Jonathan Miller discusses theater
BROADCAST: 1969 | DURATION: 00:53:21
Terkel interviews Jonathan Miller about Shakespeare theater with some comparisons between American and English theater. They also talk a great deal about American drama, actors, and theater.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel In New York now it's a very pleasant, I suppose Indian summer morning. We haven't had the first frost yet, and sitting with Jonathan Miller. And the last time you may recall we're speaking to Jonathan Miller in London, this highly creative man, multitalented, we're talking about his brilliant--about to say, version, vison of Alice in Wonderland that was on BBC that, unfortunately America, perhaps in some time can't see, it was brilliant. And he's here in New York. And at the time Jonathan you were my host, I remember, and we were walking down the streets of London, you were describing the city, and in fact the neighborhood in which you live is where you were born, and you spoke of a certain air of the city, and squares, and here you are, we're now in the mid -- in Manhattan. Your thoughts. Any thought comes to mind? A Tale of Two Cities.
Jonathan Miller Well, I have a very curious relationship to Manhattan in that I've been coming backwards and forwards here for the last, oh, barely eight years, and I lived here for two years, so that London and New York, really, are, are sort of suburbs of each other in my imagination. I think of myself, I suppose, primarily as a Londoner, and yet the fact is, I seem to know New York really almost as well as I know London. I would never choose to live in New York now. I have a family, and I would never want to bring up a family in Manhattan, and I wouldn't ever want to bring up a family in the suburbs of, of New York. So, therefore, I choose to live in London, but on the other hand I find that something very important is missing if I don't come here at least three times a year. I think it's a, it's a very ugly, filthy, dirty city. It's dangerous, it's uncongenial, it's -- and also in the last year or so it's begun to look more deranged and besmirched than it's been in the past. There's almost a feeling that you are in a great outdoor mental ward on many of the streets. Eighth Avenue, for example, you can walk down from the park right down to 42nd Street, and you really feel that you're in a sort of outdoor Bellevue. There are more deranged, jibbering people around in the streets than there ever are in London. There's an air, as I said there's an air of danger, as I say of derangement, of poverty.
Jonathan Miller Well, it is, I, it's, it's several things. First of all, I have very close friends in the city. There's a, an imaginative energy in America which I think probably is lacking in England at the moment. It's a concern for ideas. I mean, that's the counterpart on the, on the intellectual side of the tremendous energy on the commercial side. And I happen to think it's abused on the commercial side, but I think that when this same energy is borrowed for, for intellectual endeavors and enterprises, then I think it creates a tremendous excitement. I mean, I mean I find the commerce in the city and the commerciality of New York and the commerciality of America very distasteful indeed and it's concern with various sorts of achievement in the hardware line. Things like moonshots and big buildings and giant television networks and things of this sort I find very distasteful indeed. I mean, well the mad paradox is here is this enormously expensive piece of, of electronic equipment hurtling around 150 miles above Manhattan and this tiny, really tiny fragment of stuff which has cost as much money as would take to, to clean the city up completely. And all these, these sorts of things, these sorts of schisms and contradictions are what make the city exciting at the same time repulsive.
Studs Terkel Well, well, before I ask you again about, I'm thinking of the two, there's something you said about vitality, the vitality of the city. The last time I saw you it was in London a couple, couple of years ago. Is there a missing, is that missing in, in English life today? Is there not vitality? You spoke of vitality here, see.
Jonathan Miller Yes, there is a vitality missing in England, and I wo -- I don't know whether this, that this has always been the case or whether this is a feature of the new, of the new England which has become somewhat dispirited by oh, a loss of national prestige and things of this sort, and, but there, there's also, there's
Jonathan Miller Yes, there has. There's been a release of energy in certain specific fields, particularly among the young. There's been a release of, of creative energy in connection with the theater and in connection with, you know, of course, pop songs, which everyone knows about. But there's also been a, a loss of spirit in the--in certain intellectual areas. The English haven't got that rabid intellectual appetite that the Americans have got. And in fact, the English, I think there are many English academics and English intellectuals who are put off by what they regard as a sort of slightly parvenu eagerness on the part of American intellectuals. They feel that they're coming on too strong, they're too, they're too excitable, they're too interested in ideas, they're too gull--taken in, easily taken in and gullible. They're easily bamboozled, the English feel. The English have this pride in, in that sort of quiet lackadaisical cynicism with regard to any new ideas. You know, let's test them by seeing whether in fact they excite us over the course of a hundred
Studs Terkel And yet, and yet isn't it a, isn't it a fact, though, that perhaps it's been overdone, I'm thinking of Edith Sitwell's book on eccentrics, you know. Is the, the different person, isn't the person who is different more or less more respect -- or at least more accepted in London than they would be
Jonathan Miller Ah, the eccentric is, but, but there's a great difference between the eccentric and the original. The, the eccentric is tolerated and affectionately regarded in England, but by the eccentric they mean someone who's cranky, who's quirky, who does, who does peculiar things, has peculiar habits, does rather delicious secret silly things. The original, on the other hand, is regarded with great suspicion. The man who contributes an, an interesting strange idea is very suspect in England. You see, the eccentric contributes no ideas. The eccentric offers himself as an idea. He doesn't offer any idea independent of his own personality.
