The musical “Animal Farm,” buoyantly dark allegory of a lost utopia
Front row, from left: Melora Marshall, Clarence Powell, Thad Geer, Christopher Yarrow, Mark Lewis, Jessica Gillette, Back: Sky Wahl, Holly Hawk, Evangeline Edwards | Liam Flanders

LOS ANGELES—Under the season rubric of “Rising Up,” Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum has included George Orwell’s Animal Farm in a musical adaptation by Sir Peter Hall originally produced by Britain’s National Theatre, with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell and music by Richard Peaslee. It is thoroughly engaging, highly creative, musically charming, and overall a profound educational excursion to “actually existing socialism” in “rural England” “once upon a time.”

Ellen Geer, Will’s daughter, directed with consistent attention to all the squeals, oinks, grunts, snorts, cackles, screeches and baaas you’d expect to hear on a barnyard visit. Her characters, capped by appropriate headgear and masks, prance, preen, gallop and strut to convincing effect, yet also emerge as distinct individuals. A small onstage orchestra leads the performers in a wide range of musical material, from marching songs and revolutionary anthems to the spotlighted personal stories of horses, pigs, sheep, cows. “Chickens for Peace” is but one of such numbers.

As any schoolchild knows, Animal Farm, at least when I was growing up, was one of the most popular assignments for young adult readers. At an impressionable age, youthful minds, potentially subject to wily utopian appeals of equality or civil rights, were to be molded into cynics who would distrust any calls for “Animalism,” i.e., class consciousness, social justice, or human betterment.

I’m reminded of L.A. comrade Esther Cicconi, who died a couple of years ago in her late nineties, a Communist Party member since she was teenager in the 1930s. She recounted how a friend of hers, in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union imploded, remarked to her, “You see, Esther, I always told you socialism doesn’t work. Now you can see I was right.” The implacable Esther, now older and wiser, replied, “The USSR was the first time in human history that the working class united to form their own government and state. You don’t really suppose that experiment would succeed on the first try?”

As an independent Marxist, Orwell is also famous for his writing about the Spanish Civil War, in which he was none too kind about the politics of the Soviet-oriented Communists that he witnessed personally. Back in the USSR, of course, the late 1930s was also the time of the great purges, gulags and liquidations, and widespread paranoia about Trotskyists, imperialist spies and enemies of the people. Yet the Soviets acquitted themselves heroically in the fight against fascism once the Germans attacked their own soil.

The Soviet record was highly flawed, yet—perhaps despite Stalin—they also racked up some remarkable advances in many fields that cannot be forgotten. During those awful Thirties, with mass unemployment in the West, the USSR—yes, under Stalin—was thriving with education, the opening of new lands, urbanization, industrialization, carving out irrigation canals, construction of bridges, highways and subway systems. Americans and other laid-off workers from Western countries flocked to the Soviet Union for jobs.

The year 2017 will see—it has already begun—a worldwide reconsideration of the 1917 Russian Revolution that launched the Soviet era. Perhaps the Theatricum Botanicum chose this centennial year as a contribution to the assessment.

Orwell published Animal Farm in 1946, an allegory of Soviet history with transparent allusions to the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky. Was that the right moment to raise deep-seated questions about the legitimacy of Soviet claims to equality, human rights, the dignity of man? After all, they had just lost some 20-25 million of their citizens in World War II, and there still remained tremendous residual goodwill in the West, which if properly nurtured might have opened up a new era of global cooperation and peaceful competition over different approaches toward organizing human society in the post-war period.

Indeed, one can persuasively argue that the existence of this other model forced capitalist countries to raise the living standards of the working class—especially if you consider its precipitous decline once the model disappeared. “There is no alternative,” the capitalist triumphalists are still braying.

