Owen Hatherley quotes Betjeman’s gasp of appreciation for Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre: ‘It is a lovely work, and so good outside, which is what matters most’ (LRB, 17 November). Today few dislike the outside, or the public areas within, but many are unhappy with the main theatre spaces, the Olivier and the Lyttelton.
There have been more than eight hundred productions in the first forty years of the National. There has been much great epic theatre in these great epic spaces. But directors and actors also carry the scars of trying to raise laughs or humanise characters in productions of the rest of the repertoire in these huge auditoriums. The Olivier has 11 cubic metres per person, three times the norm for a playhouse; it is bigger than the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane which holds twice as many people. All actors now wear microphones for plays as well as for musicals. Lasdun had no acoustician on his team when he conceived the Olivier, believing that if you cut a 90° wedge from Epidaurus and added a roof, the gods would deliver the acoustics. The Lyttelton has perfect sightlines to a stage the width of Covent Garden’s. All good theatres have some seats with bad sightlines, and all theatres with perfect sightlines are lecture theatres, cinemas or the Lyttelton. Both the Olivier and the Lyttelton are for spectators rather than hearers. Neither has been emulated elsewhere.
I was lucky 43 years ago when, for Peter Hall and his associates, I conceived what was to become the Cottesloe, latterly the Dorfman, without any help from Lasdun. Into his huge abandoned void, originally intended for a studio holding two hundred, I packed an audience of twice that number on three levels. The steel galleries on the three sides were designed as a framework for freedom. Pragmatic rather than purist.
The insides of theatres have been evolving for centuries. Sometimes a form has stuck. At the start of the 19th century there were three hundred broadly similar courtyard playhouses scattered throughout the British Isles. A hundred years later the Victorian/Edwardian picture-frame proscenium theatres were universal and some still please: the RSC were happy at the Aldwych for more than twenty years, ditto the National Theatre Company for 13 at the Old Vic.
Only in the Brutalist decades did an architect cocoon in concrete his own entirely new theatre forms. Old theatre spaces constructed of brick, of lath and plaster, even of steel, can be successively remoulded. At the National directors have had to abandon any hope of shifting that most monumental of building materials, concrete, to make these spaces serve the arts of the theatre.
Brutalist architects have provided great spaces for living, for studying and for looking at paintings. But when theatre and architecture collided on the South Bank the architect thought he knew best. A central tenet of modern brutalist architecture, that the entire building must be a consistent work of art, does not hold when what happens in it is ephemeral, reflecting shifting aesthetic and social contexts. Some theatre forms survive the age of their creation but some do not. It is the inside, not the outside, that matters most.
The President and the Fairies
Tom Shippey says that ‘in Chaucer’s late medieval milieu at least – educated, metropolitan, sceptical – belief in fairies was a thing of the past’ (LRB, 1 December). But among miners, working underground with candles to light the darkness, such beliefs lasted longer. Georgius Agricola wrote De Re Metallica about metal mining in the 1550s, and was educated and sceptical (he carefully examined dowsers’ claims to be able to find ore, and dismissed them), but he completely accepted miners’ accounts of supernatural beings in the mines. ‘There are demons of ferocious aspect,’ he wrote, that could be
expelled by prayer and fasting … Then there are the gentle kind which the Germans as well as the Greeks call cobalos, because they mimic men. They appear to laugh with glee and pretend to do much, but really do nothing … They are not very dissimilar to Goblins, which occasionally appear to men when they go to or from their day’s work, or when they attend their cattle. Because they generally appear benign to men, the Germans call them guteli. Those called trulli, which take the form of women as well as men, actually enter the service of some people, especially the Suions.
The translators, Herbert Hoover (later US president) and his wife Lou, added that ‘even today  the faith in “knockers” has not entirely disappeared from Cornwall.’
Feeling Thoroughly Ill
David Bradford speaks of the ‘myth’ that lactate build-up is the cause of fatigue and pain during sustained high-intensity exercise (Letters, 3 November). True, there is disagreement among researchers about how exactly to define the point beyond which the presence of lactates in the muscles rapidly increases and athletic performance precipitately declines, and to what degree at any given moment this is more an anaerobic than an aerobic process. But anyone who has done interval training knows that this ‘threshold’ – whatever name one gives it, and however difficult it may be to ascertain theoretically or empirically – is a physiological reality. Back in the 1980s, my running mates used to call the extreme end of it the moment when ‘the bear jumped on your back.’