Jonathan Miller Much less chance. It's very, very hard to cross all sorts, certain sorts of cultural barriers in England. You can't be a jack of all trades in, in England without it being remarked upon, and then remarked upon with some suspicion. I, I mean, I'm talking now as one can only guess in connection with my own career. The idea that I, for example, was once a doctor and have now been in the theater for some while and have done television and films, it's always regarded in England as a slightly suspect business.
Studs Terkel If we just, just dwell on this for a moment. Think of Jonathan Miller, of course, many Americans and listeners remember him as one of the brilliant, you know, figures, perhaps the, the, the core figure you might say of, of Beyond the Fringe and the humor connected with it. At the same time, the field, your field of medicine. Your field was medicine. Same time, to me, a brilliant director, having seen Alice in Wonderland, and also directing the classics, directing plays for the Nottingham theater, we can talk about that in a moment, the thoughts you have. This is suspect, then? You mean the, a specialization is so much more profound there than
Jonathan Miller Well no, it's not that specialization is more profound. If anything, it's less profound the specialization. But there is a feeling that one should stick to one's last, and that one's job is one's job. In America, if anything, specialization has, has gone even further than it has in England. It certainly has in medicine. But there is not the same sort of suspicion of people who change from specialization. If, if anything, the greater specialization of America somehow allows it much more. If you can be very specialized in a very narrow area, this means in fact that you can master that narrow area relatively fast, say, in five, ten years, and if someone wants -- if someone can then make a switch, it's not regarded as a terrible betrayal or a sign of fickleness or shallowness. In England, it's regarded as a sign of shallowness to do this.
Studs Terkel It's another way, and isn't it almost a reflection of, of class structure, too. You know, I'm -- I was going to ask you about that, whether, you know, I think this is a question often asked, are the barriers breaking down since the welfare state, you know? But you're really saying this is almost a reflection of that,
Jonathan Miller Well, in some ways it is. I think that there is--it's something to do, I think with the English upper-middle-class and upper-class way of regarding energy. The concept of energy. It's almost a, a tactless thing to do in English upper-class life is to display energy, to show your verve, to show your effort
Studs Terkel Vitality?
Jonathan Miller To show your vitality, because in fact, you see, if you're an aristocrat, and this is the condition towards which the English middle classes attend, they would like to be aristocrats, to be an aristocrat is to be in a state of rest, to have status without work, [sound of a motor running] not to have to show your -- the energy which you have used to achieve your position. To show sweat on the brow. Even intellectuals
Jonathan Miller It's not aristocratic, and therefore, to show any sort of excitement with ideas is to, is to have a flush on the cheek and a slight bead of perspiration on the brow, and this is unac -- is, is bourgeois. It's, it's, it's, it's like the -- it's almost the equivalent in the intellectual world of a tradesman showing signs of the origins of his wealth.
Studs Terkel No, that's o --there's a -- by the way, we're sitting, this is interesting, perhaps we should point where we're sitting, I want to, because I want to ask Jonathan Miller about his, his own interests right now, his particular interests aside from medicine and, and directing films, something else in the theater. There's a sound -- we're, we're in, at the Algonquin Hotel, we're in a room right now, it's, it's before lunch, sometime in the middle, and it's empty, this place. This, this particular hotel has a history of its own and it's drawn writers, the very nature of the hotel, it's been romanticized a great deal. We're talking about your interest now, you're also in theater as a director. Some time ago in America you directed the Robert Lowell--
Jonathan Miller Yes.
Jonathan Miller Oh yes, it was very well-reviewed indeed, it was a great, well it was a great success. Well I gradually moved into, into this world of directing quite casually, and really almost by accident. I was just acting on the stage in Beyond the Fringe, and just gradually I happened to walk into directing backwards almost, and gradually I've become more and more absorbed in that, and less and less interested, in fact in, in acting. In fact I've not acted myself on a stage or appeared as an actor for getting on for five, six years.
Jonathan Miller Yes, I enjoy directing very much indeed. It's almost everything that I've, that I've wanted an activity to be. It's totally absorbing, one hasn't got to think for a moment about what one's doing. It's -- it's, you know, what am I doing? Sorry.
