In the 40-odd years since its premiere, Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s satire of capitalism and media run amok, has suffered the satirist’s curse. Many of its comic exaggerations have become reality and feel neither fresh nor transgressive. Corporations taking over news operations, conglomerates buying TV networks, and demagogues replacing anchors are now just a part of our day-to-day life. The idea that anchorman Howard Beale is corroding the bonds of society by venting America’s anger during the news seems, frankly, quaint. And I’m not sure that during this moment of Peak TV everyone would agree with Chayefsky’s pronouncement that television is “democracy at its worst.” (Democracy at its worst? Isn’t that Facebook?) While Chayefsky’s vision of the unholy marriage between corporate interests, demagoguery, and journalism involves the nightly news turning into a ’50s-style variety show, we now know that this triumvirate produces not Milton Berle but Fox News and Sinclair. It creates something that uses the trappings of a news show to deliver editorial content dictated by political operatives in the back office, reassuring us all the while that they are, to coin a phrase, fair and balanced.
Yet Network’s key diagnosis—that corporate control over media offers moneyed interests “the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world!”—still rings true, as does its vision of what that control would lead to: a world perceived not through our senses but through screens whose content we can neither determine nor control. Perhaps that’s why the stage adaptation of Network on Broadway, directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Bryan Cranston as Beale, has so much potential. There’s fertile material in the original groaning under the weight of its racism, misogyny, and dead-horse-beating. Adapting Network provides the opportunity to do something other than reproduce the film onstage, carrying forward its vision into an era in which television is deregulated, the fairness doctrine has finally died, and even large swaths of the Democratic Party put their faith in tech companies instead of institutions meant to safeguard the public good.
Whatever form that stage adaptation would take, however, it would not look much like van Hove’s spectacular but hollow Network. Adaptor Lee Hall has for the most part left Chayefsky’s text alone, merely cutting some of its most embarrassing excesses. Many of the actors look frankly lost and at sea with the material, and in van Hove’s maximalist, video-swathed production, the focused white-hot rage of the original is gone.
Van Hove has become hugely influential in the United States with a series of heavily conceptualized productions of classic texts and stage adaptations of films. Along with his life and artistic partner, the designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove has, in recent years, tackled works by Ibsen, Tony Kushner, and Arthur Miller as well as stage adaptations of films like The Damned, Scenes From a Marriage, and Opening Night. He’s one of the few directors who can make work for experimental venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music or for large Broadway houses. You can see van Hove’s sensibility in Sam Gold’s recent star-studded productions of Othello and Hamlet, and it’s hard to imagine Daniel Fish’s radically reimagined production of Oklahoma! would be making its way to Broadway this season had van Hove not proved that a non-naturalistic, heavily reconceptualized take on a classic can be both financially and critically successful.
At his best, he reinvents classic material through very clear, bold choices in both design and casting that eschew naturalism and have a transformative ripple effect on everything around them. His production of Angels in America had no set and minimal props, which in turn necessitated starkly theatrical staging and choreography to realize the play’s larger moments. In staging Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, he confined the actors to a space roughly the size of a small tenement apartment and kept them onstage the whole time, with hardly any furniture to work with. Still, for all of his sleek-lined minimalism and at times austere intellect, van Hove is at heart a consummate showman, able to keenly manage spectacle, whether the spectacle is overlapping screens with projections, or an ostentatious lack of scenery.
Yet in Network, the management of spectacle appears to have taken over all else.
There are screens everywhere, of course, and what we see on them is, for the most part, shot and edited live. It’s a dazzling, often overwhelming multimedia display, but it ultimately proves the production’s undoing. The live video includes not just the newscasts that punctuate the story, but the dramatic scenes outside of the newsroom as well. It’s a gesture that appears to comment on the mechanized, alienated, mediated way in which we relate to one another, and to call into question what is real and what is fake. But rather than creating some form of alienated distance, the live video simply makes most of the actors appear hammy and out of their depth. The video of these scenes consists of extreme close-ups of people’s faces, shot on 30i interlaced digital video. The result is that the performances, which are acted at a pitch meant to fill a Broadway house, are simultaneously projected in extreme close-up on what looks like a television with motion smoothing turned on. The result is catastrophic.
The only performer to emerge undefeated by the production is Bryan Cranston, making a star turn in an enlarged version of the role. Cranston has figured out how to modulate between screen and stage, dialing up what audiences have come to love him for on Breaking Bad so that it can fill a thousand-seat house. Yet there’s a disruptive quality to Cranston’s titanic turn. His powerful, explosive vision of Howard Beale is far from the absurd, barking-mad street preacher of the film who allows himself to be commodified. As a result, the sense of irony and tension around Beale—who is clearly saying things with which the film sympathizes, but who is also the butt of the joke—is gone.
Hall, most famous stateside for the film and musical Billy Elliot, is an odd match to this material. Network requires a darker, less humane vision. Hall has correctly identified what to cut (like the most racist and misogynistic stuff) but has added almost nothing, making some plot events feel completely disconnected from the whole. The script’s major addition is an epilogue Hall has appended to Chayefsky’s screenplay in which Beale narrates from beyond the grave what he’s learned from the experience of being a latter-day prophet of society’s rage. The lesson, he tells us, is that “we must be most afraid of … the destructive power of absolute beliefs,” and that the solution to this problem is to have a “total commitment … to other people.” This is all a nice sentiment—I, too, long for authentic human bonds—but it has little to do with Network. As Hall himself has pointed out, the moment is, in dramatic terms, an anagnorisis—a moment of recognition where the protagonist narrates what he now understands about his fate (think Hamlet saying “the readiness is all”). The term comes from Greek tragedy, but Network isn’t working in the tragic tradition. It is a satire. Network uses heightened characterization to describe a problem at great length, making you laugh and then choke on your laughter. At its heart, Network is a howl of rage and despair at capitalism’s rapacious ability to co-opt anything, up to and including the most radical anti-capitalist gestures imaginable. It cannot contain an anagnorisis because there is no solution to its problems.
After this warm epilogue, after the lights came down and then up and the screens went dead and the actors stood onstage and bowed and we all stood in the audience and applauded, it turned out van Hove had one more trick in store. As the actors exited, the screens came to life again, playing the swearing-in of each U.S. president from Gerald Ford onward. This was a bit of an obvious and heavy-handed thing to do, of course, but it did get a rise out of the crowd. As Barack Obama solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States, the audience erupted in cheers, only for those cheers to curdle into contemptuous booing as soon as Donald Trump appeared on screen.
But then, the most interesting thing of the night happened: Some people in the audience began to cheer for Trump. The cheers egged on the jeers and so on, each growing louder and more enthusiastic for about 10 seconds. As we poured out to the street, a man five feet away from me turned to his wife and gestured back at the conflicted crowd. “Well good,” he said. “At least they got some balance in there.”