Emil Zátopek popularised training methods that condition an athlete’s body to hold off the bear for as long as possible. Elite middle and long-distance running times improved dramatically in the decades following. For instance, 26 years ago I ran my best ever 10 km time, a performance that would have won me a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics; in 1990 it won me fourth place in a Quebec provincial championship race.
Paul Keegan refers to Housman’s ‘unaccountable fall at the last Oxford fence’ (LRB, 17 November). It would be unaccountable if a person of Housman’s ability and knowledge had actually tried to answer the questions but failed even to get a pass. So it would seem that he did not try. And Tom Stoppard reckons he didn’t try because he could see that he wouldn’t get a First (having much neglected his preparation) and would not have it supposed that he had exerted himself without achieving excellence. There is a parallel much later in his career. He had long intended an edition of Propertius which should be definitive, but when he found that his skirmishes with John Percival Postgate did not leave him acknowledged master of the field, he gave up Propertius in favour of Manilius – a fourth-rate poet, but Housman was again saved from being seen to try without coming first. He didn’t fall, he just stopped running if he wasn’t sure of winning.
Donne was first
Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen writes that the ‘first systematic treatise devoted to the topic’ of suicide appeared in 1637, John Sym’s Lifes Preservative against Self-Killing (LRB, 17 November). It’s true that Sym’s was the first to be printed, but the first to be written was John Donne’s Biathanatos (1608), which, against Donne’s explicit instructions, was published by his son after his death.
Britain Leaves the World
Neal Ascherson may recall, as Australians do, that the UK more or less dumped Australia in favour of Europe as a trading partner, so he’s quite right in thinking that we are unlikely to embrace you again (LRB, 17 November).
Lindfield, New South Wales
I read chapters
Christian Lorentzen sneers at Donald Trump for not reading whole books, quoting a remark he made in an interview: ‘I read chapters’ (LRB, 1 December). Should Trump wish to defend himself, he might very reasonably point out that (in this respect, at least) he follows the practice of Samuel Johnson. In Boswell’s Life of Johnson we read:
Mr Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON: ‘I have looked into it.’ ‘What,’ said Elphinston, ‘have you not read it through?’ Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly: ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?’
Jesus College, Cambridge
I too was there
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memories of Igor Sats and Andrei Platonov reflect, among other things, the state of mind of many young Westerners in the years before 1968 (LRB, 1 December). This was a time of political romanticism, of dreams of revolution, but it was also marked by a great deal of ignorance and by a taboo on discussion of one of the most terrible aspects of Soviet history: the destruction of the peasantry in Ukraine as well as in other southern parts of the Soviet Union, between 1929 and 1933.
I too, as it happens, was ‘adopted’ by Igor Sats, but a little later than Fitzpatrick; I was awarded a French government scholarship to study in Moscow during the year 1970-71. I too regularly visited him in his apartment in the Arbat. Muscovite intellectuals – disillusioned and ashamed after the Red Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – had, by then, lost their last hopes of change for the better. The Sats I knew was a wounded man, full of guilt and remorse, though still able to talk with pride about his years with Lunacharsky.
I was well prepared to hear Sats’s accounts of the 1920s and 1930s, since I had already completed a dissertation on Platonov and his Dantesque novel The Foundation Pit, the Russian text of which had just been published in the West. Together we read through it, page by page. He explained the social and political context, speaking openly about the scenes of violence and veiled cruelty that Platonov evokes so precisely. He sighed deeply as he recounted moments from his own past as a young ‘activist’ who had played his part in the brutalities of forced collectivisation. ‘When I think about the things I did then …’ he said as we read the scene when Platonov’s activist deports – or ‘liquidates’ – the villagers by putting them all on a raft and sending them off downriver.
Sats was an excellent secretary, a gifted autodidact and an important witness to his time. But Fitzpatrick’s memories of him are tinted with nostalgia; my own image is of a more dramatic figure, a man who, like so many of his contemporaries, was led astray by a mixture of generosity and revolutionary enthusiasm to the point of becoming complicit in terrible crimes. Platonov – more than any other writer – found the words to embody this ambivalence.
During my time in Moscow I also became acquainted with people who had known Platonov’s close friend Vasily Grossman, who in 1942 arranged Platonov’s appointment as a war correspondent for Red Star, thus rescuing him from poverty and disgrace.
University of Paris 8
Neal Ascherson’s gloomy article about Brexit rather made me wish that Colin Kidd’s excellent review of Citizen Clem in the same issue had included Attlee’s remark to Baldwin to the effect that the intelligentsia could be trusted to take the wrong view on any subject (LRB, 17 November). The de haut en bas attitude of so many Remainers is driving many people to Brexit from sheer irritation.