Jonathan Miller About directing. It's, it's everything that I wanted an activity to be, really. It is completely absorbing, you haven't got to think about what you're doing. There's so many demands on your time and your, on your attention that you never have to think about what you're going to do next. And this has always been a trouble with me, I've, I've got a very low threshold of boredom. I very easily become disturbed about what I ought to be doing at the next moment. And I become very indecisive about which is the worthwhile pursuit. But as soon as you get involved in directing, you really, all, all decisions are taken out of your hands, because you suddenly realize that you have a play ahead of you in a month's time and that you have a mass of problems which have got to be solved. It's like being given a huge job of unpicking oakum, or sort of knotted string, and any job of that sort, no matter how trivial, totally absorbs the attention, and you suddenly discover at the end of a month that a month has passed without thinking about its passing. And this, I think, is all one can ask of life,
Jonathan Miller Yes. I've been, I've been directing at the Nottingham Playhouse, which is about 120 miles north of London, say, it's an industrial city. It's where D.H. Lawrence was born, and it features, of course, in Sons and Lovers, and it's, it's of course the city of Robin Hood, and it has a long history, and it's also a city which has a long connection with the English radical movement and the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. There's a lot of light engineering work there. It's rather like Rochester, New York, I suppose in some ways, except it's more beautiful than that, because there are lots of rather beautiful Georgian terraces there, beautiful Victorian and Regency terraces. It's a very nice place to live, and they have this marvelous regional theater which is supported by the Town Council and also by the Arts Council of Great Britain, and for the past eight years or so it's been the center of very high-class drama, very, very productive indeed. And in, in the last year I've been going there. I've just done The School for Scandal, I'm going back to do The Seagull, and Richard III, and I hope King Lear in the middle of the year. It has enormous advantages over London in that you haven't got that rather hectic scrutiny of first night critics, you haven't got the whole sort of London snobbery focusing on it, and it has the great advantage over American theater of having English actors, practiced journeymen who are skilled technicians, who speak verse, who move well, who are well-trained, who have been through the canon of the classics, and in fact they are almost medieval journeymen of their art.
Studs Terkel Medieval journey, that's interesting, you talk about Nottingham, the history of it, the centuries-old history, and you speak of medieval journeymen. As almost they were members of a guild.
Jonathan Miller Well, they are. That's, that's the one thing I think, that I think which acting has in Europe which it doesn't have in this country. There's, there's a sense of antiquity about it, a sense of an enduring tradition and all of the feeling of a tradition which goes back to the idea of a, of a group of troubadours touring in, in, in trucks and putting up their stands in marketplaces and performing for a populace, and this sort of rough, rather tradesmen-like feeling about acting gives a certain ruggedness to the English theater which is lacking in the American theater.
Studs Terkel Before I ask about your thoughts about, I want to stick with this theme for a minute, a tradesman quality, the craft, journeyman quality, skill, continuity. Before I ask you about your thoughts about Lear and the kind of casting you have in mind for this role, come back to Nottingham. Who are the members of the audience? You spoke of a certain history of it.
Jonathan Miller Well, it's very hard to tell. I've, I've not been there long enough, really, to get a feeling of what the audience is. Largely middle-class, of course, because well, the whole, the whole tradition of the theater in the last 100 years has been very very much a middle class.
Jonathan Miller I should think probably it must have been different in Shakespeare's time. It's very hard to say what the audiences were. I think probably, again, there was a, a, a more bourgeois aristocratic majority. But then, there were always the groundlings, there always were the townspeople, and Shakespeare obviously wrote in a great deal of comic stuff which would satisfy them. But -- and Drury Lane was quite a raucous, bawdy, turbulent place. But I don't think anyone has ever done a really detailed sort of sociological analysis of the audiences of the 18th century, but now it's become much more solidly middle-class anyway. It's very hard to get a working-class audience to come to the theater unless you do plays which are concerned with working-class life. Some of the, of the British repertory theaters in England have in fact begun to do rather mask-like documentary pageants about certain aspects of working-class life, and they have drawn very big, large audiences of working-class people. At Stoke-on-Trent, for example, they've done oh, extremely exciting pageants on such unpromising subjects as the rents and the local taxes, and they've drawn--
Jonathan Miller Yeah, pageant form, and they've drawn huge audiences of miners and people working in the potteries. And I think this is a very exciting thing to be able to play to an audience who are largely indifferent to the theater and are mainly--
Studs Terkel That's why I was asking about Nottingham, since you spoke of the history of it and the make-up of it. But back to the idea of the, of tradition, the actor, whether it's on the continent or in England, there's been this continuity, whereas here, you sense this has not been so here. In America.
Jonathan Miller Yes well I, I, I think it's, it's, it's, it's to do with the fact that England and Europe as a whole you feel have a tradition which goes back through the earliest days of Christianity back to paganism. Now there's no idea, there's no feeling of Paganism in this country. There's no feeling of that rural primitivism going back to a pre-Christian era, and you see some of the forms that get embodied in the European drama have a pagan core to them, and they are only performable by people who somehow have some sort of communal traditional connection with this pagan origins.
Studs Terkel Let's deal with this a moment, this is, this is great, I like this, this is great, and we'll come to Lear in a minute. Here the beginnings then were prim-primitive, but primitive Puritan rather than primitive pagan. It
Jonathan Miller It started, this country started as a rural Christian community, and of course they were people who came from Europe. But nevertheless, they blew like seeds across the ocean and planted a refined form of Calvinist Christianity. And even though they were rural superstitious communities, they were superstitious in the cast of Christian ideas. Christianity has grown around the pagan oak like ivy and in England you feel the old shadow of the golden barrow, which goes back long before--
Jonathan Miller Yes, and, and you and you do have a feeling of a strange sort of shaggified hoofed figures as phantoms on the, on the European scene. America starts out as a modern country. It's already--there's the bright light of theological rationalism shines on this country. There's a marvelous description somewhere I think in Hawthorne, I think it's in his preface to The Marble Faun, about the absence of dark, mysterious shadows in this country, the fact that, that everything is lit by the common light of day. There is no mysterious sacerdotal mystery about
Jonathan Miller Not enough shadows. And I think that one of the things about the, the, the English actor is that he's much more content to go along with the mystery of his own talent. He, he, he accepts it and allows it to bubble out on the stage, perhaps in deference to this pagan origin of his own craft.
Jonathan Miller Yes, indeed. And I think that, you know, that there are no mysteries in the, in the American theater. The American theater always seeks to somehow to analyze, to discover, to describe, and to account for how things came to be. You see, the--in many ways Arthur Miller's After the Fall is a very good demonstration of this, I think. The idea that you can build a drama out of a psychoanalytic retrospective view which then accounts for present discontents. This seems to me to be a very American obsession. It's an obsession of modernism, and modernism after all grew first here, whereas the marvelous thing about the drama is the fact that it doesn't ever leave you in a state of explained enlightenment. And I love that, I love the, the darkening mystery of the experience of, of a stage play, and in fact all that you get in an American play is a sense of progressive understanding.
Studs Terkel We're talking--it happens that Jonathan Miller and I have met the night before this particular conversation seeing a play, a powerful one indeed, a powerful experience, The Great White Hope. I have a very specific--not a question, not having a point of view, but something very specific was being said, it was documentary in nature, you're speaking of something wholly different, in which questions sometimes are unanswered.
Jonathan Miller Yes, or indeed no questions are put at all. But there's a whole--there's a programmatic feeling about American drama, that it poses problems which the, which the play in some way proposes to resolve. The lovely thing about the traditional roots of the European theater is that it doesn't, it, it's not a question-asking maneuver. It isn't even a question-posing maneuver. It doesn't set out to do anything, it's a demonstration of the mystery of being alive. And it doesn't propose to suggest that this mystery can be solved in any way.
Jonathan Miller It is a ritual. Now, it's a ritual which is intended to produce some sort of enlightenment. You are, at the end of a play one should have a sense of rest, of some state of settlement, of improved or enlarged understanding, but it's not that, that simple, rational, pros-prosaic understanding which you get in so much American drama. It's a state of understanding or enlightenment rather like I imagine faith is always taken to be in religion. Now, I'm not a religious person, but I've always assumed that when people have talked about faith in Christianity for example, when someone says, "I have, simply I have faith in the idea of the Resurrection," it's not that they have understood the Resurrection in physiological terms, that they now see how it could occur in terms of blood chemistry. It's that there's some state of mental subordination to the fact of an imponderable mystery has taken place which produces a sense of enlightenment without a sense of having dispersed the mystery.
Jonathan Miller Yes. Well, I, I, I don't even know what in fact is meant by the, the Resurrection, because to me this is a, a, is a thing which I have no interest in at all. But I can see what people mean by the -- by faith. And I think that this is, in faith as opposed to understanding, that faith is a sort of understanding, but it's an understanding which does not disperse the substance of--
Studs Terkel We're coming to Lear in a moment. But since you spoke of Resurrection, you also spoke of pagan, a pagan base to life in Europe, in England and in Europe itself, and whereas America, we didn't have that space because we, we destroy whatever the American Indian basis was here, therefore the Resurrection could also be seen in pagan terms, couldn't it? We could see it in spring, we can see it in, in some spring following the cold winter, the green, the green coming after that,
Jonathan Miller Well, this is what's so wonderful about the European Christian festivals is that they are so deeply stained with their pagan counterparts. You celebrate Christmas in Europe and you are constantly aware that you're in the presence of Nordic gods, of strange hoofed spirits and of dark forces of the pine forests, and all of which have been embodied in, in a very thoroughgoing and fully formulated mythology. There are no mythologies before Christianity in this country. I mean, people can search them out amongst the Indians, but the Indians they have been killed and thrust outside the community, and no one claims descent from them. The English after all claim descent from their pagan antecedents, but the Americans can't do that.
Studs Terkel And as we talk now, we come to mysteries. Now we come to life, now we come to a monumental figure: Lear and your thoughts. This has always been the question. Many actors, I mean great actors always say, the role, if I'm mature enough I hope someday to be able to play Lear, whether it's the young, brilliant young Black actor in America right out, James Earl Jones, he someday hopes to play Lear, almost every actor of any, any salt says
Jonathan Miller Funny thing, seeing, talking about James Earl Jones, seeing him last night in The Great White Hope, in a play which, really, is relatively, I think, unimportant in fact--it's on an important theme, but that doesn't, you know, raise the, the play's importance, but it is a miraculous performance, and he's he's a great virtuoso actor, probably one of the world's great actors, James Earl Jones. I would, I think, give my, my right hand, left hand and my teeth to direct him in King Lear.
