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Guest Blog: Fifty years of A Clockwork Orange

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It’s 50 years since A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’ seminal dystopian novel, was published.

To mark the occasion, Volcano Theatre Company are bringing their stage production to the Arcola Theatre, where it runs from 21 March to 21 April 2012. Here, director Paul Davies shares his thoughts on the work, and why it remains so prescient.

If utopia is a destination that humankind is always setting sail for but never arriving at (with the opposite brand of futurology it is more difficult to say where they are hoping to get to), do writers of a dystopian frame of mind write to warn us of the perils of the direction that society seems to be heading? And if so, do they then feel legitimised when the future turns out to be as bad as they have anticipated?

Orwell did live long enough to see the state expand, suffocate civil society and tyrannise the population. But that was the Soviet Union. In the case of Britain, it might be argued that he was wrong – the problem lay with the potency of the ideological state apparatus and its ability to assimilate dissent, diminish critical thinking and frustrate meaningful democratic participation.

I’m not sure how far Anthony Burgess was engaged with these political possibilities when he came to write A Clockwork Orange in the early 1960s. It was, as is well known, something he wrote quickly to help pay the bills in the event of what he thought was his impending death. He had observed, both in England and in the Soviet Union, the developing youth culture. He wanted to capture the energy, danger and bravado that went with being young, but he did not want the book to be out of date before it was even published. So it was set in the future and the characters spoke an argot of the two most powerful languages of the day: Russian and Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps it was this linguistic masterstroke as well as Stanley Kubrick’s film of 1972, that guaranteed the book notoriety.

Of course notoriety is not necessarily prescience. However, one can’t help feeling that Burgess’ invention of a muscular new vocabulary remains a significant achievement that guarantees the future status of the book and also reminds us that our relationship to our ever-changing language is our primary way of knowing and representing our world. In this regard it might be said that Burgess was well ahead of the times. The anti-hero speaks directly to us. His question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” becomes increasingly enticing. Well before the 21st chapter we are complicit in Alex’s terrible actions.

The novella takes on an increasingly contemporary look, with the moral argument eclipsing the narrative in significance and range. It's as if Alex and not the author is in dialogue with us, the readers. This dialogue or conversation became increasingly difficult for Burgess to control, especially after the film. A Clockwork Orange had escaped the intentions of Burgess well before the later, much publicised death of the author.

Prescience comes in many ways. One could mention Burgess’ suggestion in passing that civil society in the future will be largely privatised and transfixed by the blue lights of media entertainment. And the blue lights of the police force look less like the helpful bobbies of Dixon of Dock Green and more like our contemporary police force – brutal when they feel like it and corruptible when the offer is there.

More prescience from Burgess comes with his wider argument: is it better to be evil of our own volition or more preferable that the state forces us to do good? In Burgess’ hands this old Rousseauesque argument gets a religious gloss. Civilisation and all her minions are frauds; progress is a sham. Let the individual stand before a just and forgiving God. Redemption is just a prayer away - not that Alex is the praying kind. I guess the prescience here lies with Burgess’ determination to remind us that as individuals we shuffle off our rights and responsibilities to the state at our peril.

Fifty years since its publication, A Clockwork Orange still has the power to disturb us; to remind us that we might not be so settled on a theory of punishment when we see the consequences of that theory laid out before us; or that our bourgeois defence of art, and the power to shock, may require modification in the light of humankind’s continued enthusiasm for maiming and killing others. And perhaps this remains the most chillingly accurate bit of Burgess futurology. In A Clockwork Orange Burgess predicts a world of violence and much of this is visited upon women. Women are beaten and raped, women are taken hostage, young girls are raped and women are killed. In 1962 this must have read as very shocking indeed, but it turns out, 50 years later, that Burgess was right – the world is arguably a far less safe place for women now than it was then. Alex, and men, remain a problem.


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