orwell’s list?

Orwell wrote… a book which it seems impossible for me to grow tired of … If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver’s Travels among them.’


George Orwell never named the other five books he would preserve if only six were to be saved.

Do you think he had a real list of six books?
If so, what were the other five apart from Gulliver’s Travels?
If he did not have a list but asked you to help him write one, which others would you help him choose?

Why not hand out paper and pencils to your guests this Christmas and then compare lists of your own six most important books.

There are no prizes other than the chance of good conversation.

On the Orwell Prize website: ‘Politics Vs Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels’.

Wikipedia article, from which our illustration is taken.

[Click on the heading to open this post, if you wish to leave a comment]

The Nineteen-Orwell? Our Second Podcast

On OS Voice, the Orwell Society podcast service, a discussion between Kyra Howell in the USA and Professor Tim Crook of Goldsmiths, University of London.

A wide-ranging conversation, covering everything from George Orwell’s schooldays, through the creation of ‘Big Brother’, to questions about privacy in the twenty-first century.

On the OS Voice page, you will find a transcription of their conversation.

Thank you to both participants.

[Click on the heading to open this post, if you wish to leave a comment]

Propaganda – Better To Tell The Truth? Orwell’s Question

In April 1943 George Orwell asked ‘Is it better from a propaganda point of view to tell the truth or to spread confusing rumours and promise everything to everybody?’ He went on to ask ‘whether propaganda can ever achieve anything on its own, or whether it merely speeds up processes that are happening already’?

These questions arose in his review of E. Tangye Lean’s Voices In The Darkness: The Story Of The European Radio War.

tangye-lean-voices-in-the-darkness-1943Orwell began his review ‘Anyone who has had to do propaganda to “friendly” countries must envy the European Service of the B.B.C. They are playing on such an easy wicket! People living under a foreign occupation are necessarily hungry for news, and by making it a penal offence to listen in to Allied broadcasts the Germans have ensured that those broadcasts will be accepted as true. There, however, the advantage of the B.B.C.’s European Service ends. If heard it will be believed, except perhaps in Germany itself, but the difficulty is to be heard at all, and still more, to know what to say. With these difficulties Mr. Tangye Lean’s interesting book is largely concerned.’

What were the ‘difficulties’? He went on to lay out some of these: ‘First of all there are the physical and mechanical obstacles. It is never very easy to pick up a foreign station unless one has a fairly good radio set, and every hostile broadcast labours under the enormous disadvantage that its time and wavelength cannot be advertised in the Press. Even in England, where there is no sort of ban on listening, few people have even heard of the German “freedom” stations such as the New British and the Workers’ Challenge. There is also jamming…’.

Orwell was, of course, being slightly disingenuous as he had himself described the German stations in some of his other journalism. These stations were not the publicly acknowledged German broadcasters, such as Radio Hamburg where William Joyce made his nightly broadcasts, but ‘black’ stations where a few quislings and a few more idiots selected from Prisoner of War camps were allowed free rein for a few minutes. It was on the Workers’ Challenge that a moronic Tommy was allowed to ‘eff and blind’ in describing Churchill and the government – listeners in Britain tuned in to hear words they had never heard elsewhere before.

Orwell goes on to describe how incompetent was French broadcasting during the Battle of France compared to the German, and how once France was conquered ‘the Germans were ready with programmes of propaganda and music which they had prepared beforehand’.

As Orwell says the government had been forced to launch a BBC external service in 1938 when confronted with the worsening situation in Europe. In turn many of the staff were continental exiles, anti-Nazis and refugees. Among them was Georg Arthur Weidenfeld.

derrick-sington-arthur-wiedenfeld-the-goebbels-experimentIn 1942 Weidenfeld and his co-author  Derrick Sington published The Goebbels Experiment: A Study of the Nazi Propaganda Machine. A few months later, in his Foreword to Voices In The Darkness, Lean thanked Weidenfeld: ‘I have had the invaluable help of Mr Weidenfeld, co-author of The Goebbels Experiment, and without his erudition I should have had to leave bigger gaps in the story.’ After the War, Weidenfeld anglicised his other given name to George and became a successful publisher as Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Books such as these two were very popular. A scan of Voices In The Darkness is available online at archive.org, apparently made not of the first but the second printing. The first edition, though, was in March 1943, despite the printing history in the online copy; meaning that by April 1943 the book had been printed once and reprinted at least twice. Between these two books, one of which acknowledges the other, one can deduce that at least in Britain it was possible for the interested layperson to study both Allied and Axis methods of propaganda even while the War raged.

