‘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!
This paragraph is dated all right: 1936. We may wince at Agate’s scorn for mincing and reflect that the hearty drill-sergeant reference lends support to James Harding’s portrait of Agate as a straight-acting gay, addicted to guardsmen. However, we now have some idea of Olivier’s effect upon the Old Vic’s audience, that evening, and we expect Agate to defend the performance against calumny. This he does, quite vividly, after a near-scholarly account of other Macbeths, as described by Hazlitt, G.H. Lewes and Ellen Terry. Agate had high hopes of the young Olivier, though he ‘should look to his gait, which smacks too much of the modern prize-ring’, and he ought not to have jumped on the dining-table – ‘too much in Hamlet’s vein’. Still, Agate admired ‘a cold Irvingesque malignity’ in the voice and in twenty years’ time Olivier would play the role better. ‘Whereas a stripling can fly at Hamlet, Macbeth is a weighty business which requires the momentum of age.’ Time was on Agate’s mind – but not in the way Time affects Jonathan Miller.
What about the play – Macbeth in italics? What of the director and the supporting cast? Agate mentions only one other performer, Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth, sniffily dismissed with a quotation from ‘an earlier critic on an earlier actress’. His review of Olivier-as-Macbeth concludes with a perfunctory compliment to ‘the production of M. Michel Saint-Denis, Motley’s scenery and the incidental music of M. Darius Milhaud’. This is where we may feel the need for someone like Jonathan Miller, demanding attention for his interpretation of the play.
In Subsequent Performances Miller makes use of the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures he delivered in 1977, on the role of the director in the theatre and on ‘the fate of plays as they underwent revival from one generation to another’. He felt inhibited by a suspicion that the memorialised Eliot had little respect for the role of director – no better than a reviewer, merely interfering in communications between the storyteller and his audience – for surely it is the actor who must be the interpreter, not these wordy parasites, these Millers and Agates. Miller’s suspicion was strengthened by reading some remarks made by Dame Helen Gardner, ‘one of Eliot’s most distinguished sponsors’. She had remembered some good stage performances she had seen before 1960 – with ‘extremely beautiful costumes by a firm called Motley’ – but she claimed she could hardly remember the names of the directors. She seemed to think that post-1960 directors, like Jonathan Miller, spoiled the show. ‘In the Fifties,’ she said, ‘when Byam Shaw was producing at Stratford, nobody spoke of Byam Shaw’s Macbeth but of Olivier’s Macbeth, the greatest Macbeth I have ever seen.’
Was this ‘Olivier’s Macbeth’ better than the ‘Olivier’s Macbeth’ that Agate saw in 1936? The reviewers may give us a clue. But how did Saint-Denis’s Macbeth compare with Byam Shaw’s Macbeth? The reviewers were not quite as interested as they should have been. However stupid they may be, reviewers have a strong influence on the stage. Jonathan Miller recognises this in his discursive book, when he offers almost a eulogy of Kenneth Tynan as a creator of excitement. ‘Theatre became exotic and desirable because he thought it was. I no longer turn to the theatre pages with the excitement that I once did and although contemporaries like Alan Brien lacked Tynan’s flamboyant, showstruck, star-fucking excitement, he too was an invigorating critic to read ... Why Tynan was influential within the theatre is hard to explain.’ (Jonathan Miller, who likes explaining, is particularly interesting when he finds something ‘hard to explain’. Tynan, too, liked explaining.) ‘There was a certain gullible, vulgar extravagance about his writing that is also part of the attraction of the theatre itself.’ Now that Tynan has gone, Miller finds the theatre rather boring. ‘There are some very talented people with good ideas,’ he observes, with a barely stifled yawn, ‘but one of the reasons I have been away from the profession recently is because I felt that it was no longer so interesting.’ Why should the absence of a Tynan (or an Agate?) among our reviewers make the theatre less interesting to Jonathan Miller?
Tynan makes an appearance in Agate: A Biography. He was stimulated by Agate, whose fine phrases he often quoted, and he himself became a stimulus. Agate was not a university man: he was a North Country cotton merchant and wartime army officer who had seen Sarah Bernhardt when he was 13. ‘Her acting,’ he said, ‘unveiled for me the ecstasy of the body and the torture of the mind.’ When he was 20, Agate went to Paris, to see the actress Réjane and provoke her into giving a better performance. He was devoted to the Great Actresses of his time, the women for whom the dramatists wrote their plays. He once wrote: ‘In my life I have seen six great actresses and six only. These are Bernhardt, Réjane, Mrs Kendal, Ellen Terry, Duse and Mrs Patrick Campbell.’ The times have changed. If there are any great actresses in 1986, nobody is writing plays for them.