Jonathan Miller He could do it, he could do Lear now. The only thing which might have some, some difficulty with is perhaps the difficulty of, of speaking English verse. Now, he's a fine speaker. He has a beautiful voice and wonderful control, but there's a certain difficulty that all American actors have with, with this English verse. It's, it's, it's, it's true that both English and Americans speak English, but they don't really speak Shakespearean English.
Jonathan Miller Shakespeare.
Jonathan Miller Yes. Well, I, I, yes, I think that he suggested this as a possible solution, but no one has yet found it. The bother when Americans do Shakespeare is that they are so subordinated by the reputation of Shakespeare, they're so impressed by him that they put on very great sententious sing-songing voices, rather as indeed the English did until, until in fact Peter Hall's company revolutionized the, the manner of doing Shakespeare. If Americans could rid themselves of that slightly vicarious respect that they have for Shakespeare, it's quite possible that they could do it in a way which would be very shattering and disturbing indeed. But at the moment they, they have a, a hideous ponderous reverence for it and it ruins almost every Shakespearean performance I've seen. There are rather marvelous Shakespearean actors in this country, but they're not well-known. The famous ones are in fact deplorable, I think. But I would, I think James Earl Jones, well, I don't just think, I know he's ready to do King Lear, and as I say I would give--
Jonathan Miller No, I don't think age is the important thing about King Lear. In fact, if you play him too old, it suddenly makes, it blows the whole plot. The point of the thing is lost. If this is just simply an old man who in his feebleness surrenders his kingdom, then this is just simply an enforced retirement, and there's no, there's no tragedy in it except the very generalized tragedy of senility. What I think is interesting about King Lear, the original strange thing about King Lear, is the idea of a man at the very end of late middle age, just approaching old age, who voluntarily in the prime of his power suddenly abdicates. Now, the reasons why he does this are very obscure. I suspect that he abdicates in order to buy love. I have a feeling that in some way this is what Lyndon Johnson was doing.
Jonathan Miller You see here, and I, I see Lear as very much as Lyndon Johnson's age. A huge, powerful fixer who has had gigantic political power all his life, who's been able to manipulate the machine and bend people to his will, who suddenly discovers towards the end of his life or toward the end of his, of his, of, of his effective powerful life, that people no longer love him. And there is this sudden crisis that often occurs in late middle age associated with deep depressions when suddenly people feel a withdrawal of love, and abdication sometimes becomes a desperate crisis gesture, through which an attempt is made to purchase love. First towards men, the, the attempt is made to purchase love simply by the act itself, producing, perhaps, perhaps pity. I will abdicate because you dislike me so much, therefore through pity love comes. But then following on from that, I will abdicate and then I will buy your love by giving you partitioned portions of the kingdom over which I hold sway, and by this I will purchase your love, which I feel slipping away from me. Now I think if one plays it in this way, quite suddenly the Lear starts to vibrate and become very interesting. You see, what then happens is that if someone in the prime of his power unexpectedly abdicates his power it shatters the whole social structure, the political structure. So long as the man is in power and is expected to be there for some time, there's a state of envious perhaps, but nevertheless a state of settlement, of envious settlement, the, the fabric holds. All the lines of force are under control. People--it's, it's that attention. People are wishing to see the person deposed, but so long as he has the grip on the position of power, at least the position holds. Quite suddenly, he lets his grip go. All the lines of folds, all the threads, all the, the chains suddenly relax, and a sudden sort of catastrophic disturbances of mutual position holding occur. I think that's exactly happened here in
Jonathan Miller At that moment, and he suddenly releases his grip. It's as if someone was holding a very, very heavy weight over a cliff along a rope, a very strong man. Quite suddenly, he lets go. Now there are hundreds of climbers all in different positions on the other side of the, of the cliff, all on this rope, and he just releases this, and of course some fall, some grasp, some clutch at others, and in this sudden release of political tension sustained by one man, you get a gigantic upheaval of social structure. This is exactly what happened in this country. You could see within hours of Johnson's abdication, you saw this sudden catastrophic realignment of, of loyalties, of affiliations and alliances, and the whole thing produced a social earthquake.
Jonathan Miller It's also a study--it's a study of the relinquishing of power so far as the social structure is concerned. It's also a study of the, of the tragic failure of the purchasing of love, of the fact that love cannot be purchased, but that love is always--has a limit. But it is that there are limited sort of currency resources within which the transactions of love are carried on. And I think Cordelia expresses this very early on in, in the play when Lear speaks to her and asks her what she would give and how much she loves him. She tells him very clearly that, that the love between a daughter and a father has a certain limited currency resource, and that you can't, you can't purchase over and above the liquidity which is available. And what Lear does is he, he produces in fact a gold crisis in the, in the economics of love by calling upon a much greater liquidity than in fact is available for that particular relationship. Now, what Cordelia does is to observe the strict liquidity requirements of a daughter to a father, and in the end she honors the financial contract of, of the love between these two and Lear becomes aware of it only at the end, and tragically. The other daughters observe the liquidity requirements absolute so strictly that it, it crushes Lear, but either--but they are not evil women at all. They are women who just simply follow the inexorable laws of, of nature and of a succession of generations which shows that, that if you start to purchase, buy love, you are doomed.
Studs Terkel I didn't, on this point I didn't see Paul Scofield's Lear Royal Shakespeare did, but I understand here was a, an interesting [proof?] that Goneril and you know, that here was the old man coming with 100 drunken knights, and yet it's hard to blame, it's hard to blame this daughter considered in traditional or shallow terms as an evil girl.
Jonathan Miller Yes, I don't think she is an evil girl, and of course he is, he's almost like a, King Lear is in many ways like a, like a sort of Cosa Nostra leader, bringing a, a great host of his poker-playing cronies back to the house. And of course, it's a drag. But the interesting thing about him is the acute depression of a man who has suddenly started to barter in love, and his madness isn't that the madness not of--I mean, he's always shown to be a sort of strange magnificent patriarchal madness there jibbering on the heath with his deranged beard and his sounding off at the storm. Actually, it's the, it's the madness, a very genuine madness of what the psychiatrists call the endogenous depression of late middle age, and it's a very genuine madness. If it's played like that, it becomes very much more convincing and very much more interesting.
Studs Terkel Talking to Jonathan Miller now, obviously he can be a very exciting director of, of great drama. We return, I know, even though you spoke of the contemporary aspects as, indeed, all great plays are for all time, at the same, I know you're opposed to making a play modern.
Jonathan Miller I hate modernizing plays. I, I think it's a, it's a terrible thing to modernize a play. If a play is good, it is modern in it's, in it's antiquity. There's nothing more shallow than, than dressing up Shakespeare in modern clothes. I very much approve of shifting periods, but the shifts of periods must always somehow be done with, with, with some sort of attention to the effect that you're going to create by doing this. Now--
Jonathan Miller Oh, well, yes I hate all that sort of stuff. Yes, I really hate all that sort of stuff. These are just arbitrary shifts around the time chessboard in which--you see, I think that, using the chess analogy for a moment in, in connection with the idea of changing times in, in plays. If you make, if you make your moves like the moves of the Queen on the board, in other words you have sort of almost total freedom, that you can move, you know, eight squares at a time diagonally and at right angles, you have too much freedom. If you're going to change time, it should have that rather cramped, limited, unexpected, quirky move of a knight: one forward and one to the side, because this actually is the limited but unexpected move which actually sometimes produces very dramatic results. You see, realize it's very hard to say what period Shakespeare's plays are set in, because they're actually, if they're set in any period at all, they're set in Shakespeare's period. For example, Antony and Cleopatra was about a period of which Shakespeare had no direct knowledge or even any indirect knowledge. Egypt had not been excavated. He had no idea what Egypt looked like or felt like. So it's as, it's as unrealistic for Shakespeare to have placed it in Egypt as it is for us to, to change the period to something else. Now, I wouldn't want to bring it into a sort of Nasser's Egypt, I think that would be absurd. I think that it should be brought into a Tudor period, it should be played not in, in Roman and Egyptian costume, it should be played I think in Elizabethan costume. And I think it should be a masque rather like Veronese's Mars and Venus, it should be, perhaps, slightly Venetian, and Cleopatra should be a great Venetian courtesan, a dusky lady.
Jonathan Miller Yes. And also I think it will, it will be close to the core of what Shakespeare was doing, this thing is a great Renaissance masque on love and war, and on, on, on the, the fading autumnal love of, of middle-aged lovers, And this is a very Renaissance theme, the theme of the decay of youth, and these enduring figures that run through the Renaissance of the, of Greek mythology transformed and crystallized in the Renaissance imagination. [Neville?]--to put it in the Renaissance and set it in the, in the, the framework of the sensibility which gave rise to it I think would make it, produce many more dramatic results. I see, in Julius Caesar, for example, if I'm going to change the period there, and it's very fashionable to change Julius Caesar and put it into, into the '30s or to make it to Mussolini--
Jonathan Miller Well, this seems to me to be, to be a, a ludicrous thing to do. The analogies are there for anyone to pick up if they want to. If you actually make it too explicit, it's fitting something into a straitjacket, because there are so many things which don't fit that you're constantly having to forget them, often very beautiful, sensitive, subtle things which become distorted and cramped, like putting a beautiful woman into a corset. But I think that if you were going to change the period at all, it should be changed to the very thing about which Shakespeare probably was writing, which was the, the bureaucratic tyranny of the Tudor state. He must have been very, very aware of this, the power struggles within the court of Elizabeth.
Studs Terkel So, then, as you're talking, and this is a very exciting talk, too, by Jonathan Miller about a number of Shakespeare's plays, even though the time historically of the characters of centuries before, Shakespeare wrote of the certain period aware of certain developments of that period and the plays had relevance to that, those conditions.
