Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Alan Bennett

In Part Four of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews playwright and actor Alan Bennett. 

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett, 1934–

He has become part of the (quintessentially English) family, a familiar face, a national institution, adjectival: ‘Very Alan Bennett,’ people say. I interviewed him in the basement kitchen of my house. He wasn’t at his happiest when talking about his own work. He’s revealed a ‘self’ in his plays and his diaries, but when he was sitting in my kitchen uneasily facing the prospect of an interrogation, the ‘self’ couldn’t be disguised as a fictional persona. But he rallied generously and answered my questions with a practised ease.

What were your earliest experiences of theatre? When I was a boy in Leeds I used to go every Saturday matinée and see whatever it was that was on offer. Nowadays that would mean very little, because I think it’s mostly opera now and plays don’t tour in the way they did. But in those days you would get West End plays with their original cast coming round after their West End production. I saw a very peculiar collection of plays there. Of course, in my mind they weren’t distinguished one from the other; they were just things that turned up at the Grand every Saturday afternoon. They were all mixed together in my mind. I didn’t see them as school of this or school of that. They were just plays. I saw some Shakespeare, plays like Black Chiffon with Flora Robson, Daphne Laureola with Edith Evans, a play about a Labour colonial Governor with Eric Portman, His Excellency. And then I began to see plays like Waiting for Godot.

What impression did that make?
I didn’t find it at all mystifying, and I didn’t find it so plotless. I may have found it a bit dull, but then I often found plays dull. I found it quite funny as well.

But did you have any sense that it was a play about post-war Europe?
I was too young probably to think in those terms then. I just thought it was a play about very peculiar people, but then so was Black Chiffon in my view. They weren’t like people I knew.

In the fifties were you at all conscious of the Holocaust and the Bomb?
I remember in August 1945, when we were living in Guildford very briefly, coming back with the Evening News and reading about the first atomic bomb. And also in Guildford I saw the terrible newsreels not of Auschwitz, of Dachau, because I can remember it went up on the screen that children should be taken out of the cinema. And the trouble was in those days you had to queue for the cinema so long that nobody left—they didn’t want to lose their seats. So I saw that. But in a way the consciousness both of the Bomb and of the Holocaust occurred in a way ten, fifteen years after they happened. CND and so on. I once or twice went on CND marches.

When writing your plays, do you simply follow your nose with subject matter?
It seems to me what happens is that you’ve got something that niggles you, you’ve got something that you can’t resolve. In Forty Years On I think it was knowing that I was very conservative with a small ‘c’ and radical in other ways—knowing that these two feelings and concerns existed and not being able to reconcile them. And the play is an attempt to reconcile them. It’s also an attempt to write a funny play about a school. The plays about spies, I suppose, are an attempt to settle my ambiguous feelings about England. Of affection and identification, but at the same time feeling alienated from it. Every play I’ve written seems to me slightly to the side of the play I wanted to write. Maybe if you ever wrote a play that you actually intended to write then you won’t write any more plays. I always think that about The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s an absolutely perfect play, and I know it was Wilde’s last play because of the circumstances, but I think it probably would have been his last play anyway. Most plays are nearly completed circles and the production completes the circle, makes it a whole. The Importance of Being Earnest is completed there on the page; there’s nothing much you can do with it. It’s a wonderful play and absolutely perfect, but for that reason I think it marks the end of his artistic endeavour.

The thing that all your plays have in common is a view about class as the sort of engine of English society. Have you always felt that you’re imprisoned in it?
It’s never bothered me, I don’t long for a classless society. Since my strength is in dialogue, in the sense of hearing the cadences of people’s speech and so on, which is ineluctably bound up with class, you can’t separate the two. Of course, it would be disastrous if everything were flattened out. It used to bother me when I was younger; I’m still very awkward for some reason in the presence of the aristocracy—they reduce me to being seventeen again—but it’s not out of any undue respect for them. [laughs] I don’t know, but there’s something goes wrong there. But class doesn’t really bother me. I’m not a crusader anyway, but it’s not something that I’d want to see the end of. I can’t see how somebody of my generation writes as if one were outside it.

