“The meaning of a classic can rarely be rediscovered or revived; it must be reinterpreted for the times.” Ivan Heng, Director, Animal Farm.
It was while watching Wild Rice’s dramatic interpretation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm as part of the Ten Days on the Island festival that I rediscovered one of life’s great pleasures: discovering that someone else’s explanation of the world makes complete sense. (This is largely because mine obviously does not).
To me, Animal Farm is a thought-provoking story of the relationship between the individual and the State and how betrayal, ignorance, indifference and corruption amongst leaders will always present a barrier to achieving an ideal society.
In the program, Heng speaks of how neatly the play’s messages have mirrored recent political developments in his home country, Singapore, and says that the company are “excited to find out about its new currency with you, the audience”.
With this ticket to reinterpretation in hand, I was struck by the similarities of Animal Farm and the tangled web that is Tasmanian politics. The uncanny feeling that I got from watching the play was enhanced when I noticed our Premier, propped up front and centre in the Gallery of the Theatre Royal. At many key moments in the play, I wondered if our ‘leader’ was also struck by these similarities.
Tasmania’s Government has made some startlingly Orwellian declarations recently such as, having ‘no hay left in the barn’, the announcement of the ‘pulp mill as the ‘cake’, much as the wind mill is the cake for the animals of Animal Farm, the inherent corruption of due process and an indifference to correcting past wrongs.
Tasmania is Animal Farm.
Here is why:
The passing of one leader who had failed to govern and who became corrupted with power, laid the ground for a new appointment. The temptation of leadership and the comfort that it provided was within reach. But this time, it would be one of the pigs who would seize the power to rule. The seven commandments were written; these commandments formed the basis of Animal Farm, clearly setting out how all of the animals were to live.
Snowball, their new leader, immediately developed a plan to construct a windmill (hereon referred to as the mill) to bring power to the farm, to create employment and to improve their quality of life. The new leader presented visions for the future, of how life would be under their magnanimous rule.
The animals listened in astonishment as they conjured up images of the mill that would do their work for them and generate prosperity. Better still, the message of an improved life was presented to them by one of their own, one of the animals, that, seemingly unbeknown to the others appears to have been corrupt from the very beginning.
Napoleon, also a pig and aspiring leader, seeing that Snowball’s plans could prove popular with the masses, sought to discredit the concept of the mill. He suggested that the mill would come to nothing and in doing so was biding his time.
Of all the controversies between the leaders, none was so bitter as that which took place over the mill.
The mill represented the pigs’ manipulation of the other animals for their own gain. Early calls by some animals of a more pressing need to provide food and warmth rather than devote so much time and energy to constructing the mill were met with indifference from the leaders. The leaders saw that the mill may earn them more money and increase their power.
Seeing the potential of the mill to create such interest amongst the animals, it did not take long for Napoleon to oust Snowball from power. Napoleon, took the reins, with faithful Squealer, Minister for Propaganda, by his side.
After taking power, Napoleon immediately showed his true colours. The animals were somewhat surprised when, one morning as they gathered to take their orders, Napoleon announced what appeared to be a change of policy.
“The needs of the mill must override everything else”. The mill had now become the cake. . Arrangements were made to sell some of the farm’s current stores of hay, part of the current year’s wheat crop, and all of their timber supplies to purchase machinery for the mill. Napoleon indicated that the “building of the mill, with various improvements would take two years and would mean hard work but there was a need to make progress”.
There was clearly a need to put hay back in the barn.
From the outset, the whole farm was divided on the subject of the mill. Even the pigs accepted that to build it would be a difficult process. Benjamin, the donkey, was the only animal that abstained from voting on the mill, and he suggested that “mill or no mill, life would go on as it always had gone on – badly”.
That evening Squealer explained to the animals that Napoleon had never in reality been opposed to the mill. The animals wondered why he had seemingly changed his mind; this, said Squealer, was something called ‘tactics’. The animals were not certain what the word meant but Squealer was persuasive and the dogs were threatening so they accepted the explanation without question.
The first attempt to construct the mill failed, the reasons for which were blamed upon the previous leader. Following this, the animals were forced to construct a mill for a second time. But no matter. This time the mill would be much larger and would therefore create even greater prosperity!
Throughout the year, the animals worked hard to build the bigger mill and to finish it by the appropriate date. At times, the animals felt that they were working harder than under any past leader. In these moments, Squealer would appear and read out impressive lists of figures, detailing the great gains in production, employment and efficiency under the new regime.
Despite this, amongst the animals, there was a growing sense of unease that the percentages and numbers were not translating to improving their personal standard of living. With the mill’s construction taking a such a heavy toll on the health and wellbeing of the animals, there were murmurings amongst them they may have been misled into believing that the mill would improve their lives.
During the construction of the mill, Napoleon had broken yet another of the seven commandments; whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Napoleon had become involved in complicated trade negotiations with humans to sell the entire farms stockpile of timber to a nearby farm in order to raise funds for the purchasing of materials for the mill. It was proving very difficult to get a reasonable price for the timber.
Each time the rules were broken they were simply re-written. This created confusion and a growing sense of mistrust amongst many of the animals.
Occasional rumours of sabotage or dissent in relation to the mill were rapidly quashed, or attributed to traitors in the ranks. The pigs would occasionally raise their snouts from the trough and make threats of force or reduced rations. Then, one autumn day, the mill was complete. “Tired out but proud, the animals circled their masterpiece and when they thought of the enormous difference that it would make to their lives they uttered cries of triumph”.
The animals were called to a meeting and were struck dumb when Napoleon explained that he had sold their entire supply of timber to a nearby farm owned by Frederick and Pilkington. It was explained that the money from the sale would be enough to “pay for the machinery for the mill”. “Meanwhile the timber was being carted away at high speed”. When all of the timber was all gone, Napoleon -allowed the animals to inspect the bank-notes that he had attained from the sale. But some days later, there was a roar of rage from Napoleon and the news of what had happened spread throughout the farm. The bank notes were forgeries. Napoleon had sold all of Animal Farm’s timber for nothing!
The battle for the mill began in earnest. Acts of sabotage and threats of large uprisings become common place. Both sides suffered heavy losses.
Toward the end of this long struggle. When power and corruption had become even more entwined. Man and beast sought to collaborate, to find ‘lasting peace’, to ‘end decades of conflict’. Each leader had lied, corrupted the rules by which they were all to live, expressed a growing indifference to the well being of others and their promises had proven false.
Despite these failings, the idea of seeking peace through a cooperative agreement was greeted with excitement by many. Some of the animals were convinced that this was an opportunity to gain control of their own destiny, to be ‘moving forward’, to finally achieve lasting peace.
To the audience, including our own ‘leader’, it was obvious that that this agreement was nothing more than confirmation of the fact that the animals had lost their quest for a better life, a few had gained more power, the promise of prosperity from development did not eventuate and the cycle of corruption and propaganda continued.
Long Live Animal Farm!
Earlier on TT: Ten Days of Reviews, Lucy Wilson Magnus’ WriteResponse view: HERE