Backward Looking

31Oct17

Earlier this year while working for the Ministry of Truth (Creation Theatre’s 1984 at Oxford Maths Institute), my friend and erstwhile MTO collaborator Dazz Joyce introduced me to “Looking Backward 2000-1887” – Edward Bellamy’s time-travelling Utopian novel set in Boston in an imagined 2000AD. I immediately latched on to it as an ideal subject for a devised project with final year undergraduates at Birmingham University.

It’s now just a couple of days after the final performance in the George Cadbury Hall, Selly Oak. The project was not without its challenges; a huge amount of my energy going into the distillation of a script rather than the open devising that I’d anticipated. But such is the nature of devising; where you are developing a methodology at the same time as  generating material. Looking Backward became something of a literary exercise, with great demands placed on the students to wrestle with syntactically complex texts. All said, I feel blessed to have worked with such a warm-hearted, generous and talented team who created something I feel very proud of. Below is a copy of the Programme Notes, accompanied by stills from the show.

 

LOOKING BACKWARD 2000-1887

 

 

The object of this reading is to assist persons desiring to gain a more definite idea of the social contrasts between the 19th and 20th Centuries. The author has sought to alleviate the instructive quality of the book by casting it in the form of a romantic narrative, not wholly devoid of interest on its own account…

…So writes Edward Bellamy, in his Preface to “Looking Backward 2000-1887”.

 

Whether Bellamy’s ‘romantic narrative’ fully pulls our attention away from those “instructive” qualities remains questionable, but “Looking Backward” certainly deserves more recognition for the huge impact it made on its first readers when it was published in 1887. Bellamy was then a struggling young writer in a small industrial town in Massachusetts. His book not only inspired a wave of time-travelling literature (including that of H.G Wells), but also spawned a whole political movement. Groups of thinkers and activists would form ‘Bellamy Clubs’ to debate the radical ideas promoted in this Utopian vision for the Industrial Age.

 

 

Bellamy’s protagonist in the novel, Julian West, is an insomniac, kept awake by the troubling hubbub of contemporary life. But thanks to the interventions of a mesmerist he slips into a profound sleep in his secret underground chamber, and survives a catastrophic house-fire, only to be re-discovered and awoken in the year 2000. His new hosts then give him a tour of the changed world.

 

The theme of ‘Waking Up’ is a metaphor for the modern condition which causes Julian such angst. He is a sympathetic witness to the miseries of those less fortunate than him, but also realises his privilege has only been made possible on the backs of others’ labour.

 

 

So why choose “Looking Backward” now? Bellamy writes in 1887 but attempts to project a future 2000AD, the supposed culmination of a century’s worth of enlightenment and human progress. (Bellamy himself uses the expression ‘evolution’, which betrays the influence the Darwinians had on his generation.) But it is significant that the ensemble that presenting for you today – all born in the fading light of the 1990’s – are the first generation to have no actual memory of the 20th Century at all! Sometimes referred to as “Generation Z”, this digital-literate and socially-conscious generation start only with the Millennium. Their future lives will help shape a very different – perhaps smaller – world in which ‘Globalisation’ and ‘Climate Change’ loom large.

 

Theatre offers us an opportunity to model alternative realities and it is in this spirit we present a re-modelling of Bellamy’s Utopian landscape, as imagined from a 1887 perspective. But as we listen to Bellamy’s descriptions of an evolved future society it is easy to become blasé and forget how extraordinary his vision was. So much of what he predicts has actually come true but has become normalised in our everyday modern reality; giant shopping Malls with Amazon-style distribution systems, Credit Cards and cash-less economy. But he also predicts gender equality, the IMF, trade clearance systems, radio for musical and religious sermons; a welfare system; free education and the nationalisation of Industries and rail networks. In Bellamy’s world there are no ‘pay gaps’. Universal basic income has become the norm, and economic efficiency is the result.

 

 

“….it seems to me that nowhere can we find more solid ground for daring anticipations of human development during the next thousand years, than by Looking Backward upon the progress of the last one hundred.”

 

Bellamy’s characters dismiss the “followers of the red flag” as nothing more than an sponsored conspiracy, but we cannot help but listen to his description of Utopia without thinking of how the actual 20th Century was shaped by – long after Bellamy’s death – the rise and fall of Communism, and the spectre of National Socialism. Bellamy’s call, at the end of the novel, for unquestioning patriotism leaves­­ a bitter taste in the light of actual events of the 20th Century – not to mention recent ideological shifts in the USA. We are left wondering whether we do indeed live in times that are ‘looking forward’, or whether we are, infact, still ‘looking backward’…

 

Graeme Rose, director, October 2017

[pictures courtesy of David Crisp and the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Birmingham]

 

 

 

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