Ray Bradbury began Fahrenheit 451 with a story in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, the Red Scare, when the specter of communism was haunting addled minds.
That’s usually the tell of sci fi as well as its twin historical fiction – they’re really more about contemporary times, what’s happening at the time they’re made. It’s art’s way of reminding us that History is Now.
The story grew into a novel in 1953. Its point of view is that of third person central intelligence, from the perspective of the protagonist, the fireman of the future, Guy Montag. In his world, fire is no longer a danger. Humanity has produced a fire-proof environment. Firemen in this world exist to burn books.
Don’t ask. But of course, you will.
Montag does. He meets a girl on his daily round of book burning, Alexandra Rose Horton as Clarisse. She is intriguing. Clarisse impresses Montag with her directness, her commitment, her engagement, her intellect. She shocks him. But it shocks her when she realizes: “You look at me!”
He will look into her, find out what she’s all about.
Guy Montag is not unlike Lester Birnam in American Beauty, awakening from a coma in midlife, or, as Fire Chief Beatty, the closeted bibliophile, might allude like Dante entering the Dark Wood of The Inferno.
It’s hard to envision any future in which there aren’t several significant antithetical factions all operating at cross-purposes. In the simplest terms, Bradbury imagines something hard to imagine, a repressive world without any ideology besides repression. But there it is.
Reading is a vast subject. It’s hard to write about it because it’s so vast. But it’s easy to wade in. Most people learn the basics of reading by age six, so it’s not that hard. Every effort has been made over the millennia to simplify the reading process, with an alphabet of just 26 letters, grammar, and punctuation.
Slaves in this great country of ours, which some would forcefully make great again, were prohibited from learning how to read. And the slaves instinctively knew this was the key to freedom, and they would steal clues from the master’s house and scratch the symbols in the dirt till they could cipher them out.
Even the oldest slaves wanted to learn to read because they wanted to read the bible. They had a sneaking suspicion that it didn’t say what the white people said it said.
In Fahrenheit 451 you have a world where reading is permitted, but books are burned. All books.
I taught Reading in public school for 30 years, and the whole endeavor is ridiculous, for the simple reason I’ve just given. The problem isn’t how to read; it’s what to read and why. Teaching literature is enriching. Teaching reading is bullshit.
In 1970 Francois Truffaut made a movie of Fahrenheit 451 starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. Pauline Kael hated it. She let Bradbury have it out of the gate, calling his sci fi premise a dumb but brilliant gimmick so nakedly primitive that educated viewers would fall for it.
A world without books. If I had announced that the first day of school, objections would have been few. The objectors would be those few kids who read books. They were always a minority anyway. Are there perhaps fewer and fewer of them? Seems so. Then what’s the point of burning books that nobody reads?
I’m not the only, am I, old enough to regret the burning of the library at Alexandria? Actually the 20th century was by far the greatest of all for book-burning – which only goes to show that maybe a library isn’t the safest place to keep books after all.
Kael went after Bradbury for taking the politics out of Fahrenheit 451, which is a good point but one that the Hippodrome bulldozes right over. Ralf Remshardt directs this play like it’s Brecht. And that makes it exciting, sharp, witty, and dynamic.
We were enjoined to teach kids that Reading is Fun, but the kids could see right through that. Things that are fun, nobody needs to tell you they’re fun. Sex? Drugs? Rock n’ Roll?
How the hell did this happen? Stay tune for Act Two.
Ralf Remshardt is the ensemble maestro. The strongest element by far in this production is the unified effect of its ensemble. Its versatility, adaptability, range, emotional commitment, chemistry, and above all, its energy, all are extraordinary. Pauline Kael complained that Truffaut’s movie was boring, the performances flat. This beats the hell out of that. The ensemble maintains a frenetic pace throughout, always surprising, inventive.
The Firemen are all fit as a fiddle, recruited no doubt with an eye toward their physical prowess as well as their mental agility and infectious camaraderie.
We are treated to gem after gem of characterization. Each performance pops.
Niall McGinty as Montag begins the play as its narrator, speaking directly to us, but Bradbury drops that conceit then and there, and we never hear directly from Montag again. But McGinty makes it matter not in the least as he fully gains our confidence, in a way Oskar Werner never could, as a regular Guy. We trust every moment, every move, every response, as honest and true, all happening to this Guy Montag in the Future. Damn.
