Ray Bradbury’s 1953 fable, Fahrenheit 451, about a totalitarian world in which all books are burned, hasn’t quite come true yet, but the paranoia it embodies so effectively has been more than justified. Nobody reads any longer. Most Americans are literate, but they prefer to confine their reading to bits and scraps of trivia and current chitchat, increasingly on the Web rather than on the page. I know for a fact—they keep me informed of my Web hits—that virtually no one will read this review. I could make any absurd assertion I please, such as “New Orleans residents are eating locusts to survive” or “Angry feminists are smuggling vast supplies of wire hangers into South Dakota,” without anyone noticing, let alone challenging me. (If you see either of these wholly imaginary claims cropping up as a “fact” on some blog, feel free to let me know: email@example.com.) The Web’s jangle of contradictory statements, arriving when our attention spans had already been shortened by television, at least partially explains the public apathy that keeps the most incompetent administration, and the most corrupt congressional majority, in American history comfortably in office. To that extent, the world Bradbury’s nightmare prefigured is already here.
Godlight Theatre’s rendering of the stage adaptation that Bradbury made of his book in 1979 sums up our paradoxical situation in a nutshell: Presumably meaning to take a stand against the growing decline in Americans’ willingness to read, think, and question—why else would you produce Fahrenheit 451?—the production instead seems, in many ways, to exemplify that decline. A classic instance of the good intentions with which the road to hell is proverbially paved, its shadowy, screaming, nerve-jangling, heavily postured insistence makes it look like just the kind of cheesy action entertainment that a totalitarian state would feed to the drugged populace of Bradbury’s novel as a substitute for a genuine thrill. The idea that something close to our own comfy, media-controlled apathy might be at hand disappears the instant you walk into the tiny theater, already filled with smoke and ominous figures in firemen’s uniforms, standing solemnly, bathed in a welter of taped noises and dim, swiveling lights that rarely hit the actors’ faces.
Fantasy by definition doesn’t parse rationally, but the grip of Bradbury’s paranoid fantasy, and its charm, have always come from the cool straightforwardness with which his prose carries it out. Bradbury loves Poe—a variant of Fahrenheit 451, in The Martian Chronicles
, imagines a world where Poe’s fantasies are banned—but his prose is no descent into the maelstrom of overwrought adjectives that defines Poe’s style. (In fact, one flaw in the adaptation, insofar as I could judge it from Godlight’s rendering, is that Montag the fireman and his friends tend to speak in an explanatory tone, and with a literary vocabulary, far too articulate and varied for people who’ve had their cultural conditioning; they talk like a narrating author, not like his characters.) Though the novel’s full of unexplained contradictions and unanswered questions, you tend to read past them because, on the page, the world Bradbury depicts seems so real, so all of a piece. It’s only in afterthought that questions begin to emerge: If books are forbidden, why are people still taught to read? Where does the controlling elite get its information? The computer databases whose existence partially answers such nitpicky questions were still a few decades away when Bradbury wrote; his even wilder invention of wall-size TVs that broadcast interactive soaps, with housewives’ dialogue mass-mailed to them in advance, now seems all too shudderingly believable.
The adaptation, alas, only gives a crude taste of Bradbury’s accurately scary forecast of our media-drunk world, rendered by Godlight’s company, under Joe Tantalo’s direction, in shrieking tones next to which Fox TV laugh tracks would sound on the mellow side. Shrieking and muttering, the latter often incomprehensible, are the cast’s two basic modes of speech, to which only Ken King, as Montag, the hero, is an occasional exception. The clipped, blankly polite speech of Bradbury’s everyday characters—it sounds like the conversation you hear in those corporate offices where nobody really trusts anybody else—goes unheard onstage. In one misguided stroke, possibly meant to be ironic, the role of the elderly professor, who speaks for the meaning and moral value that lie in books, has been given to an actor with particularly bad diction. What’s bitter is that such a technologically knowing company, with such strong resources and such good purposes in mind, should make, and carry out so skillfully, choices that work so strongly against their makers’ intent. It makes me wonder, not for the first time this year, what the hell young Americans today think they’re doing when they take up the theater as a profession. If all they want is to be gimmicky, noisy, and sensationalist, shouldn’t they just go directly into TV?