There are few writers whose name have given rise to an adjective. “Shakespearean” obviously springs to mind, and in theatre, plays are often described as “Pinteresque”, but one of the most enduring is surely “Orwellian”
Ideas as potent as Big Brother, Room 101 and the set-up of Animal Farm have completely entered the public consciousness, and a whole new generation is growing up with a sense of what those things mean, of the dark political and social world that they refer to, long before they ever pick up one of George Orwell’s books.
Five years ago, here at Greenwich Theatre, we supported the development of a new piece of music theatre inspired by, and in celebration of, George Orwell.
Written by a long-time journalist and former professional footballer, One Georgie Orwell combined passages of text by Orwell himself with commentary from writer Peter Cordwell, all interspersed with a series of songs written by Cordwell with musician and songwriter Carl Picton.
The show recalled Orwell’s early life, his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, his links to PG Wodehouse, and, most of all, his writing.
After a successful London run, two years later the show was revived for a transfer to New York. Orwell is never far away – the headline for the lead story on the front page of the Guardian this morning is “Brexiters send PM ‘Orwellian’ set of demands” – but the thing that sent me back to thinking about the show was the unveiling, last week, of a new statue of Orwell at New Broadcasting House.
On his blog for the BBC, sculptor Martin Jennings wrote: “[Orwell] anatomised totalitarianism and the misuse of language for political ends with unequalled precision.
“In our own febrile times he illuminates the path for those who seek clarity, decency and honesty in public discourse.”
Orwell’s honesty may not always have been relished (while he lauded the Naval College in Greenwich as “Wren’s masterpiece” he described Greenwich Observatory as “the ugliest building in the world” – though he did concede the “mild thrill of standing exactly on longitude 0°”.
However, it was that same honesty that drove him to leave the BBC after just two years and concentrate on his own writing.
“I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produces no result,” he wrote in his letter of resignation.
“By going back to my normal work of writing and journalism I could be more useful than I am at present.”
‘Useful’ would seem an astonishing understatement. Without that decision to leave his post and pursue his own work, we may not have Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell gave generations of readers the tools to intellectually challenge authoritarian control, to anticipate political dishonesty and call it out for what it is, to understand and intercept the manipulation of language and truth.
Sadly, in an era in which “fake news” has become a phrase that we all use with casual acceptance (dictionary publisher Collins has named it the word of the year for 2017), the vision of the world that Orwell offered us in Nineteen Eighty-Four seems less dystopian and more prescient every day.
James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre