Et in Alhambra ego

D.A.N. Jones

  • Agate: A Biography by James Harding
    Methuen, 238 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 413 58090 3
  • Subsequent Performances by Jonathan Miller
    Faber, 253 pp, £15.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 571 13133 6

‘The Hazlitt of our time’, said the Manchester Guardian, announcing the death of James Agate in 1947. An extravagant compliment, but the famous theatre reviewer did have one or two of Hazlitt’s characteristics. Though his journalism now seems too pompous-frivolous even for the theatre world, his reports of actors’ performances are often vivid and persuasive: he was quite learned in his subject and could communicate his own enthusiasm, making drama seem important – more important, perhaps, than it seems to us today. He was shamelessly egotistic and his self-importance attracted readers to the theatrical excitements he publicised. In his autobiographical Ego books he was less candid than Hazlitt was, but then he risked imprisonment. James Harding reveals Agate as a reckless hunter after unlawful pleasures. It is a dismal tale, but James Harding tells it cheerfully. He calls Agate ‘an English Baron de Charlus’ – which seems almost as extravagant as ‘the Hazlitt of our time’.

What he does not do is give us any ground for respecting Agate’s talent. After reading the biography, I turned up two of Agate’s essays in Arnold Hinchliffe’s anthology of 1979, Drama Criticism: Developments since Ibsen. It is evident that Agate was always conscious of the workings of Time and Fashion: his awareness is apparent in his 1924 first-night review of Saint Joan (not an easy assignment) and in his review of Laurence Olivier as Macbeth in 1936. No italics for ‘Macbeth’. This is a report of ‘Olivier as Macbeth’, not ‘Olivier in Macbeth’. Agate wanted to remind readers of the influence of Time and Fashion on our conceptions of the great roles. So he began by quoting a weighty commonplace from another critic, William Archer, twenty years Agate’s senior. ‘We have each our private ideal of Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Lear,’ said Archer. ‘Every actor who undertakes them has to pass through a triple ordeal, encountering, first our imagination, kindled by Shakespeare; second our idealised memory of performances which used to please our, perhaps, unripe judgment; third our conception of the great actors of the past, gathered from the often extravagant panegyrics of contemporaries.’

These Time-conscious remarks, though they will seem truisms to many actors, are distanced, as in a time-warp, from Jonathan Miller’s handsome, thoughtful book about ‘directors’ theatre’, Subsequent Performances. This book is, among other things, an apologia for Miller’s own work as a drama director and an essay on the effects of Time upon the Drama. He is always ready to provide, if not a ‘private ideal’ of each great role, a strong personal conception: but it is only temporary, for he expects his ideas to change with the years. He refuses to contemplate an ideal performance, ‘timeless’ or ‘definitive’, since each production must be geared to the audience of the Time, strengthening or challenging their assumptions about religion and politics, Blacks, Jews and Women, Mars and Venus. All productions become ‘dated’ – out-of-date, old-fashioned – and Miller sees no good reason to worry about that (though he does worry). He has a strong sense of period, and when he sees a play-script or an opera libretto he positively wants to date it. For twenty-odd years he has been dating the classics – including Chekhov and Ibsen, the only foreigners established in the British dramatic repertoire. The task of the actors is to assist Miller’s interpretation. He is not much pleased by the performances he saw in his youth, nor by reports of older performances: he has always been concerned to reject what he calls ‘traditional’ conceptions of the roles, and he rejects most scathingly. His imagination is certainly ‘kindled by Shakespeare’, but in such a way as to make him think of something entirely different: Freud, Kafka, King Hussein, 19th-century photographs, the Rothschilds.

Return to Agate’s little essay on Olivier as Macbeth. After his heavy chunk of old Archer, he swings into his modern world of 1936:

Perhaps this is the place to say – and if it isn’t I shall still say it! – that I have been more ‘got at’ over Mr Olivier’s performance than by any other in my recollection. Chelsea semaphored: ‘Unable conceive Macbeth as gigolo.’ Bloomsbury signalled: ‘No use for Macbeth as mountebank.’ A young gentleman in corduroy trousers and a velvet smoking-jacket opined to my face that Macbeth should not be like a retired Army colonel. Reflecting that what the young gentleman stood in need of was an active drill-sergeant, I proceeded to turn a deaf, but not altogether deaf, ear to another of the mincing brigade, who suggested that the new Macbeth shouted too loudly. I say ‘not altogether deaf’ because even the austerest critic is none the worse for knowing what is being said by the mob!

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