Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie Network has been adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall. Network tells the story of Howard Beale, a middle of the road, middle aged, going nowhere fast American news anchor on the UBS network. One day he announces live on air that he will kill himself on his last broadcast. Howard explains that he has a deficit of bullshit in his life:
Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living and if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit…We don’t know why we’re going through all this pointless pain, humilitation and decay, so there better be someone who does know. That’s the God bullshit.
(Hall, 2017, p.24)
Against all expectations, Howard becomes a hit. His producer Diana realises that he is able to articulate the popular rage of the public. The Howard Beale show becomes a connective tissue of anger and discontent for an audience who can no longer make sense of the world:
We sit in the house and slowly the world we live in gets smaller and all we ask is, please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and teevee and my hair dryer and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad.
Television pales in comparison to the power of the internet in terms of it’s ubiquity in our everyday lives, but the principle that the valence of truth is contingent upon our perception of reality still holds, and the news remains a vital means of communicating a truth the public can believe in.
Network envisages a world that has dispensed with ideology, politics, nations, cultures, and has been replaced – in the words of the head of the UBS network, Mr Jensen – by the “endless, inexorable movement of money” (ibid, p.67). The media is the sole producer of truth and ideas have become defunct.
The brilliance of Network is to show that a litany of facts and statistics – whose been assassinated, what price the dollar is at, who said what in a speech – does not constitute the truth as people experience it in their daily lives. Information means little if we don’t believe in it’s veracity. When the facts stop making sense, all we have left is our gut instincts, a feeling that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. But Diana recognises that cynicism about the world isn’t enough to stir an audience’s emotions. The popular rage of the public does not just manifest in feelings of fear and resentment, but of a desire for change; for control. When the media tells the public that the only change can come from watching more news, which externalises their anxieties into an informational silo, the real world becomes the news.
Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden’s sublime design for the National Theatre production brilliantly creates a world of screens that fracture the audience’s perception of where the real action is taking place. Spectators can frantically search for the live actors admist a mass of cameras and microphones and still fail to find them. The audience are forced to watch most the action on a huge screen upstage. The effect is a double mediation of Network’s fictional reality. Howard’s paranoid proclamations of an America in crisis are made televisual flesh as a live broadcast.
The presience of Chayefsky’s writing is eerie. Bryan Cranston channels the conspiratorial tones of Fox News anchors in his description of America losing it’s greatness by selling it off to the highest bidder. The homely conspiratorial relationship he creates with the audience is reminiscent of Glenn Beck’s bizarre 9.12 project – an undefined programme for reinvigorating patriotism that harnesses the public trauma of a terrorist attack.
Chayefsky not only foresaw how the media could be weaponised by terrorist groups to spread fear and propaganda but also understood how capitalist economies can absorb such horror and refract it back to the public as entertainment. To boost the flailing UBS’s flailing ratings Diana pitches an idea for a TV show, The Terror Hour, which would show a film released by a terrorist group followed by interviews with the friends and family of the berieved. It is rejected outright by the editors, but the basic premise of The Terror Hour is one we can now choose to experience online. 9/11 was the first mediated terrorist attack broadcast in live time. Films of ISIS executions have become a recurrent feature on the news and can be accessed in a few clicks. Good taste is just a matter of finding the right medium.
The information ecology Network depicts is one that does not seek to explain the world but to embed the TV audience deeper and deeper in the information web of insatiable consumerism. Freedom in this ecology can only be expressed as a chant:
I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE.
No action can follow this chant because ignorance, rage and fear are the natural order of things. The only reality is money, and once we grow tired of buying things we start to consume ourselves until our individual voice gets lost in the noise of the crowd. As Howard tells the audience in the manner of a wise father helping his children grow up, the real world works by
accepting that we are not the emperors of ourselves, we are bees in the hive, it’s not our individuality which makes us rich, but communality. We must ask how we can advance the whole rather than ourselves, each of us just a tiny node in the grand, glorious network.
(Hall, 2017, p.70).
This superb production tells us that it is not enough to know that information can entrap us inside informational silos; the internet isn’t going anywhere. What matters is arguing for a media that does not package our feelings into stories that amplify our fears into a collective howl of ecsatic rage. Network is a powerful response to our post-truth moment and leaves the audience yearning for more thinking and less feeling in our political culture.
Hall, L. (2017) Network. London: Faber and Faber