George Orwell's reputation has been a little clouded of late. For decades after his death, he was seen as a kind of secular saint, a truth teller, a font of wisdom and decency whose writing brought desperately needed clarity to a murky world. But there were always grumblers, and the grumbling intensified when it was discovered that in 1949 Orwell had compiled a list of names of people he considered communist sympathizers -- prominent figures that included Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin -- and turned many of them over to a shadowy department of the British Foreign Office. Coming from the man who invented the term Big Brother and so eloquently detailed the horrors of government surveillance, this was a major scandal.
But when Orwell was right, he was right -- and he was never more so than in his parables about Stalinism, the novel 1984 and the deceptively simple fable, Animal Farm. The latter is currently receiving a skillful production at Germinal Stage. Although the reactionary right has been quick to seize on these two works as exemplifying the horrors of communism -- as, indeed, they do -- Orwell was no conservative, but a socialist, passionately committed to social and economic justice. If he was repelled by Bolshevism, he was equally aware of the evils of other kinds of totalitarianism, and he described the mechanisms utilized by totalitarian states more incisively than anyone else ever has. He showed how oppressive governments use language to obfuscate their actions and shape their subjects' perceptions -- rewriting history or causing large chunks of it to disappear, creating deliberately cloudy and ambiguous phrases and causing them to be endlessly repeated until they are generally accepted as truth, mislabeling things as their opposites: "love" as "hate," for example, and "war" as "peace." In 1984, dissidents were tortured at the Ministry of Love. Think of Orwell next time you hear the president who created a budget designed to profit the rich and drive the poor to destitution castigate critics for advocating "class warfare."
At the beginning of the fable, the animals of Animal Farm unite to drive off the farmer, Mr. Jones, who has overworked and underfed them, and who slaughters them at will. The pigs, being the cleverest of the creatures, are the natural leaders. The usual post-revolutionary euphoria follows the uprising. And then, of course, things start sliding downhill. Snowball -- a Trotskyist pig of genuine intelligence and vision -- is driven off by another pig, Napoleon, who assumes complete control of the farm with the help of several vicious dogs he has trained in secret and his evil hench-pig, Squealer.
2450 West 44th Avenue
Presented by Germinal Stage
Through March 9
Germinal director Ed Baierlein uses five actors to play all the animals: In addition to Dane Torbenson as Napoleon and Suzanna Wellens as a deliciously duplicitous Squealer, there's Tim Elliott as the powerful old cart-horse, Boxer, Lori Hansen as both Snowball and Boxer's mate, Clover, and Stephen R. Kramer doing a fine turn as the grizzled old donkey, Benjamin. The cast uses a minimum of animal sounds and just enough stylized movement to suggest their roles. This is an economical production, with token costuming and a set consisting of a few platforms. There's wisdom in this; the spare production keeps Orwell's words and story firmly front and center.
You hear the pigs use language as a tool of oppression. They change the revolution's original inspirational slogans (which have been painted on the barn door) to suit their needs. Once they've carried out their first executions, they add two words to the saying, "No animal shall kill any other animal." These are "without cause." Most famously, "All animals are equal" becomes "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
There are other instruments of control. Religion -- "the opiate of the masses" -- is tolerated by the pigs in the shape of an evangelistic raven, because it serves to pacify hungry and miserable animals with stories of bliss after death. It is also easier to keep a populace in line if you make sure they're always menaced by some outside threat. Hello, Tom Ridge. (Yes, I know the terrorist threat is real. But using it to abrogate civil liberties and spend billions on unrelated weaponry is Orwellian.) Nationalistic fervor helps, too, along with patriotic songs and symbols. So once Snowball has been banished, Napoleon begins telling the animals that their former comrade is plotting against them, sneaking onto the farm at night to cause havoc and destroy what they've built. Everything that goes wrong can be attributed to Snowball. "The animals were thoroughly frightened," Orwell wrote. "It seemed to them as though Snowball were some kind of invisible influence, pervading the air about them and menacing them with all kinds of dangers." Duct tape, anyone?
As written by Orwell and presented by Germinal, Animal Farm is no dry political parable. There's genuine sadness in watching the animals' hope and dedication twisted against them and their lives destroyed. Baierlein has reminded us of something we should never have forgotten: "Those who do not learn from history," as George Santayana memorably said, "are doomed to repeat it."
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