News anchor Howard Beale has gone bonkers and announces that in two weeks “from tonight” he’s going to kill himself on air. Florida Studio Theatre is a contemporary theatre founded in 1973 and has grown into a village of five theatres sprinkled throughout the heart of downtown Sarasota.
Is it a sick joke? A newscaster who’s just “sick of all the bullshit?” A brilliant PR ploy to resurrect sagging network ratings? Or…..A reality check for American TV viewers who are all “mad as hell and [we’re] not going to take it anymore!”
Discover more crackling drama in this profound play and buy tickets to “Network” – a live performance at Florida Studio Theatre that is based on the 1976 American satirical comedy-drama film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, written by Paddy Chayefsky.
Ironically, both the play and the film’s theme was based on a real life tragedy here in Sarasota in July of 1972 when a popular female news anchor committed suicide on air, making her the first TV suicide in history.
Florida Theatre’s Network (the play) was adapted by Lee Hall and has performances running through March 19 at the stunning Gompertz Theatre on First & Coconut in downtown, Sarasota. The two hour fast-paced drama is about a fictional television network, the Union Broadcasting System (UBS), and its struggle with poor ratings. The show features actor Sheffield Chastain as the anchor, Howard Beale. A brilliant performance throughout, Chastain manages to evoke unprecedented emotion and anger by the American public when he screams on air to “turn off your TV’s, go to their open window and shout out for all to hear “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” He goes on to rant: “Every day, five days a week for fifteen years, I’ve been sitting behind that desk, the dispassionate pundit reporting with seeming detachment the daily parade of lunacies that constitute the news. And just once I wanted to say what I really felt…..television is not the truth!”
Sound familiar in 2023?
So, is Howard Beale a demagogue, the new reality prophet, or simply the orator of a catchy phrase? In his famous commentary mentioned above, the producer alludes that Beale, the “madman,” is the only character that remains “pure” from corruption. However, Beale’s purity is put to the test after a loud argument from the network’s Director, Arthur Jensen (Actor Roy Stanton), who convinces Beale to cease in soliciting democratic protest against the corporate mergers that pays his hefty salary . This marks a turning point in which the anchor becomes a tool for conglomerate America.
Throughout “Network,” Beale’s role fluctuates from a prognostic lunatic and exploited puppet to a bloodthirsty agitator. The now infamous “mad as hell” speech itself (with the backdrop of the stage featuring original TV footage of Americans screaming the phrase from their windows across America in 1970’s) – is far more profound in meaning than Beale’s on air protests against broadcast norms. Instead, it becomes a personal challenge to Beale as he finds himself at the intersection of these three distinct roles: a struggling anchor who has attempted to turn America’s rage and anger into a PR fueled stunt and subsequent astronomical rise in TV ratings; an unstable mind in dire need of psychiatric care, and a prophetic pioneer who has boldly gone where no [anchor] man has ever gone before to change the way media delivers news, and tells the truth about meaningful events that were plaguing the world at that time: The 1970s saw the midst of Watergate and the Vietnam War. It was also a time of some of the highest rates of inflation in the United States, the highest unemployment rates and an economic recession. And the public was angry at the major networks since they broadcast everything from sitcoms to shallow news reports. Americans didn’t want jolly, happy family type shows like Eye Witness News.
To conclude, the movie of nearly 50 years ago was a phenomenal success and continues to be cult movie even to this day. The play at Florida Studio Theatre shares that same glory (phenomenal success) And no wonder? If you sat in the audience as I did, you can’t help but reflect to your own days growing up as teens in the 70’s and eerily comparing it to issues going on at this writing: “Fake News” accounts many right-wing Americans who believe the current news conglomerates are biased in their news coverage and an American economy teetering at the edge of another recession, with gas prices soaring daily, a climate crisis, political chaos, and more.
The producer of Network used the idea of a live death as his film’s terminating focal point, saying in a 1976 interview, “Television will do anything for a rating… anything!”
Has anything changed 50 years later? See for yourself by buying tickets to see Network at Florida Studio Theatre. Reserve now, many performances have sold out.
IF YOU GO
Where: Gompertz Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, 1st and Coconut, downtown Sarasota
Ticket cost: $25-$39 (editor’s note: all seats are good seats in this intimate theatre).