A Clockwork Orange is one of those peculiar literary works. Not particularly revered by its own author, popularised largely by Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, and brought to festivals and student workshops through subsequent stage versions, it’s a text which struggled its way into common knowledge with the support of many artistic branches.
True, its content balances thoughtful discussions of free will and morality, adolescence and wisdom, violence and order; but are these epic themes, tied to a constantly evolving sense of social commentary, enough to overshadow many of Burgess’ other works? Director Alex Spencer-Jones, who returns to Edinburgh this year with her company’s (Action to the Word) refreshed production, sheds some light on the text.
‘Do you remember the bit in the book, and in the film, when Alex unintentionally kills the lady?’ starts Spencer-Jones. ‘Alex says: “you and yours have built this grazny world we like, live in”, in other words, I’m sorry you have to be hurt, but everything we’re going through now is because of what you’ve done. There was a great episode of The Secret Millionaire recently in which CeX founder Bobby Dudani speaks to gangs of young boys in Croydon who looted during last year’s riots. He asks them why they did it, and they say they already have a criminal record from previous offences, which they got after they were kicked out of school. Everything seemed to link’.
Although there are of course complex notions of education, political context and environment battling against one another when pinpointing the root of any kind of behaviour, Spencer-Jones draws to a dwindling paternalism, not one which interferes with everyday life, but one which provides and sustains opportunities. ‘What A Clockwork Orange does ingeniously well is demonstrates a series of people who should be serving Alex (the doctor, the social worker, his parents) – and they all fail him. Even though it’s dangerous to be drawn into Alex’s world, Burgess is making a very bold assertion about the state failing the individual. It’s hard not to see that in the light of the riots, top-up fees, every little disappointment we receive. That’s all in the book and that’s 50 years old.’
‘In my experience, people aged over 40-50 say: do what you need to do. Young people say: choice. The weekend before last I was invited to a big conference to celebrate Burgess’ 50th anniversary. It was enthralling to see what world he came from himself. We take that to a new level; our production is clearly set in Salford, it’s very working-class and Alex comes from a very difficult working-class family. We’ve been as clear as anyone about that. It’s not so clear in the film I don’t think with Malcolm McDowell.’
‘The other big thing to mention however is: don’t underestimate Alex’s vanity. He is very much a working-class boy that doesn’t belong. I had my reservations as a working-class girl going to public school and then going to Cambridge. I was petrified of failing to keep up with the work, and financially of course too. Alex tries to live beyond his means, something which conflicts very much with the ideal of the working-class hero. He’s frustrated with his life but I don’t think the attacks on the old lady are as simple as him reacting against his social background. There’s nothing in the book that implies his parents are bad to him, they’re just boring. It’s treated almost comically with Joe (the lodger). You actually feel as if Alex is mean to them rather than the other way around.’
‘It’s so easy to blame the older generation – and that’s when we put ourselves in Alex’s shoes. And the moment you start justifying his behaviour, you’ve got a hedonistic novel and a dangerous message for the disaffected youth. On an educated level you have a boy being able to kick out against society and ultimately, at the end, not suffer for it. Alex goes through a massive physical overhaul but he comes out of it happy as larry.’
‘You get these antiheros like Mack the Knife, yet here is the most glorious sadomasochist. I’m very attached to Brecht but you’d have to be blind not to notice what Burgess has done with Mack the Knife; his womanising, his elegance, his upbringing are all in Alex, whereas Alex has the additional intelligence. My favourite audience comment is just: “I hate him but I love him”. If you read the book a couple of times you feel like you know him. You don’t necessarily agree with him, but you understand.’
Perhaps this is the beating heart of Burgess’ very personal work. For all its semi-dystopian sentiment, rich with bitterness and anger towards those in power, it’s the fatal hero who skews reality with his own hands and destroys beautiful things in an attempt to lash out at phony, bourgeois living. Yet it’s not an anger which Burgess sermonises about, nor does he temper his message. A Clockwork Orange is as blatant a comment on post-war attitudes to young people, intellectual culture and the state as we’re likely to see, yet is sexed up by a chaotically loveable protagonist, a hero who does the deeds we daren’t. Do we see the darker side of our anarchist selves in Alex? Most definitely, and at the least, we want him to succeed on our behalf. For that, we almost applaud him.