Jonathan Miller Yes, because they are not, I mean, Shakespeare's plays are not chronicle plays. Shakespeare plays may be taken from chronicles, and he takes from Holinshed for his Shake - for his historical plays, but they are not in fact dramatized documentaries of the, of the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses become a, a skeleton, a structural skeleton upon which he then hangs a Tudor drama, and I think that--
Studs Terkel And so your point is, then in the year 1968, any country, anywhere, any time, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, use it just as he had in mind and people themselves bring in their own bags of experiences with
Jonathan Miller If a thing is true to the sensibility of its own time, human beings being the relatively unchanging things that they are, if a thing is true to the sensibility of its own time it will unavoidably transmit it's, it's rays and its mutation, it's mutation rays to our time. If you, if you neutralize its relationship through its own period in some strange way its power of radiation diminishes I think.
Studs Terkel Clearly, it seems to me, and perhaps a great many members of the audience talking to Jonathan Miller, then, the very exciting director of interpretations of, of the classics of Shakespeare, you're, you're thinking in terms of contemporary plays, too, in directing?
Jonathan Miller Well, I, I would, I would like to do some contemporary plays. I think anyone would. But at the moment I'm much more interested in doing, in doing Shakespeare and, and the plays of all these of the 16th and 17th century. This, perhaps, is something which I will have to work through and do a lot of before I feel ready to move on to something else. I want to work this mine, it's a very rich one, and I don't think it's been done properly yet.
Studs Terkel And, so, again, there, there are many facets to the, to the talents and the challenges that he accepts, of Jonathan Miller, we hadn't--again, I, I wish there was some way that Alice in Wonderland, this film that I saw the BBC produced in London that Jonathan Miller directed, I remember that air of wonderment that I had in seeing, air of wonder and you did it, you approached this with an air of wonder, too, it seems, you know,
Jonathan Miller Well, that was very important to me in doing that film. I wanted to, I saw, I saw the book as a, as a, as a, a prose version or a gloss upon all the, obviously not conscious on Wordsworth's immortality ode, than on the sense of fading vision of childhood, and of the sense of the transcendental which the child still has, and which fades with old age. Wordsworth makes this very poignant, of course, in the immortality ode when he says that "the glory and the freshness of a dream and the, the things that I've seen I now can see no more, and that there was a time when meadow grove and stream, here and every common sight to meet it seemed the power of celestial light and the glory and freshness of the dream," gives this impression that everything was, was once, it was bathed in a dew and a radiance which somehow as the hot sun of, of maturity comes up, dries out and becomes sapless and worthless.
Jonathan Miller Well, that was why I chose Ravi Shankar as the composer. I'd always had in mind something about this, this drowsing insect-laden air of the English summer, a sense of almost overripe heat which is just before the autumn comes and the leaves fall and death comes.
Jonathan Miller Yeah. And this to me was a very important theme in Alice. It's there if you read it, it's there in the poems that, that were written by Carroll before and after the book. People don't attend to these things at all, the people are very careless in the way they read the text. They think, it's just, "Oh, it's just simply a jolly fairy fairy story. Why tinker with it?" The thing is, it's not just a jolly fairy story. People should read the text and read things carefully, and not assign things to rigid categories. Things are not what they seem. Works of art are not what they have been settled to be. The text should be read. And all the attendant texts should be read, and the period should be consulted, and quite suddenly the thing will appear for what it really is, and it quite clearly is a, a, a lonesome academic bachelor's cry from the heart of the loss of vision, the loss of innocence, and of the horror of approaching middle age and old age and then death.
Studs Terkel Again we come to this theme, don't we, a while ago you're talking about Lear and now you're talking about Alice in Wonderland, strange there's a, there is a common denominator. Two wholly different works.
Jonathan Miller Well, but they are, they are a common denominator in that both of them are concerned with growing old, and in both of them, actually there's the same sort of structural theme in common in that there is somehow a curious dishevelled odyssey takes place. Lear wanders across the blasted heath of his own imagination, and Alice wanders through this dreamscape in order to discover herself and lands up in the trial. In the end Lear has to make the same journey through this, this storm, through the turbulence of the blasted heath in order to discover the, the folly of, of what he's done.
Studs Terkel You know, we're talking to Jonathan Miller, this is just a, a Thursday morning in New York at a hotel. And I knew, of course, as soon as I saw, we've got to talk, because this, too, is a matter of talking and just speaking what's on your mind, but the free flow is here with him. Thoughts are, fertility is there. Perhaps--which I hope, naturally I think, I, I hope that we will see your Lear when it is done with the actor that undoubtedly you will find, and that Alice in Wonderland can be seen on American TV as it was on British television, but also in one other aspect, again, because of your multi-talents and interests, film interests you, too.
