Anthony Burgess on 'A Clockwork Orange'


But the nasty little shocker was gaining an audience, especially among the American young. Rock groups called 'Clockwork Orange' began to spring up in New York and Los Angeles. These juveniles were primarily intrigued by the language of the book, which became a genuine teenage argot, and they liked the title. They did not realise that it was an old Cockney expression used to describe anything queer, not necessarily sexually so, and they hit on the secondary meaning of an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into an automaton. The youth of Malaysia, where I had lived for nearly six years, saw that orange contained orang, meaning in Malay a human being. In Italy, where the book became 'Arancia all Orologeria', it was assumed that the title referred to a grenade, an alternative to the ticking pineapple. The small fame of the novella did not noticeably enrich me, but it led to a proposal that it be filmed. It was in, I think, 1965, that the rock-group known as the Rolling Stones expressed an interest in the buying of the property and an acting participation in a film version which I myself should write. There was not much money in the project, because the permissive age in which crude sex and cruder violence could be frankly presented had not yet begun. If the film was to be made at all, it would have to be in a cheap underground version leased out to clubs. But it was not made. Not yet.

It was the dawn of the age of candid pornography that enabled Stanley Kubrick to exploit, to a serious artistic end, thosee elements in the story which were meant to shock morally rather than merely titillate. These elements are, to some extent, hidden from the reader by the language used: to tolchock a chelloveck in the kishkas does not sound so bad as booting a man in the guts, and the old in-out in-out, even if it reduces the sexual act to a mechanical action, does not sicken quite as much as a Harold Robbins description of cold rape. But in a film little can be implied; everything has to be shown. Language ceases to be an opaque protection against being appalled and takes a very secondary place. I was bound to have misgivings about the film, and one of the banes of my later life has been the public assumption that I had something to do with it. I did not. I wrote a script, like nearly everybody else in the script-writing world, but nobody's script was used. The book itself, as in a literary seminar, was taken on to the film set, discussed, sectionally dramatised with much free improvisation, and then, as film, stowed in the can. All that I provided was a book, but I had provided it ten years previously. The British state had ignored it, but it was not so ready to ignore the film. It was considered to be an open invitation to the violent young, and inevitably I was regarded as an antisocial writer. The imputation that I had something to do with the punk cult, whose stepfather I was deemed to be by 'Time' magazine, has more to do with the gorgeous technicolour of Kubrick's film than with my own subfusc literary experiment.

I am disclosing a certain gloom about visual adaptation of my little book, and the reader has now the right to ask why I have contrived a stage version of it. The answer is very simple: it is to stem the flow of amateur adaptations that I have heard about though never seen. It is to provide a definitive actable version which has auctorial authority. And, moreover, it is a version which, unlike Kubrick's cinema adaptation, draws on the entirety of the book, presenting at the end a hooligan hero who is now growing up, falling in love, proposing a decent bourgeois life with a wife and family, and consoling us with the doctrine that aggression is an aspect of adolescence which maturity rejects.

Alex the hero speaks for me when he says in effect that destruction is a substitute for creation, and that the energy of youth has to be expressed through aggression because it has not yet been able to subdue itself through creation. Alex's aggressive instincts have been stimulated by classical music, but the music has been forewarning him of what he must some day become: a man who recognises the Dicnysiac in, say, Beethoven but appreciates the Apollonian as well.

One final point. I toyed, when first publishing the book, with the notion of affixing an epigraph from Shakespeare. This was considered to be a dangerously literary proposal: the book had to stand naked with no chaperonage from the Bard. But perhaps I may now conclude with it. In Act III Scene 3 of 'The Winter's Tale' the shepherd who finds the child Perdita says: 'I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting....' It sounds like an exceptionally long adolescence, but perhaps Shakespeare was thinking of his own. It is the adolescence, somewhat briefer, that I present in 'A Clockwork Orange'.


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