Hear George Orwell’s 1984 Adapted as a Radio Play at the Height of McCarthyism & The Red Scare (1953)

“If you want a pic­ture of the future,” George Orwell famous­ly said, “imag­ine a boot stamp­ing on a human face, for­ev­er.” Since his omi­nous warn­ing of com­ing tyran­ny, and the pub­li­ca­tion of his dystopi­an nov­el 1984, Orwell’s grim vision has been put to var­i­ous par­ti­san uses. Con­ser­v­a­tives lament­ing the polic­ing of speech invoke Orwell. So too does a spec­trum of voic­es speak­ing out against vio­lent author­i­tar­i­an­ism in actu­al polic­ing, and in the pol­i­tics of the right—related phe­nom­e­na giv­en the will­ing­ness of police and secret ser­vice to become enforcers of a campaign’s will at ral­lies nation­wide. The state and cor­po­rate mass media have both become com­plic­it in fos­ter­ing a cli­mate of out­rage, mis­trust, and inse­cu­ri­ty in which there seems to be, as Orwell wrote, “no loy­al­ty except loy­al­ty to the Par­ty.”

How did this hap­pen? If we, in the Unit­ed States, are ever inclined to learn from our his­to­ry, we might avoid falling vic­tim to the para­noid blan­d­ish­ments of dem­a­gogues and fear­mon­gers. While one cur­rent threat to democ­ra­cy comes from out­side the polit­i­cal sys­tem, in the 1950s, an insid­er used sev­er­al of the same tac­tics to hold the nation in thrall. The repres­sive post­war cli­mate of anti-Com­mu­nist pan­ic in which Joseph McCarthy rose to pow­er in the late 40s and 50s entrapped even Orwell, who “named names” in a list he sent to the British For­eign Office, sug­gest­ing cer­tain acquain­tances “were not fit for writ­ing assign­ments” with the gov­ern­ment because of sup­posed Sovi­et sym­pa­thies.

This secret act would have seemed like a bit­ter irony to many dis­si­dents in McCarthy’s Amer­i­ca, who sure­ly read 1984 with increas­ing alarm as the Red Scare took hold of Con­gress. For their part, read­ers fear­ing the Com­mu­nist threat heard echoes of Orwell’s warn­ings in McCarthy’s pro­pa­gan­da.

In what­ev­er way it was inter­pret­ed, 1984 had an imme­di­ate impact on the cul­ture. Its first radio drama­ti­za­tion, star­ring David Niv­en, pre­miered in 1949—the year after the nov­el­’s publication—aired by the NBC Uni­ver­si­ty The­ater. This was fol­lowed just four years lat­er with anoth­er radio adap­ta­tion pro­duced by The Unit­ed States Steel Hour, a radio and TV anthol­o­gy pro­gram that employed Rod Ser­ling as a scriptwriter and fea­tured notable guest stars like James Dean, Andy Grif­fith, Jack Klug­man, and Paul New­man.

The program’s radio dra­mas, called The­atre Guild on the Air, adapt­ed clas­sic nov­els like Pride and Prej­u­dice and plays from Eugene O’Neill and Ten­nessee Williams. Its 1953 radio play of 1984 starred Richard Wid­mark as “Smith” and Mar­i­an Seldes as “Julia.” The play opens—as you can hear above—with a dire announce­ment of “the most ter­ri­fy­ing sub­ject in the news today: the threat to all free men of Com­mu­nism or total­i­tar­i­an dom­i­na­tion in any form.”

Whether they saw creep­ing Stal­in­ism or the rabid anti-Com­mu­nism of McCarthy as the more insid­i­ous force, read­ers of the 1950s found Orwell imme­di­ate­ly rel­e­vant. He has remained so, such that con­ser­v­a­tive colum­nist David Brooks, who has made many an Orwell ref­er­ence in the past, describes the recent “birtherism” turn­around as an “Orwellian inver­sion of the truth” in the PBS New­shour appear­ance above:

And so we are real­ly in Orwell land. We are in “1984.” And it’s inter­est­ing that an author­i­tar­i­an per­son­al­i­ty type comes in at the same time with a com­plete dis­re­spect for even tan­gen­tial rela­tion­ship to the truth, that words are unmoored.

And so I do think this state­ment sort of shocked me with the purifi­ca­tion of a lot of ter­ri­ble trends that have been hap­pen­ing. And so what’s white is black, and what is up is down, what is down is up. And that real­ly is some­thing new in pol­i­tics.

Like com­par­isons to anoth­er, all-too-real, total­i­tar­i­an regime, ref­er­ences to Orwell’s author­i­tar­i­an soci­ety have grown hoary over the decades, and often seem so elas­tic that they fall into triv­i­al­iz­ing cliché. But com­par­isons to fas­cism in a time when many vocal par­ti­sans are avowed fas­cists, or may as well be, seem almost tau­to­log­i­cal. The moment Brooks calls “Orwellian” above also seems pre­cise­ly that—a will­ful, coor­di­nat­ed, bla­tant, and total rever­sal of polit­i­cal language’s rela­tion­ship to any­thing even resem­bling the truth.

You can also stream the radio pro­duc­tion at the Inter­net Archive, who host all 74 The­atre Guild on the Air pro­duc­tions. 1984 was the last of the radio dra­mas before The Unit­ed States Steel Hour moved to tele­vi­sion, where Rod Ser­ling attract­ed con­tro­ver­sy for his 1956 dra­ma Noon at Dooms­day, inspired by the Emmett Till case, and anoth­er Cold War work still ter­ri­bly rel­e­vant to our time.

“The vic­tim” of the play, wrote Ser­ling in the intro to his 1957 col­lec­tion Pat­terns, “was on old Jew who ran a pawn­shop. The killer was a neu­rot­ic mal­con­tent who lashed out at some­thing or some­one who might be mate­ri­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly the scape­goat for his own unhap­py, pur­pose­less, mis­er­able exis­tence.” The episode imme­di­ate­ly pro­voked “a wel­ter of pub­lic­i­ty that came from some 15,000 let­ters and wires from White Cit­i­zens Coun­cils and the like protest­ing the pro­duc­tion of the play” for its resem­blance to the Till case. “I shrugged it off,” wrote Ser­ling, “answer­ing, ‘If the shoe fits.…’ ”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Hear the Very First Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Star­ring David Niv­en (1949)

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • daniel m says:

    Mao Tse Tung has an entire polit­i­cal reli­gion based on his ter­ri­ble lead­er­ship because “at least it was­n’t the Holo­caust” At least, dur­ing the 1940s and lat­er years, he did­n’t open­ly sup­port it like the Amer­i­can pub­lic. But still, Mao­ism, the name of this exis­ten­tial high point in lib­er­al phi­los­o­phy, is the lead­ing goal of tele­vi­sion, print, and online media with Che Gue­vara as its high­est author­i­ty. Watch as he shows us how to kill any­one in media who oppos­es estab­lish­ment, kill gays, cow­ardice, not suck dic­ta­tor cock well enough, the list goes on.

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