Beginning at the End
How paying close attention to the appendix in Nineteen Eighty-Four led co-creators Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke to rip up the theatrical rule book. By Dominic Cavendish
It’s not enough that Winston Smith knows in his heart of hearts that the world he’s living in is monstrous—and that he hates it. He needs to write those thoughts down, give vent to his thought-crimes. But who is he writing for? Almost from the moment he puts forbidden pen to precious paper, he senses that his gesture of individualistic defiance, his lonely groping after some kind of sanity, is futile:
“In front of him there lay not death but annihilation. The diary would be reduced to ashes and himself to vapour. Only the Thought Police would read what he had written, before they wiped it out of existence and out of memory. How could you make appeal to the future when not a trace of you, not even an anonymous word scribbled on a piece of paper, could physically survive?”
He doesn’t know it but his words do survive, after a fashion. Orwell is explicit that they do. Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t simply run in the “real-time” of Winston’s experience—the birth of his rebellion culminating in his inevitable destruction—it’s also a remembered time. As Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke astutely observe, as soon as you grasp the importance of the appendix, you have to regard the novel in a different light. It’s not some disposable organ, it’s integral.
Though “The Principles of Newspeak” only runs to some 4,000 words, and has the sheen of something academic, arid and extraneous, it crucially reframes the action. In a sense it at once cancels out and future-proofs the “prophetic” aspect of the story by thrusting it into the past, making it a historical document.
Winston’s vantage-point is 1984, or thereabouts, whereas the anonymous author of the post-script could be writing at any point up to or beyond 2050, the moment Oldspeak was to have been superseded by Newspeak. The appendix yields fascinations about a totalitarian state’s control of language—and by extension thought. It also affords final flourishes of grim humour (“Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. The aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word DUCKSPEAK, meaning “to quack like a duck””). Above all, though, its primary achievement is to reduce the reader’s ability to be certain about the narrative.
Recalling his initial approach to the Orwell estate for the stage rights, Icke explains: “I remember saying quite forcefully at the start, ‘I think the appendix is the most important bit. I think it’s structurally the thing that defines the whole…I don’t know how you can adapt this novel if you don’t touch the appendix. I don’t know what it means.’” He continues: “It’s a book that’s about unreliability…and Orwell puts something at the end that a lot of people hilariously and ironically haven’t bothered to finish. One of the things the novel really thinks about is the status of the text, and what text means—and whether text can have any authority when it has been messed with. How you can trust words to deliver any information?”
Who is giving us Winston’s story, and why? As the director further elaborates: “From the moment you read, “It was a bright cold day in April,” you’re reading the book with somebody else, because that person has footnoted it and written you an appendix, so there’s another reader in your experience of the novel at all times.”
Does this sound like an over-complication? Worrying where the book stands in relation to the appendix actually consolidates our appreciation of its sophistication. Icke and Macmillan’s approach—which brings the act of reading centre-stage, so that the story is being pored over, anticipated, responded to and enacted—pulls off a theatrical correlative to double-think, a state of contrary interpretation. We are rendered as disorientated as the protagonist by the dream-like stage action. As Icke suggests: “This could be the future that Winston imagines when he starts to write the diary. It could be us thinking about Orwell. Or it could be the people who write the appendix…looking back at the primary text of Orwell’s novel or Winston’s diary.”
The final word goes to Duncan Macmillan: “I think the over-riding thing was: how do we find a theatrical form for the prose form of what Orwell is doing?…How do we achieve double-think, how do we deliver the intellectual argument, and also can we take along a 15-year-old who has never read the book while satisfying the scholar who has read this book 100 times? And once you’ve seen it and go back to the book, is it all still there…?” He asserts with calm confidence: “I think we’ve ended up being incredibly faithful to the book.” Having seen their remarkable, risk-taking, mind-expanding version when it premiered in Nottingham last year, I’d double-vouch for that.
Dominic Cavendish is deputy theatre critic for the Daily Telegraph and founding editor of theatrevoice.com. In 2009, to mark the 60th anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publication, he created “Orwell: A Celebration” at Trafalgar Studios.