Agate met a Frenchwoman in 1917, married and speedily divorced her. He wanted London guardsmen. Arnold Bennett noted in his diary:
J.E. Agate is a man of 40 or so, rather coarse-looking. Fattish. Has a reputation for sexual perversity. Married a beautiful French girl (23 or so) who has now left him. Principal job: partner in some cotton trade concern. Has just sold out for £5000 and decided to come to London to make a living.
Agate started up as the Sunday Times theatre reviewer in 1923, when he was 46, affecting the careers of actors like Olivier and attracting the admiration of boys like Kenneth Tynan.
Tynan, as a schoolboy, approached Agate with a ‘prose-poem’, larded with the names of famous Frenchmen. ‘Tell me, boy,’ inquired Agate, ‘are you a homosexual?’ James Harding reports: ‘Tynan, who should by all appearances have been so but was not, replied in the negative. That interesting question having been settled, Agate set about nurturing what, despite the precocious flummery, he perceived as a genuine talent.’ Curiously enough, Agate also ‘nurtured the talent’ of Harold Hobson, who was to be the powerful reviewer of the Sunday Times when Tynan was on the Observer. According to James Harding, Hobson unknowingly benefited from Agate’s personal problems. The proprietor of the Sunday Times had heard a story about Agate climbing out of an all-male brothel without his trousers: the proprietor forcefully suggested replacing the reckless Agate with the decent Hobson. ‘Hobson’s all right,’ he said. ‘Hobson has a daughter. Let’s have Hobson.’ The daughterless Agate heard this and began to panic. He had intended to pass on his Sunday Times column to his secretary, Alan Dent, but now he felt he must flatter Harold Hobson – ‘from his fear that Hobson had it in his power to ruin him and that his friendship must be secured at all costs,’ says James Harding. ‘He need not have worried, for Hobson was, and is, a Christian and a man of honour.’ Almost superstitiously, Agate entreated the Sunday Times to appoint Hobson as his successor and poor Alan Dent was left high and dry: ‘a brutal act of treachery’, says James Harding. By such strange chances, Hobson and Tynan won authority (well-deserved) in the British theatre during that interesting period, 1956-76, when Jonathan Miller was stimulated – before he got bored.
From the ‘flamboyant, showstruck excitement’ of the reviewers we return to the explanations of Jonathan Miller, discussing his management of the actors, for the dons of Cambridge and Kent. (Subsequent Performances is based on lectures at these universities.) Miller tells them how he dates the story. There is the date of the storyteller, the date of the story and the date of Miller’s first-night production (with the audience’s ephemeral prejudices to be considered), and then there may be an entirely different date which Miller has superimposed to give the audience a new idea. It is easiest to make such changes when the playwright is dead. John Osborne and Peter Nichols did not want Miller to alter their plays, but he was more fortunate when he directed Robert Lowell’s version of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. Since Miller did not want to set this play in the Caucasus, with an actor tied to a rock, he ‘superimposed another level of translation by setting it in a 17th-century limbo. Lowell was pleased to discover that his own work, not to mention that of Aeschylus, contained more than either he or his Greek antecedent had knowingly put into it. So what can one make of the claim that the author’s intention is the only reliable criterion by which the validity of interpretation is to be judged?’ Miller asks.
This is a bold way of arguing. Aeschylus – recognised in his time as a master of spectacle – was not there to complain about the absence of his flying horse and the insertion of a 17th-century limbo. Lowell was pleased to be assured that his translation ‘contained’ a 17th-century limbo which he had not put into it. But these facts do not have much to do with ‘reliable criteria’ for ‘the validity of interpretation’. When Miller superimposes his own stories, he is telling us what we ought to think. We may remember his 1970 production of The Merchant of Venice, in a 19th-century setting. It ended with a superimposed dumb-show – Jessica and Antonio sitting forlorn at separate tables, not wanted at Bassanio’s party. Miller was making a moral point, telling us what we ought to think of them. We recognised that Miller had decided Jessica ought to feel guilty about deserting her old father – and sad music came from the synagogue to signal this thought. But what was wrong with Antonio, the merchant of Venice? Miller explains, in Subsequent Performances: ‘The relationship between Bassanio and Antonio made me think of the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Bosie where a sad old queen regrets the opportunistic heterosexual love of a person whom he once adored.’ This is indeed a superimposition – more acceptable, perhaps, in 1970 than at some other periods of Time. Alternative dumb-shows could be added, to rebuke the bad characters of The Merchant of Venice: a revolutionary scene would be satisfactory, with all the élite toppled by the people under the leadership of Shylock, the Prince of Morocco and poor Old Gobbo. In Miller’s Hamlet (also of 1970) the dumb-show came on earlier – with the dandy Osric puzzlingly miming a sort of Machiavelli. Miller sometimes finds it ‘hard to explain’ why he does these interesting things. ‘If I were to direct The Merchant of Venice now,’ he writes, ‘I would not dream of setting it in the 19th century but, in 1970, when Olivier offered me the job at the Old Vic it seemed appropriate. It is difficult to explain precisely why I chose that setting.’