Towards the end of his review Orwell says ‘in general propaganda cannot fight against the facts, though it can colour and distort them’. One may doubt whether that statement is true today, in an age where ‘post-truth’ means that facts are no longer solid. In turn, though, that may be because of the medium through which propaganda is distributed: it was true in an age of newspapers, books and wireless, but it cannot be true in an age of social media. Perhaps the light of truth which used to pass clearly as if through windowpanes of the press is now being distorted as it passes through media which act more like bottle glass. One needs another lens beyond to bring the facts back into focus, and that lens is not yet in place.


Review of Voices In The Darkness by E Tangye Lean (Tribune, 30 April 1943) is in Volume XV of the Collected Works, edited by Peter Davison.

It is most easily found in Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings, edited by Peter Davison, which is available in hardback and softback at all good bookshops.

L J Hurst

Last updated: 17 December 2016

Memoirs of Professor Peter Davison


The Orwell Society is proud to publish the memoirs of Professor Peter Davison, editor of the Facsimile Edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the twenty-volume Complete Works of George Orwell.

Our index page leads to five sections, covering all aspects of his life.

pd-talks-to-jsProfessor Peter Davison speaking to Professor Jean Seaton


World Review: A magazine recommended by George Orwell

World Review was a magazine in the Hulton group of publications. The better known and better selling group titles were Picture Post, which specialised in photographic reporting in the same style as Life in the USA, and Lilliput, a digest-sized magazine known for its fiction. It was in turn the latest avatar of the Victorian Review of Reviews.

Orwell first referred to World Review when he drew attention to its articles on the Yugoslav anti-Nazi leader Mihailovich. The first two in a series were written by R. V. Elson: ‘I invite attention to an article entitled “The Truth about Mihailovich?” (the author of it also writes for Tribune, by the way) in the current World Review. It deals with the campaign in the British press and the B.B.C. to brand Mihailovich as a German agent.

Jugoslav politics are very complicated and I make no pretence of being an expert on them. For all I know it was entirely right on the part of Britain as well as the U.S.S.R. to drop Mihailovich and support Tito. But what interests me is the readiness, once this decision had been taken, of reputable British newspapers to connive at what amounted to forgery in order to discredit the man whom they had been backing a few months earlier. There is no doubt that this happened. The author of the article gives details of one out of a number of instances in which material facts were suppressed in the most impudent way. Presented with very strong evidence to show that Mihailovich was not a German agent, the majority of our newspapers simply refused to print it, while repeating the charges of treachery just as before’ (‘As I Please;, 12 January 1945).

These images from the January 1945 issue of World Review are linked from the Pogledi website which details the life of General Draza Mihailovic. It contains Elson’s two articles and further articles on the General by other contributors.

Edward Hulton, the proprietor of a large publishing group, is described as the editor. He was politically conservative, which might explain why an author such as Peter Drucker, whom George Orwell regarded as being on the extreme right, is another  contributor. It also exemplifies the contingent politics of the period – Tito in Yugoslavia, rival to Mihailovich, was still aligned with Stalin at this time – and most likely Elson could not place his analysis in any of the liberal press.

At the end of the Second World War the editorship of World Review passed to Stefan Schimanski, a journalist who had earlier managed to escape to Britain from the Nazis. Hulton employed several expatriate journalists; for instance Stefan Lorant was the co-founder of Picture Post.  Schimanski was an acquaintance if not friend of Orwell, and during his earlier employment in publishing he had attempted to publish Orwell’s war-time journals, though without success. In 1947 with his co-editor Henry Treece he published an anthology of war-time diary entries Leaves In The Storm – without Orwell’s contribution again, unfortunately, but it is the volume which includes Inez Holden’s memoir of seeing ‘George’ going home every lunchtime to wheel away his library from his bombed-out flat.

By examining how one issue of World Review dealt with one of Orwell’s subjects one can see the political slant it had maintained from Hulton’s editorship. In January and February 1946 Orwell published a series of analytical articles (in the Manchester Evening News) on the current political situation under the general title The Intellectual Revolt. In his third column ‘The Christian Reformers’ (MEN 7th February 1949) he discussed the Russian emigre Nicholas Berdyaev: ‘He left Russia at the time of the Revolution, but though hostile to Bolshevism, he has written of it with more understanding and respect than most of its opponents’. Berdyaev was part of a group, according to Orwell, who ‘would admit that if the Church has lost the support of the masses it is largely by tolerating injustice’ (reprinted in Orwell And Politics, edited by Peter Davison, 2001).  Berdyaev died in 1948 and, a year later, his last work ‘Political Testament’ was published in the March 1949 issue of World Review. The Berdyaev website has made that article, along with with scans of the cover and the contents page of the issue in which it appeared, available online. One can appreciate the variety of contents and the general intellectual level of the magazine.

