image credit: To Do List
It’s apparently a great time to make stage adaptations of dystopian novels. In my last post, I mentioned the Broadway adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, currently running at the Hudson Theatre. This week, another famous dystopian novel hit the stage: the off-Broadway production of A Clockwork Orange officially opened at New World Stages on September 25th. And while we all eagerly wait for someone to make a musical adaptation of The Hunger Games (actually, someone already tried), it’s nice to see that theatre producers are willing to take a chance on an ambitious, daring piece of theatre.
If you’re not familiar with the original 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, here’s the premise: A Clockwork Orange follows Alex, a teenager living in a dystopic England plagued by juvenile delinquency. After a sequence of nights where Alex and his friends commit random acts of violence, including assaulting a homeless person and raping multiple women, Alex is peer pressured by his friends into burglarizing a house. After an accident lands Alex in jail, he is persuaded into joining a government program to “cure” him of his violent tendencies. Without spoiling the rest of the novel, if you’ve ever read/seen anything in the dystopian genre, you know that accepting help from the government is usually a bad idea.
If you want an idea of the dystopia Alex lives in, here’s a famous scene from the 1971 film adaptation where Alex kills a woman with a giant metal penis.
That scene, while probably going too far towards making light of a robbery/murder, should give you a good sense of the dark humor of Burgess’ novel (or not – Burgess actually hated the film version). The character of Alex is an anti-hero who ultimately becomes sympathetic later in the novel, once the government’s treatment leaves him weak and joyless. A Clockwork Orange is generally considered a satire that questions how much control governments should have over their citizens, what makes a citizen a productive member of society, and whether criminals can truly be redeemed after their crimes. It is generally considered one of the best novels ever written, and the film has inspired numerous people to dress up like Alex (because why not pretend to be a rapist for Halloween?). The phrase “ultraviolence,” which Burgess created, even inspired the title of a Lana Del Rey album.
So how do you promote a theatre production based on such a revered and culturally-important novel, while still paying due attention to its sensitive themes of violence and social control?
Here are the terms some articles used to describe the cast of A Clockwork Orange:
“muscleboys” and “glisteningly muscular”
… as well as thought-provoking interviews such as, “What Makes the Hunky Star of ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ Tick”
So why is this show being advertised like it’s the next installment in the Magic Mike franchise? When you’re trying to market a thought-provoking, timely piece of theatre that happens to involve a rape sequence (and yes, there is a gang-rape scene in the play), should your major selling point be how attractive the actors are? Probably not.
Unless, of course, the play you’re marketing isn’t all that thought-provoking in the first place. Early reviews of A Clockwork Orange have heaped more praise on the actors’ physical fitness than to the substance of the play, which features minimal dialogue and heavily-choreographed sequences of violence, underscored by, among other things, David Bowie songs.
Although playing pop music while an assault is represented onstage might seem offensive, it’s fair to note that both the book and the film highlight the effects music can have on people’s behavior (Alex’s fondness for the music of Ludwig van Beethoven is borderline sexual). The real question is whether the stage adaptation adds anything to its source material besides a modernized soundtrack and a bunch of sweaty, muscular guys.
The answer is, actually, no. Not even muscular girls.
While the original novel and the film both had female characters (even if they were usually assaulted or used as sex objects), this new “homoerotic” stage adaptation features an all-male cast. This means any of the original roles that would have been played by women are instead played by men – this includes the woman who is gang-raped by Alex and his friends.
While there might be some value in portraying what might be construed as a homosexual rape onstage (after all, men do get raped too, and gay rapists do exist), Burgess’ novel was intended to show the results of a hypermasculine teenage subculture (e.g. “toxic masculinity”). Transforming a female rape victim to a male isn’t just missing the point of Burgess’ novel in exchange for cultural brownie points; it desensitizes the audience to the fact that the character who is being raped by Alex is still a woman – she is just being played by a male actor. The dystopia Burgess envisioned is anti-feminist and anti-queer; he was especially interested in the issue of violence against women, and the character of Alex is an undisputed misogynist. Making Alex (kind of) gay just seems like bad fanfiction, and a cheap attempt to win LGBTQIA fans.
In the interview I previously linked to (“What Makes the Hunky Star of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ Tick”), Jonno Davies, who plays Alex in the show, acknowledges the fact that one of his fellow actors, Matt Doyle, is “a huge gay heartthrob on the New York theater scene,” and is even asked if he’s bothered that “some tickets have probably been sold based on the promise of shirtless hunks.” Spoiler: he isn’t. And whether this “promise of shirtless hunks” is a matter of exploiting the audience or not is never mentioned.
It’s also worth noting that the term “muscleboys,” which is used in the headline for another article advertising A Clockwork Orange, is slang in the gay community for a homosexual bodybuilder. This means that promotional material for this show is explicitly using language that is directed towards members of the gay community.
None of this seems to bother Alexandra Spencer-Jones, the director of A Clockwork Orange. And yes, Alexandra is a woman. In an interview with The New York Times, Spencer-Jones acknowledged the lack of female cast members, saying, “The women in the novel are dehumanized and faceless and sort of stripped away of their complexity… I wondered how far I could explore that by not having them.” This might be an interesting viewpoint, if Spencer-Jones didn’t say in another interview, “Gender for me doesn’t mean that much in the piece.”
While I previously criticized the Broadway adaptation of 1984 for being too disturbing to audiences, it’s worth noting that it at least goes the extra mile to show us that it is serious about the issues it discusses. The off-Broadway adaptation of A Clockwork Orange is the more harmful of the two; it’s the kind of theatre that pretends to be edgy when it isn’t. It uses queerness as a draw for audiences, under the pretense that “queer” means the same thing as “progressive.” It’s the kind of theatre that asks us to be complacent and even thrilled by violence (sexual or otherwise) by pairing it with popular music and the alluring promise of sexy men dancing onstage.