When George Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1945, the British author was publicly sneering at the failure of Stalinist Russia to live up to its revolutionary and egalitarian ideals.
The Milwaukee Rep’s upcoming production of Ian Woolridge’s adaptation of Orwell’s allegorical novella, which opens Jan. 9 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, is social criticism of a similar sort.
“I like to create art that reflects society,” says May Adrales, the Rep’s recently named associate artistic director who is helming the show. “We are living in an interesting time, one in which we question our leadership. Animal Farm asks some hard-hitting questions about how societies are built, governments are formed and the very nature of leadership itself.”
The play’s key question, like that of the novella, is whether even the most well-intentioned efforts to serve society can escape the narcissistic, power-hungry, self-serving and ultimately destructive aspects that comprise the dark part of the human spirit.
The answer, unfortunately, is not an encouraging one.
In addition to his criticism of Stalinist Russia, Orwell, who considered himself a democratic socialist, was prompted to write Animal Farm by the Spanish Civil War and its outcomes, according to Andrew Kincaid, associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“The farm setting came from an experience Orwell had with a boy he saw one day on a rural road whipping a horse relentlessly,” Kincaid recounts. “The power of the image stuck with Orwell and became a symbol for random and brutal cruelty.”
The whipping also raised the question of what would happen if the horse suddenly realized its enormous strength and turned the tables on its assailant.
The setting and its characters helped Orwell explore what happens when the fabric of egalitarianism begins to tatter and shred through the force of human nature, Kincaid explains.
“In showing the demise of common cause on the farm, Orwell illustrated the lack of morality that is never far from all of us when we get a whiff of power and wealth,” the educator explains. “Decaying equality can lead to — and be caused by — propaganda designed to explain differences and social inequalities. People are often fed repeated lies from religion — as illustrated in the book by the Raven — and regarding the biological inferiority of others, as the pigs come to preach.”
Adrales also acknowledges the undeniable connections between the narrative and current U.S. sociopolitical themes.
“There are pigs in every society, and there are always leaders who will exploit the masses for their own benefit,” she says. “It’s true at the beginning of the play, present throughout the play, and is what the audience is left with at the end.”
‘Some more equal than others’
In Orwell’s tale, the animals of Manor Farm revolt against the drunken and irresponsible farmer Mr. Jones after Old Major, an aging boar, tells the other animals of a dream he had in which the animals, not the farmer, benefit from their own labor.
After successfully driving Jones away, Manor Farm is renamed Animal Farm and the animals agree to live under the Seven Commandments of Animalism, the most important of which is, “All animals are created equal.”
In keeping with the story’s premise, things change rapidly with the pigs rising to the top of the animal classes. The revised commandment reads, “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Adrales tells her tale with an ensemble cast of six, all of whom are asked to play multiple roles. The actors are costumed by Izumi Inaba in types of coveralls to identify the types of animals, who are further identified by masks that represent their characters.
The director has abandoned the bucolic farm setting, settling instead for a set done in shades of gray with white-tiled walls spattered with sweat, blood and gore.
“I wanted to communicate the abuse and degradation each of the workers has to suffer,” says Adrales, who looked at industrial agriculture and migrant farms for ideas.
“This is in no way pastoral,” she stresses. “I wanted to set the play in a cold, unwelcoming and inhospitable environment. Only in the distance can the workers see the sky’s horizon and the freedom it represents.”
Comparisons to the Trump era, Adrales says, are as intended as they are inevitable.
“It’s almost a tribalism, in which patriotism is sometimes used to control democracy,” Adrales says. “In the play, it’s a sign of when regimes take power — and they’re largely fascist regimes — operating under the guise of extreme nationalism.
“What Orwell is speaking out against is using extremism to create loyalty to those in power,” she adds, “and that fanaticism is what keeps people in power.”
Kincaid agrees: “Can you say alternative facts? Fake news? Class warfare? Hypocrisy? Changing the rules midstream?
“I think it’s fantastic that the Rep has picked up this text,” Kincaid adds. “From false populism to today’s underpaid working class, Animal Farm is immensely relevant.”