By my observation, everyone made it through Wednesday night’s performance of 1984 fully conscious. As far as I could see, the only vomiting was of fake blood by actor Tom Sturridge in the play’s gruesome final torture scenes. And I looked. Carefully. Probably more so than I even paid attention to the show.
Since Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s Trump-evoking production of George Orwell’s portending classic opened on Broadway last week, coverage of the play has been devoted to the veritable health crisis taking place nightly at the Hudson Theatre--perhaps even more so than its harrowing timeliness.
Alarmist reports have teased that audience members have been “vomiting, screaming, and fainting” during performances of 1984. Spectators got so riled up there were arrests at one performance. Star/daily survivor Olivia Wilde apparently broke her tailbone and dislocated her rib during previews. Security guards make their presence known during the play’s climactic final torture scene. The theatre instated an age restriction, that no one under 13 would be allowed to attend.
After all this, walking into Wednesday night’s performance, ticket in hand, my heart was racing. I was racked with the nausea-inducing nerves that the production’s intense flashing strobe lights, oppressive thumping music, and confrontational violence intended to exacerbate even further.
But my nausea watching the play didn't match those pre-show nerves—no matter how horrifying and bone-chilling the actors played out the bloody, brutal conclusion.
The crushing problem facing players in 1984 is not that Big Brother is watching, but that the media is. After so much hype this production is the latest victim of the theatre of anticipation.
Leaving the show on Wednesday night, friends breathlessly required about my physical state. Had I fainted? How much had I vomited? That I emerged perfectly fine was positively disappointing to them. And, honestly, me. The point of seeing 1984, I realized, was no longer about intensely feeling the paranoia and anxiety it intends to reflect about the state of the country and the government—which it does effectively, if a bit on-the-nose—but to performatively experience it.
It’s becoming increasingly the case, thanks to theatre being perhaps the last bastion of pop culture to experience the viral nature of press coverage, that simply taking in a performance is no longer enough.
Be it protesters interrupting Julius Caesar or Bette Midler winking at the audience and stopping the show during Hello, Dolly!, the report is no longer what you thought of a production or how it made the audience feel, but what the audience did. And waiting for those moments has become theatre in itself, a countdown clock one must endure to get through the fainting, the shouts of “Goebbels,” the hooting histrionics.
It’s the theatrical manifestation of a cultural of overhype and over-selling, in which if we don’t play along we haven’t really experienced what the price of the ticket enshrines.
If you don’t experience what the hype tells you everyone else is experiencing, you’re let down. If you didn’t faint at 1984, was it even worth going? These moments in theatre have become the equivalent of going to the hottest restaurant in New York only to think that the pasta is merely fine. You’re going to Instagram it with captioned superlatives anyway. But the experience feels less-than nonetheless.
When it became known that protesters were infiltrating the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar, which modeled the doomed leader to look like President Trump, lines for tickets to the free production immensely grew in size.
People wanted to be in the audience of the cultural event—bear witness to the interruption—not the middling staging of a Shakespeare play. If they happened to learn that the play actually portrayed Caesar’s assassination as a negative thing, rendering the protests laughably misguided, well, that’s just a lucky byproduct of three hours of their time.
Of course, the theatre of anticipation is hardly new. People have been flooding Times Square to see chandeliers crash, helicopters land, and witches fly for decades. Spectacle sells tickets, and the the thrill of witnessing it live is the lifeblood of Broadway’s financial success.
At its lowest, we’re flooding Ticketmaster to see chorus members on malfunctioning stunt wires break bones and injure themselves in Spider-Man spandex. But it’s not even always crass.
The theatre of anticipation also applies to the excitement and restlessness one might feel waiting for The Color Purple to get around to the ecclesiastical moment when Cynthia Erivo belts “I’m Here” near the end of Act Two, often earning a mid-show standing ovation from the audience who had, regardless of the fact that the entire production was a magical, spiritual experience, been clamoring specifically for that moment—and teasing themselves for that moment to perform their gratitude for it.
But that’s an example when the execution meets the hype. What happens when you watch Olivia Wilde evoke Trump’s America in 1984 and you don’t even vomit? The theatre of anticipation breeds the curse of the theatrical letdown.
Shock and sensation is synonymous with theatre, which might be why a handful of critics scoff at 1984’s gruesome antics as softcore provocation—what, you can’t even get everyone to physically recoil?
Is 1984 akin to torture porn, detracting from a wider thematic message, or a bold, visceral dare, compelling the audience to experience the degradation happening on stage themselves? Artistic merits aside, when a moment like this one becomes so publicized because of the ways a handful of audience members have reacted to it, does waiting for it hurt your own theatrical experience?
Getting people to the theatre in today’s day and age, unless you’re Bette Midler in a feathered hat, is hard. Shock and awe helps with that, sure, and perhaps shouldn’t be begrudged. And, paradoxically, waiting in scrutiny of some rumored big moment might force an audience member to watch a play more closely. You may leave without fainting once and wondering what all the hoopla was about, but you may also experience the play more closely out of that eagerness?
Or, maybe you’ll just leave deflated.
Whether it’s TV, movies, or theatre, we’ve become craven for experience, which is why we’re so conditioned to circulate and exacerbate hype, which explains the breadth of coverage of the physical ailments experienced during some performances of 1984.
We want to cry along to This Is Us, fawn over the epicness of Game of Thrones, or exaggerate how scared we were during the horror movie of the moment. And when those things don’t deliver, we’re outraged, or let down. How dare This Is Us not show us how a beloved character tragically died!?
1984 is a production that is good because it goes beyond what you expect from it: the Trump-era allegory couldn’t be plainer, but the way it engages one's fear of complicity and participation in an oppressive regime is in the end more adventurous and powerful than we originally bargained for.
But it also produces nothing you expect from it, because you will likely not have a seizure, or vomit, while watching it. We’d venture that the Thought Police would have no patience for that.