Of course, Bradbury is not Brecht. Although the notion of book burning is normally associated with fascism, Bradbury steers away from any overt political statement. Fire Chief Beatty, revealed as a closeted bibliophile himself, inveighs against “minorities,” predominantly defined by color, and he and his white subordinate, the crackerjack rookie Holden played by Jack McKenny, join together in terrorizing their comrade Black, played by Jay Nixon who is Black. So, it seems there is a persistent racism alive in this future, whatever its ruling ideology, and yet Beatty rages with a fulsome literary fusillade at a world where everyone is equal, society has been flattened. It’s spectacular. David Patrick Ford makes a herculean effort to reconcile all that as the Chief goes off on a Guinness Book rant that completely clears the air of any logic we had going so far. With every fiber of his being Ford shows you that burning books will make you fucking crazy!
Meanwhile Montag’s wife Millie, played by the enthralling Katelyn Crall, has been hilariously ensnared by a media image of herself, so marvelously lampooning her self-fandom that you can’t take your eyes off her unable to keep her eyes off herself.
Mirabile dictu, she’s not alone. Her friends Alice and Helen, piquantly played by Jacqueline St. Pierre and Roxanne Fay, arrive for an afternoon media-gasm, now comprising the Three Stoogettes, and they are a stitch.
Bradbury had to come up with a raisonneur to counter Chief Beatty, and he found one in the English Department. Retired Professor Farber is Clarisse’s grandfather and Montag’s conduit to the Land of the Book People. David Carey Foster dons him appropriately with sensitivity, passion, and just the right amount of sophisticated naivete to fuck it all up.
Aristotle listed spectacle as the least of the six elements of drama – after plot, character, thought, diction, and sound – each requiring a greater complexity of mind than the one below. Spectacle is also the most basic of the elements. You have to see it to believe it.
Fahrenheit 451 is spectacular, literally. There’s not much plays can do visually to compete with movies, but they can still try, and this one does. All the bells and whistles of stage techno are flashed to good effect, this being after all the Future. The wizardry of
the scenic design by Mihai Ciupe with its scorched severe geometrical set, Bob Robins’ sharp lighting, the pulsing projection design by FIVE OHM, the futuristic fashion show of costume design by Amanda Jones, all make Fahrenheit 451 flat-out fun to watch.
Elaine Shoaf, supplied the props of the play, which is to say credibly imagining the Things of the Future, the Firemen’s apparatus et al. as well as relics of the past which have survived – chiefly the books to be burned, including significantly the bible. The bible comes up for burning too. How about that? It is after all just a book. By the way it’s considered back luck to use a real bible onstage, just as it is to wear green or say the name of the Scottish play.
When the books come to be burned, the first thing to be noticed is how beautiful they are, how beautiful a large bookcase is, how like stained glass with the light shining through, its colors and patterns so varied and straight. And the woman who defends them, Mrs. Hudson, so movingly portrayed by Roxanne Fay, knows that and so much more, that if all the world’s books were to suddenly disappear, it’s what inside them that would be lost, not just the past, but everything we could know but won’t, condemning us to perpetual ignorance, and so she immolates herself as the Buddhist monk did on TV to protest the Vietnam War.
Remshardt has staged the play with absolute speed and precision. It moves. The Hippodrome’s thrust stage, with audience on three sides has no curtain and the set must provide for sight lines from three directions. Think about it. Everything that happens in a scene has to be seen from three directions. Now see how marvelously Remshardt and his ensemble have thought about it. Watch how characters pop up unexpectedly out of nowhere.
Fahrenheit 451 is wonderful to hear. That would be Aristotle’s elements of sound and diction. The sound is a sublime underscoring and atmospheric experience achieved through the original score by Jing Zhao and sound design by Amanda Nipper.
As for diction, the play is well-spoken by the players without the benefit of mics taped to their faces – not because they don’t need them in the future, but because they don’t need them now.
As for the element of Thought – that’s largely Bradbury’s concern. He gives us a lot to think about, and the Hipp does a hell of a lot with it. Pauline Kael complained about Truffaut’s movie that it was more fun to talk about than to watch. The Hippodrome’s production of Fahrenheit 451 lets you have plenty of both.
Fahrenheit 451 runs through September 25 at the Hippodrome