Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a classic because its themes keep pace with the passing decades. Whether it’s the novel published in 1953 or Bradbury’s stage adaptation from 1979, each version is concerned with the control of information and media as a means of keeping the populace in its place.
“We’re in a society now where we have so many options to get information, yet we’re all too lazy to get the real information. That’s a big part of what this play warns us of,” says Robert Hingula, who plays the protagonist Montag in the production that begins this weekend at the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre.
Hingula’s talking about Facebook culture and how people tend to form opinions based on headlines.
“Bradbury predicted this at a time when there was black and white TV, there was maybe one TV in the household. And he predicted that this is where we’re going,” he says.
“Folks sitting here in the comfort of this theater, seeing this life event that he wrote 60 years ago, they’ll come out of it thinking, 'That’s what’s happening now,'” adds director Bill Christie. “What is being taken away from us, and for what good?”
Fahrenheit 451’s premise is that, in a futuristic dystopia, firemen are not tasked with extinguishing blazes but with burning books people have illegally in their homes. Hingula’s character, Montag, is one of these firemen.
Meeting a teenage girl, Clarisse, who is interested in the way life was when people were allowed to think, read, and speak freely, sets Montag on a trajectory of self-discovery and increased societal awareness.
“Bradbury’s smart, because I feel like any time anyone thinks of burning books — I think of iconic images of Nazi Germany. I think that’s why he used that, almost as a metaphor. It’s more than books, it’s the ideas that are inside,” says Hingula, a lawyer in his off-stage hours.
“It’s very poignant when we do something like this at the Jewish Community Center," he adds, "because when we talk about the Holocaust it’s always: Never forget or else history will repeat itself. I think that’s a big part of doing it in this center.”
Christie, a union stage manager at the Coterie, loved the technical possibilities of the show. Bradbury envisioned a world of people who interact more with screens than they do with each other — though the screens he imagined fit over entire walls rather than in pockets.
To effectively depict these interactive screens and their prominence in this culture, Christie decided to project moving images with a sound overlay onto the characters as they look out at the audience — which positions the audience behind the screen. That imagery works, he says, because without the forbidden world of books, characters can only retreat into fantasies created on screen.
But Montag discovers the world inside books in spite of his culture, while his wife never makes it out of the screen-world. Eventually, Christie says, quotations from books are broadcast as whispers to the audience and characters, drawing everyone into a literary world.
The book ends with Montag and his new-found scholarly community looking on as the city is decimated by a bomb. A minor character suggests the first thing society should build is a wall of mirrors so everyone can really take a look at what they’ve become — in that spirit of never forgetting and learning from the past.
No bomb is dropped at the end of the play version, but Hingula says the tone is similar in its bleak optimism, the idea being that through self-examination we can right our listing society.
But, Hingula says, each audience member will most likely pick out the idea that’s most relevant to his or her own life, whether that's the way we dull our senses through prescription drugs as Montag’s wife does, or the play's too-timely political issues, or even the amount of time we devote to our phones when real people are all around us.
“I feel like in our life today, especially with social media, we live with millions of distractions," Hingula says. "And it’s our job as human beings and good citizens, particularly in the United States, to try to push those distractions aside and be strong enough to say what are the facts? What are we really called to do? And be able to focus on those.”
Fahrenheit 451, March 25 through April 2 at the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre, 5801 West 115th Street, Overland Park, Kansas, 66211.
Anne Kniggendorf’s writing appears regularly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. Follow her @annekniggendorf.