But if not in 1946, then when? Complaints against Soviet “mistakes” began soon after the Revolution with the anarchists, then the socialists and well-meaning democratic forces troubled by the egregious excesses. Many on the Communist left adopted the “Robeson” stance: Paul Robeson, a frequent visitor to the USSR, resident there for a time, and a friend of artists and intellectuals in high places, well knew of the disparities between public Soviet pronouncements and the crimes that flagrantly belied socialist norms. Yet in the galactic battle of ideas between the capitalism he knew and despised and the socialism however compromised that offered at least some promise, especially to the underdeveloped world, he felt he had to choose sides unequivocally. He did not wish to provide fuel to the capitalist side by adding his powerful blows to knock the fledgling workers’ state down.

At what point can a conscientious person say with certainty: This is the correct moment to voice my concerns. Depending on how you see things, it is always either too early or too late. Some people said, Never is the right time.

“The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale,” wrote Orwell in his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” when Animal Farm appeared, “and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”

Orwell allegorized the purges of the 1930s, but was also clairvoyant about the crackdowns yet to come in the later 1940s and 1950s after his death. The massive abuses only abated after Stalin’s death in 1953, and after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, which laid bare Stalin’s crimes.  Of course, that did not end the criticism either, much of it posing as anti-“Stalinist,” but more accurately simply anti-socialist. Some criticism, it’s important to recognize, was meant to heal and improve socialism, while other varieties sought to destroy it, period. Another kind of criticism, infantile and otherwise, grounded in textbook theory, contained little other agenda than to prove political correctness, the implications on the ground be damned.

It bears remarking that the 1954 British-made film of Animal Farm, which concludes with the animated animals asking for outside help to defeat their own oppressor-in-chief, was later revealed to have been funded by the CIA as a Cold War-time propaganda piece, significantly changing Orwell’s ending. But Orwell had died in 1950, at the age of 46, and couldn’t protest.

Especially once McCarthyism descended upon America, violations not only of “artistic freedom” but of labor and immigrant rights, not to mention the lingering scourge of racism, were life-and-death problems in the West as well. Perhaps if he had lived two or three years longer, and had witnessed the executions of the Rosenbergs in 1953 (after Stalin had died), he might have been more cautious in leveling his blunderbuss only eastward.

What’s the takeaway?

In the course of two acts, the musical treats such issues as wild animals (are they as equal as farm animals?), religion (there is no Sugar Candy Mountain), privilege (do the pigs have the right to expropriate milk and apples for themselves?), the relationship between leaders and ordinary citizens, commerce between the egalitarian farm and the surrounding capitalist world, the introduction of labor-saving technology (a windmill) and the nature of work itself, the role of an internal military and secret police, coerced confessions, obedience to the state, the part language itself plays in distorting reality, the rewriting of history to conform to current ideology, and much more.

The big takeaway for us is not to believe that all revolutionary movements will eventually devolve into their opposites and turn into a new enslavement, which is what the nihilistic Cold Warriors wanted us to think. Rather it might be this: That democratic practice must be built into the very fabric of our movements, for privilege and authoritarianism will inevitably yield bitter fruit. And that leadership is not assigned or anointed, but earned and always subject to re-evaluation.

Standout performers include Max Lawrence as Boxer the workhorse, Lea Madda as Mollie the preening show horse and the capitalist Mr. Whymper, Christopher Yarrow as Snowball (the “Trotskyist” pig), Mark Lewis as Napoleon (the “Stalinist” pig), Thad Geer as Old Major and Pilkington, Melora Marshall as Squealer, one of the porcine troika, and Rodrick Jean-Charles as the questioning Benjamin.

A nice touch comes at the very end, during the curtain calls, when a soupy string-section rendition of “America the Beautiful” is broadcast over the stage. Forget the USSR for a minute, and neither are we in some allegorical England. What kind of country do we want for ourselves here?

Future performances of Animal Farm take place at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga 90290, midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway, on July 30 at 3:30, Aug. 4 at 7:30, Aug. 6 at 7:30, Aug. 12 at 3:30, Aug. 19 at 7:30, Aug. 26 at 3:30, Sept. 2 at 7:30, Sept. 10 at 7:30, Sept. 17 at 3:30, Sept. 23 at 7:30, and Oct. 1 at 7:30 pm. For tickets and other information call (310) 455-3723 or visit www.theatricum.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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