He recognises that he is one of many directors who want to play with Time’s changes. ‘One of modernism’s rather paradoxical characteristics was a much more self-conscious relationship to the past which it treated as a plunderable treasure to be re-assembled in new forms.’ He tells his university audiences about the books he has used, but he is not governed by their arguments: he is more influenced by the promptings of his Muse, and by his Sense of Period, fortified by the paintings and photographs that so handsomely illustrate his book. He believes that ‘in the last part of the 20th century even the comparatively recent past is visualised as a foreign country where people do things differently. It is difficult to explain why all this should have happened now and not before.’ Yet his own photographs indicate that ‘all this’ did happen before, earlier in the century, if by ‘all this’ he means fastening upon a date, whether to attempt a stimulating modernisation or a scholarly historical accuracy. He shows a good photograph of Barry Jackson’s modern-dress Hamlet of 1925 (and it doesn’t look ‘dated’, in the bad sense) and another of William Poel’s Hamlet of 1900, remarking that ‘Poel set out to restore the appearance of Shakespeare’s original staging’ but ‘to a modern eye the late 19th-century style is highly visible and the whole tableau looks like a historical scene in Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum.’ He is, theoretically, satisfied – though, perhaps, personally disappointed – to find that much the same applies to his own work. He prints a a photograph of his own King Lear of 1969, when he was ‘reacting against the romantic antiquity of traditional productions and the rugged primitivism of Peter Brook’: so he set it in a period, a ‘social context, nearer to the one in which Shakespeare had written it’. And yet – ‘looking at this picture now, I find myself recoiling from its picturesque appearance and I am convinced that it will soon look just as old-fashioned as William Poel’s Tussaud production.’ He draws a fair analogy with picture-faking, remarking that Van Meegeren’s forgeries used to look like Vermeers, but now they don’t. Yet he still seems disappointed, ‘recoiling’ from work that once seemed modern and now seems ‘dated’.
Another thing Miller finds hard to explain is his problem with Nature. ‘Like many other modern producers and directors, I recoil from putting Nature on stage ... Although this might sound a sweeping generalisation it is invariably true that Nature looks atrocious on stage.’ There is no way to argue against this assertion, though Miller would like to have an argument. ‘He ‘recoils’: it is his mood and, perhaps, the mood of the time. Reluctantly, he accepts Nature on the screen. ‘In the television productions of Shakespeare for which I was responsible I am embarrassed to admit that the most successful were those in which the scenery was more real and more pictorial than the 19th-century stage versions I have reacted violently against when directing in the theatre. For reasons that I cannot explain ...’ If directors go on recoiling and reacting violently against the representation of Nature, for reasons they can’t explain, we shall never see a Wagner opera presented the way Wagner wanted us to see it. Jonathan Miller cheerfully recalls ‘the vicissitudes of Wagner’s Ring. Pictorially produced at the time of its composition, the Ring was stripped of all scenery by Wieland Wagner and transplanted into a ruined industrial setting ... The work itself developed under the influence of these alterations in theatrical format.’ Did the work really ‘develop’? Or was it changed to suit a dictatorial director, superimposing a new story?
The decisions of strong-minded directors often carry a certain authority: they become ‘traditional’ in a baleful sense. So it is important to recognise that some of Miller’s assertions are persuasive expressions of prejudices, useful to himself alone, and that his arguments are not always consistent. Quite pedantically, he mounts a destructive case against that pleasing art, or craft, the dramatisation of novels (altogether a different genre, you see) and he might have been quite persuasive if he had not reminded us of his own rather good adaptation of Alice in Wonderland; and we may note that he admits he took advantage of atrocious old Nature, in a 19th-century ‘pictorial’ way: ‘the darkening hush of the storm in Millais’s The Blind Girl and the doomladen seaside of Dyce’s Pegwell Bay inspired the look of the film.’ How is he going to get out of this contradiction? A persuasively mournful assertion concludes his book. ‘Like Robert Lowell’s translation, it was an ironic imitation of Alice in Wonderland and it is only as a travesty that it has a relationship with the original novel.’ There is no need to be so lugubrious. It was not one of those shows that get ‘dated’, in a negative sense, through being too up-to-date: the final picture in the book shows Anne-Marie Mallik stomping over the Dyce-like beach, between Malcolm Muggeridge and John Gielgud, reminding us that this charming film (positively dated 1966) might just possibly stand the Test of Time.