In May 1949 Schimanski finally published Orwell in World Review. Unfortunately, the arrangement seems to have been made without Orwell being aware: an article appeared: ‘1984 and Newspeak’. It was not an article, though, but the Appendix on Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four and contained no lede or explanation of its appearance. Orwell was not happy.

world-review-194905-c1Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared in July 1949 (World Review‘s note had said it would appear in June – perhaps another indication of problems at Secker and Warburg. Orwell’s publisher; someone there must have passed the Appendix to Schimanski). Orwell, though, was in hospital, unable to keep up his administration, and while he was planning to go to Switzerland to recuperate he died in January 1950. Orwell’s will made his long-term friend Sir Richard Rees his literary executor, and in June 1950 a special edition of the magazine appeared; with contributions from authors who had known and worked with him, and finally – described as his notebooks – his war-time diary.


world-review-195006-b2The battered condition of the individual copy of that issue shown here gives some idea of the importance it had for those who wanted to read everything possible of and by George Orwell. Not only is this copy well-thumbed, but its former possessor seems to have lent it out with his return address shown on the contents page, as if this was a library copy.

According to the memoirs of Tom Hopkinson, who succeeded Stefan Lorant as editor of Picture Post, a whole issue of his flagship magazine dedicated to a radical such as George Orwell was too much for Edward Hulton and he quickly closed World Review. How radical the magazine had become is difficult to make out: not very to go by the previous issue, May 1950, which contained James (anti-communist; former Trotskyist; anti-Orwellian?) Burnham on ‘The Defeat of Communism’. Picture Post itself suffered from editorial interference and lost influence and readership, before closing in 1959. Hulton turned to the promotion of European integration, calling a successor magazine Europe Review, while Hopkinson went to South Africa and founded Drum, the photo-magazine which recorded the coming – despite its best efforts – of apartheid.

We hope to write more the relationship of George Orwell and Stefan Schimanski on this website, for Schimanski, clearly, was one of the early figures who kept the flame of Orwell burning.

by L J Hurst

Last Updated: 11 December 2016

1984 Makes New York Stage Debut

By Carol Biederstadt

Even for theatergoers in the New York metropolitan area, dramatic performances of Orwell’s novels are few and far between. Thus, when I heard that the New York debut of George Orwell’s 1984 was to be held at the Flux Factory, a somewhat obscure venue in the borough of Queens, I was determined to see it, even though it involved a nearly two-hour trek to the theater.

Housed in a former greeting card factory, the Flux Factory, an Off-Off Broadway arts space, is easy to miss; luckily, a lone playbill, depicting a militant countenance exuding an unnerving aura of omnipotence, caught my eye. While the image was clearly suggestive of Big Brother, it was equally evocative of the Eurasian soldier whose likeness, it is mentioned in the novel, had appeared on posters plastered “all over London”. It occurred to me that the sinisterly mustachioed and goateed visage – devoid of eyes – bore a curious resemblance to both Vladimir Lenin and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu; superimposed against a background redolent of the Japanese Rising Sun flag, the image not only conjured up the terror of Big Brother, but also seamlessly melded wartime propagandist themes in a manner that seemed to allow the visual to target concurrently both Eurasia and Eastasia, the states against which Oceania alternately waged perpetual war. I found myself wondering whether the artwork was intentionally created to visually depict Doublethink.

The stark industrial interior of the Flux Factory provided an effortless backdrop for this shoestring-budget production, which employed only a handful of simple props and an improvised stage of wooden pallets on a slate grey floor. Directed by Dave Stishan, an ensemble of six immediately transported the audience to Room 101, where a voice periodically bellowed from a modern Samsung telescreen; it was there, deep in the bowels of the ironically named Ministry of Love, that Michael Gene Sullivan’s powerful stage adaptation of the novel began, paradoxically, at the end. With B. K. Dawson convincingly portraying Winston Smith, the story unraveled through a sequence of flashbacks depicting Smith’s “crimes”, and those familiar with the novel quickly learned to steady themselves for the scenes of interrogation and torture that regularly punctuated the retrospection. On the final day of the performance’s two-week run, I sat with a captivated audience of about 40 and impotently bore witness to Winston Smith’s struggle to maintain his humanity.

It has been almost seventy years since Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, yet this performance could not have felt timelier. While Sullivan’s dialogue remains, for the most part, true to the text, minor tweaks, perhaps most noticeably Julia’s use of four-letter expletives, added to the play’s surprisingly contemporary feel. In light of recent political events, the play seemed strikingly relevant and prescient, almost as reflective of the zeitgeist of 2016 as it was of that of Orwell’s imagined 1984. Perhaps the one thing that Orwell couldn’t have foreseen was that unlike Winston Smith, the people of the post-truth world of the future would be fixated on the very telescreens used to indoctrinate them.

Photograph by Carol Biederstadt:

Cast Members (back row, left to right) – Rob Mobley, Ed Brown, Jerry Brown, Jr., Atalanta Siegel, B.K. Dawson, Ben Adducchio
Director (front row, seated) – Dave Stishan

Last updated 7th December 2016


Company website with stage photographs and comments.