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Since the presidential election, George Orwell's "1984" has become a bestseller again. The dystopian novel in which the main character works at the Ministry of Truth creating fake news for a totalitarian regime has been adapted for the stage. And it's opening on Broadway next week. Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: All of the ideas are in the play. Ignorance is strength. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Big Brother is watching. After a recent performance, I spoke with a pair of doctors from Great Neck, N.Y., Alvin and Dorit Friedman. They said they were struck by how contemporary the 1949 story feels.
DORIT FRIEDMAN: Big brother is watching us. That's for sure (laughter).
ALVIN FRIEDMAN: The most quoted phrase ever - big brother is watching.
FRIEDMAN: Right. Little did we know that that was going to be reality.
LUNDEN: Facebook and Amazon know what you like. George Orwell wrote his novel in reaction to the fascism and totalitarianism that had engulfed the globe during and after the Second World War. The novel has always been a steady seller, says Bruce Nichols, the book's current publisher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
BRUCE NICHOLS: "1984" holds up because Orwell's political incisiveness. When he talks about newspeak, it applies to all kinds of spin which we see every day. And it seems to only ever get worse.
LUNDEN: "1984" shot to number one on Amazon shortly after the inauguration with this exchange on "Meet The Press."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
KELLYANNE CONWAY: You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains...
CHUCK TODD: Wait a minute, alternative facts?
DUNCAN MACMILLAN: When Winston Smith stands up in front of us and says there are truths, and there are facts. Freedom is the freedom to say that 2 plus 2 equals 4 because it does. That means something in this context.
LUNDEN: Duncan Macmillan co-authored an co-directs the adaptation now on Broadway.
MACMILLAN: It's quite something to bring it to New York now in this political climate.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Syme) You don't have to be an expert to know that newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year. It's a beautiful thing - the destruction of words.
LUNDEN: The audience reaction changes nightly depending on the current news cycle, says Duncan Macmillan. We spoke the day after President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords.
MACMILLAN: Last night was like a sort of volatile town hall meeting. People were shouting out resist. People were arguing with characters and applauding certain sentiments. And it wasn't just, you know, a liberal audience. It was little pockets around the room sort of debating with each other. And that felt really live and exciting.
LUNDEN: The actors feel it, too. Tom Sturridge plays Winston Smith, the protagonist.
TOM STURRIDGE: We're all in this room together. We're all experiencing this together. And we influence each other. The way you listen, the way you react, shout out in this play, which is extraordinary, has - makes you enormously complicit in the evening that we have together.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)
STURRIDGE: (As Winston Smith) I change the truth. I falsify articles I write lies. I - I - delete things - records, photographs, people like your grandfather.
OLIVIA WILDE: (As Julia) You delete?
STURRIDGE: (As Winston Smith) Yes. I push a button, and they never existed at all.
LUNDEN: Winston's lover Julia is played by Olivia Wilde. People have a tendency to forget there's a love story at the center of "1984." She says the stage adaptation messes with the audience's heads as does the book. Winston Smith is willing to do anything to bring down the government for which he works, even when pressed by the duplicitous character O'Brien.
WILDE: While we're on stage, we can feel the audience slowly falling into line behind Winston. They embrace him as their hero. They root for him. And then he has the line - well, O'Brien says, if it would help the party, would you throw acid in a small child's face? And we can hear this gasp from the audience. And he says, yes. And suddenly, we question - hang on a minute. Am I Winston? I thought I was Winston. Am I willing to go that far? I don't think I am.
LUNDEN: The adaptation forthrightly deals with the novel's concepts - who controls information and language to assert power, living in perpetual present, the concept of doublethink, keeping two opposing thoughts in one's mind while genuinely believing both. But it's the visceral nature of the production with graphic images of torture which has made some audience members walk out. Co-adapter Duncan Macmillan.
MACMILLAN: It's not an easy evening. I should warn people. It doesn't give you any conclusions, actually. And it leaves you with something, I hope, if it works properly, to resolve in yourself and with each other and to try and work out what the hell it is you've just been exposed to as it is with the novel.
LUNDEN: Amanda Bias, a high school teacher from New Jersey who came with a group of coworkers, teaches the book to her seniors.
AMANDA BIAS: I don't think kids necessarily know what they're always getting as a source in the information they're getting. We have to teach them what's right and what's wrong and, at least, what's credible. I think that's a pretty good message.
LUNDEN: Especially, she says, in the world we live in now, where 2 plus 2 can sometimes equal 5. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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