What did the 1945 election mean to you in the fifties? Did you have a sense that life was going to get better?
I was a terrible Tory when I was young. I was awful: conformist and censorious and full of religiosity. I was an awful youth, looking back. But I look back to the period 1945–51 as a kind of golden age. It’s absurd to say that, because it was the most drab and austere period. There was no colour in the world really, and there was no choice in the shops. Life seemed to be very simple then, and people very innocent. Again and again I find that period crops up. The pictures I like are often pictures from the late forties. And then, of course, at the end of the decade there’s this wonderful explosion of the Festival of Britain, when suddenly there was colour and design, and you thought that this was a vision of what the world was going to be like, when it wasn’t quite, of course. But it occurs in Getting On, my second play, where there’s a long speech about what life was like then and about the making of the Health Service. It’s deeply nostalgic, but it is something that I do feel strongly about.

What is it about theatre that attracts you?
I suppose I go to the theatre thinking anything may happen. I mean, quite apart from the play, somebody might collapse on the stage. I know that seems frivolous, but I think that’s an element in what an audience is there for—the possibility of disaster. And the possibility of triumph as well, but it’s the uncertainty. Having performed, I know the sheer terror of it: it is quite a perilous proceeding. If you’re in an audience and something goes wrong on the stage—you know, somebody dries, say, or whatever—the audience is like a cat suddenly seeing a bird: it’s on to it. There’s a huge tension in the auditorium. Quite frightening. I do think of an audience as slightly like a wild beast.

What is it that draws you to writing for the theatre?
I suppose it’s writing dialogue—I mean, plots are far harder to write for me than dialogue. And if you’re writing dialogue then obviously—unless you want to write like Henry Green, say, and write novels entirely in dialogue—you’re drawn to the theatre or to television. It’s as simple as that, really.

Is it also that whatever you do in the theatre it can’t be abstracted? There’s always going to be a human being.
There has to be a human being from my point of view, because they talk, and talk is what I’m interested in, and talk is what I deal in. It seems to me, when you talk about the future of the theatre and so on, it has a future so long as somebody’s going into a room and sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and trying to write lines that somebody else is going to say.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Alan Bennett. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW for the final installment in our week-long ‘Talking Theatre special’. Tomorrow’s post will feature celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim pondering ‘the death of the book musical’…

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Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with John Gielgud

John Gielgud

John Gielgud, 1904—2000

Part Two of our week-long Talking Theatre Special is an extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with the late John Gielgud.

Actor and director John Gielgud performed all the major Shakespeare roles, and was instrumental in introducing Chekhov to English audiences. In later life he acted in plays by Alan Bennett, Charles Wood, David Storey and Harold Pinter. I interviewed him on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, well before the start of filming the rest of the interviews—‘in case I drop off the twig,’ as he put it. He seemed then—the summer of 1998—to be eternal. He warned me that he was ‘just an actor’ who’d never had an idea in his head, which was typically self-deprecating. No one could have mistaken Gielgud for an intellectual, but although his conversation was showered with actorly anecdotes, it was impossible to discount his mercurial intelligence and his extraordinary recall of theatre history, even if life outside the theatre had passed him by.

What was the theatre like that you encountered as a child?

Well, it was very much a theatre of stars. Actor-managers were beginning to die out, but I looked for the big names on the marquee, so I got to know the theatre very well because I stood in the pit and gallery and went whenever I could; my parents were very long suffering. They both went to the theatre quite a lot, but they were never in the theatre, although my mother had strong links with all her Terry relations [Gielgud’s great aunt, Dame Ellen Terry, was the leading Shakespearean actress of her times]. I was fearfully lucky because from the very beginning I got my first jobs through personal introductions and so I never had to sort of stand in the queue to get work. I was earning seven or eight pounds a week from quite early times, and I got scholarships at two dramatic schools, so I didn’t have to pay fees, I didn’t cost my parents anything, and I lived at home. I really had a very easy time those first ten or twelve years, and I learned a bit of hard work.

What did you think of what you saw in the theatre in those days?

I didn’t think then what acting really was like. I loved spectacle and I was immediately taken in by colour and groupings, and the childhood drama of the curtain going up and the lights going down, which would vanish from the scene in years to come. I think that it was spectacle and romance and love scenes and people waving capes and looking out over balconies and things that appealed to me so much.

What was the social mix in the audience?

It was very much divided.

Upper-middle-class?

Very much. I mean, the stalls and dress circle were the middle-class and aristocratic public, and then there was the upper circle and the pit and gallery, which were the cheap parts, which hissed and booed or applauded on the first night and were very important for the commercial success. And there were enormous commercial successes: plays that ran a year. And things like Chu Chin Chow that ran three and four years.

