On Broadway, 'Network' Goes From Satire To Tragedy

Jan 19, 2019
Originally published on January 19, 2019 2:21 pm

One of the hottest tickets on Broadway this season is Network, the stage adaptation of the 1976 movie about a news anchor who cracks up on the air and the executives who exploit his ravings for ratings.

Ivo Van Hove is directing the stage show. He says he first saw Network in a Belgian movie theater when he was a young man. "My memory of it is that it felt like science fiction," he says. "Something which was impossible, which could never ever happen. When I read the script, now a few years ago, I thought well, this is the world that we live in today. So this was also the challenge, of course, how to make this work that was a little bit of a parody in its time — how to turn it into a tragedy."

Howard Beale's original rant
YouTube

In Network's climax, anchor Howard Beale hears a voice ordering him to go on the air and tell his audience the truth. In his pajamas, he rushes into the newsroom and on to the set to share his epiphany, and in the film, actor Peter Finch starts right in with his revelations: "I don't have to tell you things are bad," he yells. "Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work. Or scared of losing their job ..."

But here, the play differs from the film. Actor Bryan Cranston — as Beale — rushes into the TV studio, then spends seemingly endless silent minutes grasping for words. Cranston says it's "like the experience of waking up from a vivid dream, and we think 'oh, this is indelible!' And you start to try to recall it, and it dissipates, like fog. And so he collapses from that. And out of that despair and public humiliation comes the speech." Cranston actually wells up with tears when he finally speaks.

In both the screen and stage versions, Beale's rants touch a nerve with his television audience and his ratings spike. The network executives seize the opportunity to build an entertainment program around his newscast: The anchor becomes a celebrity, and infotainment is born. Keep in mind, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky predicted this more than 40 years ago, and it won him an Oscar.

In his dressing room before a recent matinee, Cranston said Chayefsky's prescience was frightening. "One of the speeches, if you recall, was 'Only three percent of you people read books. Only 15 percent read newspapers." The numbers were likely never that bad — but according to the most recent study, roughly half of all Americans still prefer to watch the news on TV, with the Internet not far behind. "Remember Howard Beale also says, 'Don't look to us for the truth, because we just tell you what you want to hear,'" Cranston says.

Director Van Hove says that in the stage adaptation of Network, the medium has become the message. As the action cuts between characters, the dialogue is recorded by actors with cameras, and broadcast live across huge screens that wrap around the set. One scene is even shot outside the theater, and follows a conversation between two actors on 44th Street as they walk into the building and onto the stage.

Van Hove says he wanted to make the audience feel the intensity of being in the middle of a live TV show. "If you have been in a live TV show, it's always a pressure cooker," he says. "There's a countdown, and it's 7 o'clock, it has to start. You cannot wait. You cannot say 'Stop, I'm not ready. Let's do it again.' No, there's no doing it again. You do it once and it's over. And that thrill I wanted to give. And at the same time, another thing became for me important, that there would be cameras everywhere. It's as if the world became a television studio."

The play began at London's National Theater in 2017. Cranston says its message resonates on both sides of the Atlantic. "The idea of anger driving policy. Of fear and demagoguery as a real motivation for change, whether you view it as good or bad, i.e. Brexit, or Donald Trump becoming president. There's tremendous upheaval going on."

He says that over the course of Network's trans-Atlantic run, he's learned the value of expressing anger. "You think that, 'What is that going to solve?' But in truth it does. It releases the pressure valve. Somewhat. On some people just a little. On others maybe a lot. There's intrinsic value to that. To the human condition."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the hottest tickets on Broadway this season - at least until they produce a musical about BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music - is "Network," a stage adaptation of the 1976 movie about a news anchor who cracks up on the air - they worry about that here every week - and the executives who exploit his ravings for ratings. The film won four Academy Awards. Tom Vitale reports that, on stage, the movie's satire has become a tragedy.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Sixty-one-year-old Ivo Van Hove is directing "Network" on Broadway. He says he first saw the film in a Belgian movie theater when he was a young man.

