Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange is Anthony Burgess’s most famous novel and its impact on literary, musical and visual culture has been extensive. The novel is concerned with the conflict between the individual and the state, the punishment of young criminals, and the possibility or otherwise of redemption. The linguistic originality of the book, and the moral questions it raises, are as relevant now as they ever were.

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A Clockwork Orange on stage:

 

From its first publication in 1962, Burgess received requests for permission to adapt A Clockwork Orange into a stage play. He explains his situation in the program of a 1990 production at the Barbican: ‘for 28 years, I was receiving requests from amateur pop groups for permission to present their own versions. These were usually so abysmally bad that I was forced eventually to pre-empt other perversions with an authoritative rendering of my own’. Burgess published A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music in 1986, but was clear to point out that it was ‘not a grand opera. It is a little play which any age group may perform’.

Despite this humble view of his play, Burgess did put extra work into his ‘authoritative rendering’, turning it into a musical production. The songs fit with the raucous tone of the novel, converting the Nadsat into gleeful and celebratory lyrics. Here is one example, sung by a chorus of droogs, from the play’s opening:

 

What’s it going to be then, eh?
What’s it going to be then, eh?
Tolchocking, dratsing and kicks in the yarblockos,
Thumps on the gulliver, fists in the plot.
Gromky great shooms to the bratchified millicent,
Viddy the krovvy pour out of his rot.
Ptitas and cheenas and starry babushkas
– A crack in the kishkas real horrorshow hot.
Give it them whether they want it or not.

The songs are influenced by music-hall traditions and the works of Beethoven and are playful and funny, something that Burgess lets infect the play as a whole. At the end of the play, a man comes onto the stage playing ‘Singing in the Rain’ on a trumpet. The stage direction clearly states that he should be ‘bearded like Stanley Kubrick’. He is promptly and violently kicked off stage by the cast who then launch into the final number.

 

 A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music has enjoyed a global reach and enduring success in the years following its publication. It has been preformed by college and university drama groups and by professional theatre companies all over the world. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the play (titled A Clockwork Orange 2004), under the direction of Ron Daniels and with music by Bono and The Edge from U2, premiered at the Barbican Theatre in January 1990. In 1994, the Steppenwolf Theater Company staged a production starring K Todd Freeman and Nick Offerman. The photograph above (courtesy of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 1994 production) shows the Droogs in costume. More recently, there has been a rock opera version touring Japan, starring Oguri Shun; productions in Stuttgart, Germany and Tulsa, Oklahoma; and successful touring versions in the UK by the Northern Stage Company (directed by Alan Lyddiard), Volcano Theatre (directed by Paul Davies) and Action to Word (directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones). Other productions have made use of an all-female cast and an all-black cast.

In 2018, the play was staged by the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, using Burgess’s original songs and music. This production, directed by Nick Bagnall, and starring George Caple as Alex (pictured above), was called ‘a chilling, ultra-violent cabaret’ by The Guardian.

The music for the play, which has largely been omitted from stage production, received its European premiere at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on 28 June 2012.