Did you see Chu Chin Chow?

Yes, I never stopped seeing it.

The theatre at that time wasn’t was all light comedy, was it? It was also the age of Ibsen and Shaw.

Yes. I was in great difficulty because all my life I’ve been so stupid and flippant. I never cared to think of what was going on in the world or in the two wars, which I in a way lived through. But I had such a childlike adoration of the theatre and of actors and actresses and the ones I met in my parents’ house. My own relations were all very exciting to me and they lived this make-believe world. But when it came to Ibsen and Shaw I rather jibbed; I hadn’t got the appetite for dialogue and I found them very talky. I never got over that. I never have got over it. I’ve never really liked plays that are entirely talk.

You and Olivier must have been fiercely competitive at the time when you first worked together.

I was by then just becoming a leading man; my name was bigger than his, and without knowing it—we were very friendly, always, we got on extremely well—I had a feeling that he rather thought I was showing off, which indeed I was.

Well, he probably was as well.

Yes, but his showing-off was always so dazzling. [chuckles] My showing off was more technical and was more soft and, oh… effeminate, I suppose.

I’m surprised you say that because I would have characterised it the other way round, that his showing-off always seemed to me to be ahead of his interest in playing the truth of a character.

Well, I think his great performances were mostly comedy. I was never so impressed by his Oedipus or the Othello, which were two of his greatest successes. But I was enormously impressed by The Dance of Death and by Hotspur and Shallow and Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic], and Richard III of course. And I loved working with him, the little that I did. But I always thought he went behind my back and directed the actors his way. When he played Malvolio for me at Stratford with Vivien Leigh as Viola, I was certain that he’d gone away and told her how he thought it ought to be played and that she was torn between the two characters trying to work with her.

Did you feel hurt when the National Theatre started and Olivier didn’t bring you into the company initially—and then only asked you to do Oedipus with Peter Brook?

Yes, I was a bit hurt, but I always had so many other sorts of offers. I’m not, funnily enough, very jealous, I never have been. I had great ambitions but I was never jealous. And I was always surprised to find that some actors were very jealous.

When the new National Theatre started, Peter Hall took you into the company.

Yes, but he gave me a very flat year—Julius Caesar and that old part in Volpone—so I really had no fun at all. I hated the National Theatre building: I hated that feeling of being in a sort of airport. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s like a nursing home. [laughs]

It’s hard for us to believe that there was ever a time when Shakespeare wasn’t very popular, in the same way it’s hard to imagine there was a time when Mozart wasn’t very popular.

It wasn’t till John Barrymore came from America and did Hamlet with a complete English cast—except for two characters, I think—that suddenly it was box-office.

You did the film of  Julius Caesar directed by Joe Mankiewicz, which I admire enormously. Do you regard that as a successful translation of Shakespeare to the screen?

I think it’s one of the best. I saw it again after many years. It isn’t bad at all, except for the last part of the battle, which was done for tuppence in the last two to three days. But the main part of the film I enjoyed very much, and they were all very sweet to me. I got on excellently with Brando and with Mankiewicz, and the girls were very charming, and it was very exciting to be in Hollywood and see all the stars and I made quite a lot of money, and it was a new experience altogether.

Did you help Brando with his performance?

One day I did. He only had one scene in which I appeared with him. We worked on that one day, and he said: ‘What did you think of my performance?’ And I said: ‘I don’t want to discuss it.’ And he said: ‘Oh.’ ‘Let me think about it,’ I said. The next week I wasn’t working, and they came to me and said Brando had just done the speech over Caesar’s body and ‘It’s so wonderful you must come and see the rushes.’ So I went and saw them, and I didn’t like what I saw at all, but I naturally didn’t say so. But he then said, would I help him with the speeches in the scene we had together. And so I did. I didn’t know he was really listening, but the next morning he’d put in all the things that I’d suggested to him immediately. He was bright as a button. But I would have loved to have worked with him over some of the rest of it. They were all so pleased with him, but naturally I didn’t interfere. I didn’t want them to think I was teaching them how to speak Shakespeare.

What’s always struck me about the way you speak Shakespeare is that you always let the meaning lead.

You’ve got to be awfully sure of your material. I’ve found a great deal of Shakespeare very hard to follow and very difficult to act. But if a part appealed to me pictorially then I immediately grabbed it and that was all. I’ve never lost my very childish attitude towards the theatre, which is so-called make-believe romance, or pretending to be somebody else and having people round me who were also in the same kind of dream world.