Jonathan Miller Film I, I like, too, but you see, I don't regard it as, as a diversification of interest or diversification of talent to be interested in film as well as the stage anymore than I would say that someone was diversely talented if they chose a ballpoint pen to write at one moment and a typewriter at the other and a tape recorder at the other moment. These are just simply instruments one uses to do certain jobs. The only diversification is the diversification of a manual skill. It's only a manual skill, a camera, and you learn the aesthetics of it very quickly. I mean, the main thing, what matters is whether you have vision or not. Now, whether I have or not is another question. The question of techniques, one doesn't applaud someone for being able to handle a ballpoint pen at one moment and a typewriter at the next. You say, "Oh, he's learned typing. Good."
Jonathan Miller Absolutely.
Studs Terkel But what is about the man, in this case Jonathan Miller. I remember in the very beginning I was saying, I remember there's an interesting slip. I said "your version of Alice" and I changed to "your vision of Alice in Wonderland," and there is a difference. We come to the word "vision" of course, this is the key.
Jonathan Miller Well, in the end that's all that one can ask of an artist, is, is whether he sees something which, which no one else has seen before. We're all looking at the same material, we've looked at it a million times before, that the fabric of human consciousness and of human existence. This stuff is passing in front of our eyes every day, and we all see it and there are, you know, two thousand five hundred million people in the earth all having access to the same material.
Studs Terkel You know, Jonathan, as you're talking, I can't help but think that you're a doctor. Can we, can we just follow this for a moment, the connection between this, do you feel that, here you were at the school of medicine, it's neurology that you're
Jonathan Miller Well, I feel that, I, I never felt that this is very much of a diversification either. I think that medicine is very much the same sort of thing as the arts. I mean, the practice of medicine, of course, is a, is a concrete task that has to be carried out, and you have certain jobs to do, the therapy has to be handed out and patients have to be rehabilitated, and so on and so on, and that makes it very different than the arts, but underneath it all there is a common factor in that they are both concerned with just the strange rather mortal material which comes into existence and has a brief, a brief span and then rots. And both the arts and medicine are concerned with this rather perishable material. So I don't really find any, any sort of dichotomy
Jonathan Miller But the science of medicine is the same. The science of medicine is concerned with analyzing the perishable material, finding out why it perishes, finding out if you can delay the perish, the perishing. Arts simply comment on the perishability and on the agony of the perish.
Studs Terkel As you're talking, I can't help but think of what Dr. Bronowski, the British scientist Dr. Bronowski was saying about science, he spoke of the art to leaps, he spoke of leaps, the leap of imagination.
Jonathan Miller Well, this is always required in either science or in art. Arthur Koestler has shown this. All that happens in originality is that there after all there's nothing new under the sun, there's no such thing as genuine originality. Originality can't exist, because there's only the same material. There's just this stuff. Originality consists in, in bringing together two halves of the fabric which no one had previously believed belonged to each other. And one suddenly makes a, a garment out of them, and this is what happens in art when someone makes a metaphor. When someone says, "My love is like a red, red rose," quite suddenly, it's now, it's now a cliché, but then, perhaps, it was a shock to see brought together the idea of a spiritual love and the physical image of a rose. Newton did the same thing when he said that the falling of an apple is the same as the drifting of stars. Suddenly to bring together these two absolutely dissimilar images, in fact, is what constitutes the essential job of both the artist
Studs Terkel Perhaps ending with this, and this again, that it's all part of one man, in this instance, Jonathan Miller, Dr. Jonathan Miller, director, film, theater, critic, writer, medicine, that it's not, not so much diversification as all part of the vision of one man that in similarities, I guess it was a phrase that Coleridge, I forget, differences somehow, the similarity in differences.
Jonathan Miller Well, this is all that there is, and this is what I suppose, if anything, if I do devote my life to anything at all, it's to that. I can't see the, the split. I can't see the separation. To me, the whole of existence is a seamless garment. And I can't divide them up. I find it impossible, now this in terms of professions it's often very difficult, because people assign roles to you, and roles are assigned to people as they choose careers, and by doing this it's then assumed that subject matters are therefore distinct. I can't see this at all, any more than many Europeans can understand why it is that quite arbitrarily frontiers should be set up across an otherwise unmarked field.
Studs Terkel Johnathan Miller, any, any other--I like the way, as in comic strips, I call you by your full name. Jonathan Miller, any other thoughts comes to your mind before we say goodbye for the moment.
Studs Terkel This is very funny. Perhaps end on this note, a day, too, where we live, too, you came in to see someone about a certain work, a certain projected work involving your own creativity, and you were flown in from England and you saw a play, and you were on the West Coast, and now you're going back. This transient aspect of it, the mobility, too, is a part of
Jonathan Miller Yes. Well, that's, that's certainly part of it. I don't like traveling too much. I find I get very disturbed by it, my time schedule gets thrown off. But I do, I do like to travel here, two or three times a year, or perhaps I'd like to travel much more and to other places. But in fact I prefer, really to just, to sit on my backside in my comfortable house in London with my children and, and see life passing by there. I make these occasional sallies into, into other fields in other countries.
Studs Terkel With this, with this mobility that we have when you're liking to travel, at the same time I remember from a previous conversation you spoke of where you lived and where you've lived in that area all your life.
Jonathan Miller Yes.