A2 Civic’s "Fahrenheit 451" draws parallels to our current political "catastrophe"
In Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, firemen don’t put out fires, they start them with a temperature that burns book paper.
An authoritarian government has decided that books just confuse people with too many ideas, too many alternatives. They prefer people who like to watch hours of mindless television while their minds gently drift away on drugs.
David Widmayer is directing Bradbury’s stage version of Fahrenheit for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. He said Bradbury’s fears may be more relevant than they’ve ever been. Fahrenheit, along with 1984, Brave New World, and a slew of modern dystopian stories have been in vogue in the last few years.
“So much of our current political catastrophe stems from concerns that are very close cousins to the issues in Fahrenheit 451,” he said. “We may not have issues with book burning, but we do have issues with reliability of information, the accelerating pace of our communications, and loss of respect for expertise. Bradbury’s concerns about the consequences of a society driven by mass media forces are well-founded even if the details look very different than he imagined in 1953.”
The book and play are set in a near future America. The central character is Guy Montag, a book burning fireman. His wife is addicted to video and mind-numbing drugs. Montag is unhappy with his life and with the work, he’s doing in enforcing the ban on books. A young girl introduces him to the power of books and to a group that is preserving books in their minds.
“Montag is not much of a hero in the traditional sense; he falls more into the category of the ‘everyman’ placed in an extremely difficult situation,” Widmayer said. “This is a more interesting place for him to occupy because it encourages the audience to think about what they would do faced with the same challenges. Would I be better than Montag? Would I be as complicit in this system for as long as he is before his ‘awakening’? And faced with systemic injustice, what is my personal responsibility to rectify it? Presented with Montag’s fumbling attempts to confront the power of book-burning culture, it’s hard not to hope that we would each do better than he does.”
Bradbury created a vision of a high-tech society where the government uses that technology and the suppression of books to pacify the population and keep them in their place. Widmayer is taking a slightly different approach.
“The ‘future’ of the play is really the future from the perspective of the 1950s, so I envision our show really as an alternate present day,” he said. “Rather than trying to guess at the aesthetics of a far future, we’ve imagined it more strongly influenced by the ‘50s and ‘60s. The incredible costuming by Anne Fox-Maniglia, the set dressing and some of the more retro-sounding dialogue all help define this setting.”
Civic Theatre is using gender-blind casting. In Bradbury’s book, Montag’s antagonist is his fanatical boss Captain Beatty. The usually male character is played by Jacquie Jones in the Civic production.
“Approaching the role of Beatty as a woman definitely affects all the motives of the character,” Jones said. “What I see change the most is how Beatty relates to the other characters. The fact that a woman is the captain of Fahrenheit adds about five layers to the way they all interact with each other, and it’s been fascinating exploring that.”
Jones doesn’t see Beatty as a villain.
“Beatty views herself as a civil servant,” she said. “She frees people from having to think about, or be offended by, perspectives they don’t understand. By burning books, Beatty generates one unified perspective and eliminates the need for thought. This benefits her as well. I see Beatty burning books to rid herself of concepts she can’t fully understand, like death.”
Elizabeth Wagner is a member of the ensemble.
“The ensemble represents both the best and the worst of society,” she said. “We display the potential negativity of the hive mind, as well as a supportive community. In addition, I play Mrs. Hudson, who is a book collector, a dangerous and illegal pursuit in the world of the play. The choices she makes and the lengths she is willing to go for what she believes in have a strong impact on the perspective of the main character [Montag].”
Wagner said there are challenges in the play because some scenes are open to different interpretations.
“The show has some truly dark, chilling scenes that I hope will invite audiences to really think about the ramifications of this society, one which has not only done away with books but with analytical thinking and inviting others into conversation,” she said.
Widmayer has directed two particularly complex plays for Civic, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare’s Othello. As with those plays, Widmayer and his cast have to wrestle with ideas about the effects of change on society and what is required to “combat troubling social trends.”
“I don’t think the book is still the ‘key to knowledge” as Bradbury argues. It is, however, a helpful symbol for the things Bradbury saw as declining in the modern world: the quality of information and time for reflection,” Widmayer said. “He puts this exact argument into the mouth of Faber in the play, who chastises Montag for fetishizing the books themselves rather than recognizing them as simple containers for high-quality information, the physical incarnation of humankind’s deepest thoughts.”
Widmayer said that when Bradbury died in 2012, Twitter was on the rise.
“I strongly suspect that he despised it deeply. The medium of the internet and democratization of publishing is not inherently flawed, though. The same technology that produced Twitter and shattered the norms of political discourse also led to Wikipedia, one of the most aspirational creations in human history and one which would be impossible if confined to the codex. Whatever the medium, it’s up to us to use it in a way that preserves the values Bradbury cherished in great books, and to continue to cultivate critical thinking.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 will be presented by the Ann Arbor Civic Theater at 7:30 pm on Thursday, April 25, 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, April 26-2,7 and 2 pm on Sunday, April 28, at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave., on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets, go online to a2ct.org or call 734-971-2228.