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with John Gielgud. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to visit the NHB blog EVERY DAY this week for more exclusive extracts from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People! Don’t miss tomorrow’s post featuring experimental theatre impresario Peter Brook – on why theatre is so important to the English.

Richard Eyre on TALKING THEATRE: Interviews with Theatre People

Richard EyreTo celebrate the new paperback edition of Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre – his superlative account of how theatre is made, in the words of the very people who make it – we will be posting exclusive extracts from the book here on the NHB blog. Come back on Monday to find out what John Gielgud thought about working with Brando on Mankiewicz’s celebrated film of Julius Caesar. Then on Tuesday we’ll hear from Peter Brook about why theatre is so important to the English. Later in the week there will be posts from Fiona Shaw, Alan Bennett and Stephen Sondheim – all talking candidly about some of the most important productions and performances in the theatre of recent times. Here, as a prologue to next week’s special feature, Richard Eyre introduces the book, and explains why he thinks theatre remains essential and distinct from other forms of performance.

I started going to the theatre when I was eighteen, in the early sixties. The start of my theatregoing coincided with a period of extraordinary theatrical energy and invention. I saw the work of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, the Royal Court in its most fertile years, the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall in Stratford, and the newly formed National Theatre under Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic; Oh! What a Lovely War and The Wars of the Roses; Scofield’s Lear and Olivier’s Othello; the young Maggie Smith, the young Albert Finney, the young Vanessa Redgrave, the young Judi Dench, the young Ian Holm, the young Ian McKellen, the even younger Michael Gambon; the older Richardson, Gielgud, Guinness, Ashcroft, even Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike; the plays of Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, David Storey, Peter Nichols, Charles Wood and Tom Stoppard—with Kenneth Tynan presiding over it all as a mercurial judge and godfather.

What I liked about the theatre then and what I like about it now is its ‘theatreness’, the properties that make it distinct from any other medium—its use of time, of space, of light, of speech, of music, of movement, of storytelling. Theatre is intrinsically poetic, it thrives on metaphor—a room becomes a world and a group of characters becomes a whole society. It conscripts the imagination of the audience to transform the obvious unreality of costumed actors standing on a stage saying things they’ve said to each other many times into something that is both real and truthful. Theatre insists on the present tense—there’s a sense of occasion and of being part of a community in any theatre performance. We go into a theatre as individuals and we emerge as an audience. Above all, theatre can never dissolve its reliance on the scale of the human figure and the sound of the human voice.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

In 1997, shortly before I left the directorship of the National Theatre, I was asked by Andrea Miller (the producer) and Mark Thompson (then Controller of BBC 2) to write and present a six-part television series for the BBC and PBS on the history of twentieth-century British theatre. The series was christened Changing Stages and was broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Millennium Project’ in 2000. The programmes were composed of archive footage, pieces to camera, documentary film and, most importantly, interviews with people who had played a significant part in making and influencing the theatre of the previous half-century in Britain, with occasional glimpses across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic beyond. If there were omissions it wasn’t because there was a host of people who refused to be interviewed: almost all the people we asked agreed to talk to me on camera. The most notable refusal was from Marlon Brando, who sang down the phone from Los Angeles to the Glaswegian producer, Andrea Miller:

Just a wee deoch an doris, just a wee drop, that’s all.
Just a wee deoch an doris afore ye gang awa.
There’s a wee wifie waitin’ in a wee but an ben.
If you can say, ‘It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht’,
Then yer a’richt, ye ken.

While he was enthusiastic to sing and discuss the work of Harry Lauder and the plight of the American Indian, he told her that he would rather do anything in the world than talk about acting.

A friend of mine once rashly invited Paul Scofield to give a lecture on acting. He wrote this in response:

I have found that an actor’s work has life and interest only in its execution. It seems to wither away in discussion, and become emptily theoretical and insubstantial. It has no rules (except perhaps audibility). With every play and every playwright the actor starts from scratch, as if he or she knows nothing and proceeds to learn afresh every time—growing with the relationships of the characters and the insights of the writer. When the play has finished its run he’s empty until the next time. And it’s the emptiness which is, I find, apparent in any discussion of theatre work.

I hope Talking Theatre proves him wrong.

Don’t miss reading exclusive extracts from five of the interviews published in the book, publishing everyday next week!

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.