IVO VAN HOVE: My memory of it is that it felt like science fiction, something which was impossible, which could never, ever happen. When I read the script a few years ago, I thought, well, this is the world that we live in today. So that was also the challenge, how to make this work that was a little bit of a parody in its time - how to turn it into a tragedy.

VITALE: In "Network's" climax, news anchor Howard Beale hears a voice ordering him to go on the air and tell his audience the truth. In his pajamas, he rushes into the newsroom and onto the set to share his epiphany. In the film, actor Peter Finch starts right in with his revelations.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NETWORK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Take two - cue Howard.

PETER FINCH: (As Howard Beale) I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job.

VITALE: But here, the play differs from the film. Actor Bryan Cranston rushes into the TV studio, then spends seemingly endless silent minutes grasping for words.

BRYAN CRANSTON: Like the experience of waking up from a vivid dream and we think, oh, this is indelible. And you start to try to recall it, and it dissipates like fog. And that's what happens. And so he collapses from that. And out of that despair and public humiliation comes the speech.

VITALE: Cranston actually wells up with tears when he finally speaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NETWORK")

CRANSTON: (As Howard Beale) I've had it with the foreclosures and the oil crisis and the unemployment and the corruption of finance and the inertia of politics and just the right to be alive and the right to be angry.

VITALE: Beale's rants touch a nerve with his television audience, and his ratings spike. The network executives seize the opportunity to build an entertainment program around his newscast. The anchor becomes a celebrity, and infotainment is born. Keep in mind, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky predicted this more than 40 years ago, and it won him an Oscar. In his dressing room, before a recent matinee, Bryan Cranston said Chayefsky's prescience was frightening.

CRANSTON: One of the speeches, if you'll recall, was only 3 percent of you people read books, only 15 percent read newspapers.

VITALE: The numbers were likely never that bad. But according to the most recent study, roughly half of all Americans still get their news from television, with the Internet not far behind.

CRANSTON: Howard Beale also says don't look to us for the truth because we just tell you what you want to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NETWORK")

CRANSTON: (As Howard Beale) I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and crime in the street and the Russians.

(LAUGHTER)

VITALE: In the stage adaptation of "Network," the medium has become the message, says director Ivo Van Hove. As the action cuts between characters, the dialogue is recorded by actors with cameras and broadcast live across huge screens that wrap around the set. One scene is even shot outside the theater and follows a conversation between two actors on 44th Street into the building and onto the stage. Van Hove says he wanted to make the audience feel the intensity of being in the middle of a live TV show.

VAN HOVE: If you have been in a live TV show, it's always a pressure cooker. There's a countdown. And it's 7 o'clock. It has to start. It cannot wait. You cannot say, stop. I'm not ready. Let's do it again. No. There's no doing it again. You do it once. And it's over, you know? And that thrill, I wanted to give. And at the same time, another thing became, for me, important, that there would be cameras everywhere. It's as if the world became a television studio.

VITALE: The play began at London's National Theatre in 2017. Bryan Cranston says its message resonates on both sides of the Atlantic.

CRANSTON: The idea of anger driving policy, of fear and demagoguery as a real motivation for change, whether you view it as good or bad, i.e. Brexit or Donald Trump becoming president, there's tremendous upheaval going on.

VITALE: Cranston says over the course of "Network's" trans-Atlantic run, he's learned the value of expressing anger.

CRANSTON: You think that - what is that going to solve? But, in truth, it does. It releases the pressure valve somewhat, on some people, just a little, on others, maybe a lot. There's intrinsic value to that, to the human condition.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NETWORK")

CRANSTON: (As Howard Beale) First, you've got to get mad. And when you're mad enough, then we'll figure out what to do.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NETWORK")

CRANSTON: (As Howard Beale) Stick out your heads and yell, I'm mad as hell. And I'm not going to take it anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TUBES SONG "TELECIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.