In creating the claustrophobic world of 1984, where no one has any privacy and wrong thinking is punishable by death, Orwell limited his own ability to tell his story in any way except as an omniscient narrator, revealing his main character’s inmost thoughts. Winston Smith is a loyal Outer Party member who secretly hates the Party and Big Brother. But since he cannot tell or show these things in any way, much of the book is an extended internal monologue.
Obviously, this won’t work onstage. The adaptation we are using, by Robert Owens, Wilton E Hall, Jr , and William A Miles, Jr, is referred to by Dramatic Publishing as “the authorized version” of the novel. It is certainly the earliest one, having been written in 1963. It is unclear who “authorized” this adaptation, but one presumes it was the executors of Orwell’s estate, since he had died a year after the novel’s publication.
Telling a story onstage presents challenges never faced by the author of a novel. Limited time, limited space, the need to portray visually both ideas and objects…all this may require some departures from a strictly literal approach to adaptation. In addition to truncating events for the stage, the play makes several significant changes to the characters portrayed. The most notable is the character of Julia:
In the book, she is a mechanic who passes Winston a note saying she loves him. They begin a secret affair, based mostly on the fact that they both hate the Party and see sex as a legitimate way to rebel against the Party’s rigid control of their lives. They eventually rent a shabby room in the Prole section in order to carry on their affair more conveniently. Julia is amoral and promiscuous, as well as intellectually dull, a complete sensualist.
In the play, Julia has gotten herself transferred to Winston’s department in order to be near him. She tells him she loves him, and then arranges for them to be secretly married in a Prole church. Winston rents a flat where they can at least pretend to make a home for themselves, though they can only go there infrequently. The play does retain Julia’s sensuality–she wants to feel feminine, and to enjoy Inner Party food. Discussion of Goldstein’s book is much less important to her than to Winston. Their marriage makes for a stronger statement of their rebellion, and “raises the stakes” much higher for our desire to see them ultimately succeed against Big Brother.**
Some characters are conflated for convenience or interest’s sake. For instance, the owner of the junk shop:
In the book, Charrington, a prole, is sympathetic to Winston and rents him a room about his junk shop. However, he is secretly a member of the Thought Police. Winston hears a Prole woman singing in the courtyard, and muses about her life, romanticizing her struggles to survive and commenting that while the Proles sing–even the mechanically-produced cant songs the Party feeds them–but the Party members do not. “We are the dead,” he says.
In the play, the Landlady is a combination of Charrington and the Prole woman. There is no indication that she is aware that the Party is spying on Winston. She sings about the past, and her memories of it, fondly. Winston and Julia are fascinated by the idea that someone has vivid memories of a time before the Revolution, but the Landlady cannot really give them any specifics which they can relate to.
Another character which readers of the book will recognize as a conflation is Syme.
In the book, he is the chief architect of Newspeak, and an ardent supporter of its aims. However, Winston–who overhears Syme talking– is aware that Syme is too intelligent and too articulate for his own good. It is not wise to so bluntly state that the object of Newspeak is to control thought.
In the play, the character of Syme is combined with that of Ampleforth (in the novel, a co-worker of Winston in the Records Department who respects poetry and language). In this way, the philosophy of Newspeak can be introduced naturally by someone who is both an expert in the language and a colleague of Winston.
**According to Peter Lewis, author of The Road to 1984, a concise biography of George Orwell:
“Orwell’s greatest weakness as a novelist was his inability to portray love–or even to include it. The least convincing thing in Nineteen Eighty-Four is its most ordinary ingredient, the love story of Winston and Julia. The “love” is reduced to sexual desire, forbidden fornication and a shared belief that it is even worth getting caught to have this experience.”