ORWELL DOWN AND OUT
Like any truly half-literate leftist, I’ve read a lot about George Orwell but very little by him. It seems to me I remember carrying 1984 around with me in high school, but I can’t be sure whether I opened it or not. The images that come to mind when I try thinking about it are from the movie versions, not the book. Or maybe they’re from Brazil.
Anyway, Animal Farm slipped by me, too. I didn’ t even see the animated cartoon version of that one. And I don’t suppose it occurred to me that Orwell wrote anything other than Animal Farm and 1984 until 1984, the year, rolled around and all the magazines did profiles on him. Even then I didn’t run out and buy Homage to Catalonia.
Now I’m sorry. Orwell turns out to be quite wonderful. I know, because I’ve been seeing big chunks of him onstage lately, at the Bailiwick Repertory–where, as if to educate fools like me, they’ve been turning Orwellian prose into strong, smart theater. Bailiwick produced Sir Peter Hall’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm last season, and then brought it back for an encore run this season. In addition, they’re currently offering a “companion piece”: a concert version of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, adapted by Bart DeLorenzo and performed on Animal Farm dark nights as Orwell Down and Out.
The Bailiwick Animal Farm is a lovely, scary piece of work, its power deriving in part from the satirical exuberance of the conceit–Russia as a farm where the livestock take over, Stalin as a pig who learns to strut on two legs–and in part from our awareness that, however absurd the images of KGB dogs and purged donkeys, of Trotskyist pigs sent squealing into exile and goats intimidated into bleating the party line, it’s all true. It all happened.
Still, though the stage Animal Farm faithfully–and chillingly–communicates Orwell’s sense of a corrupting dialectic that destroys revolutions as inexorably as the Marxist dialectic brings them about, the stage Animal Farm isn’t really Orwell’s work. Not in the sense that he wrote the words, the sentences and songs, we actually hear. Those come from Sir Peter and his collaborators.
Orwell Down and Out is heavily edited down from the 38 chapters of Down and Out in Paris and London, DeLorenzo having abridged some long Parisian anecdotes and dropped London almost altogether. But what’s left is unquestionably Orwell: Orwell’s language and Orwell’s thoughts. Orwell’s vignettes of the adventures of a young Englishman living in the slums of the French capital, trying to subsist after the loss of a teaching job, starving, and finally slipping into a kind of demi-existence as a hotel kitchen slave before finding his way back across the channel.
How marvelous to hear it all spoken aloud in this version–which isn’t so much an adaptation as an arrangement, an orchestration, for four voices. Orwell was a great prose writer. A master of simple, solid, apoetical, reportorial English. Disinclined to indulge in the coy tropes, the metaphors and call-to-arms hyperbole of conventional appeals, he makes his point more efficiently and effectively by recording the everyday structure of poverty instead. Listen to this:
“It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.
“You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. . . . From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals–meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of the food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day . . .”
And so on, through every intricacy of trying to maintain appearances on six francs a day. His descriptions of the lassitude of hunger; of the dark, hot, sour-smelling hell of a hotel scullery; of the fall-down/get-up life of a kitchen slave are similarly matter-of-fact; similarly unnerving, hilarious, and elegantly plain. There’s a clear-headed, humorous, underdog anger in Orwell that makes even a half-literate leftist like me remember what my politics are actually for. What it is I assert, and why.
The production, under Greg Allen’s direction, offers sharp pictures to go along with Orwell’s words. I can’t recall Orwell’s account of rush times at the hotel now without also recalling the manic fury with which Allen’s cast toss dishes at each other. And I can’t go back over his description of the physical changes that overtake a slovenly, foul-mouthed waiter when he walks into a dining room without thinking of how Allen’s cast achieve their own Neanderthal-to-homo sapiens transformation. Scott Lowell’s Orwell is as succinct as the writer himself. David Nava and Sandy Spatz are exuberant as various Europeans. And Ed Hoffman’s presence lends an on-the-edge weirdness without which the slums just wouldn’t be slums.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.