MAR 9, 2016

Playwright James Graham follows Americans’ right to privacy—and its demise—through Cambridge and beyond.

“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about”
(Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google)

There is something immensely satisfying about a production that dramatizes the erosion of civil liberties being performed at A.R.T., given that—arguably—it was in Cambridge where privacy first found its way into American law and then, 200 years later, began its demise as an accepted part of American cultural life.

Too “Orwellian” a view? Possibly. But when Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court Justice and Harvard graduate, wrote his revolutionary paper for the Harvard Law Review in 1890, he argued in “A Right to Privacy” that legal recognition of a person’s secrets was now paramount given the “mental pain and distress” such an invasion can cause. No doubt Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, would readily agree.

As Brandeis saw it: “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’”

When Mark Zuckerberg arrived in Brandeis’s footsteps at Harvard two centuries later, he tapped into the modern desire to connect, to broadcast, and to share our most intimate thoughts while simultaneously performing private surveillance on our friends and colleagues (tell me you’ve never done it). Facebook was born, and culturally accepted boundaries about what we share and to whom began to change forever.

I should declare an interes—given that no one has any secrets any more. I wrote my own play entitled Privacy for the Donmar Warehouse in London, 2014, and I am currently adapting 1984 as a feature film next year. To me, the changing nature of surveillance is the seminal issue of our generation, and—whatever side of the debate you fall down on—there is no denying the prescience and increasing relevance of Orwell’s novel, as witnessed in this truly remarkable theatrical adaptation.

Don’t get me wrong—I think sharing is a good thing. And that’s why I love theatre. So much of our entertainment and culture has become “private” and atomized now, where even movies are viewed on cellphones or iPads, alone in our rooms rather than together in the multiplex (after, of course, an algorithm has carefully recommended to you your choice based on detailed analysis of your personality and past behavior). So the public forum that is theatre, where a community must physically come together in a space and debate the issues of the day, has become more and more essential. Having worked at A.R.T last summer with the great Diane Paulus on our musical Finding Neverland (for which I wrote the book), I can’t wait for the rawness and power of Duncan Macmillan’s uncompromising adaptation to echo around that chamber. Above the politics and the ideas, you’re in for a theatrical feast.

It was Tim Berners-Lee—now also a Massachusetts resident—who invented and then donated the World Wide Web to all humankind (or, as he live tweeted from London’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, “This is for everyone”). And there is arguing what a force for good the connecting of the planet and the global sharing of ideas has become. But there will always be compromises that come with such advances. Regardless of the different views on the ethics of his actions, the Edward Snowden revelations about the expanding reach of government surveillance gave nations across the whole world a long pause for thought.

Of course, unlike in Orwell’s imagined dystopia, where the surveillance is undertaken by a fascist government regime, today we freely hand over data about ourselves by the tonne, to social media sites, web browsers, shopping websites, fitness apps, you name it, in order to receive goods and services in return. Where complacency led Orwell’s Party to power, our own sheer compliance is what’s done privacy in for us.

That is because, in the main, we think it a fair and worthwhile transaction. We give away a bit of our privacy in return for something we actually want, geared uniquely to our own personal preferences. And at labs nearby at M.I.T and Harvard, students are working on the technology of tomorrow we can’t even begin to imagine yet, to assist us in our modern lives, and make us happy. All I would say is—heed Orwell’s warnings about the fragile nature of our freedom, as brought magically to life by some of theatre’s most exciting talent in this exhilarating new show: “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better…”

James Graham is a British playwright and screenwriter. His plays include Finding Neverland, A.R.T. and Broadway; Privacy, Donmar Warehouse; This House, National Theatre. His film and TV work includes X+Y, Prisoners’ Wives, Caught in a Trap, and a forthcoming feature film adaptation of 1984.

The cast of '1984.' Photo: Manuel Harlan

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