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Holding up a mirror to Sir Jonathan Miller

After reading Sir Jonathan Miller selected writings, Piers Plowright finds the man of the theatre(s) ‘a very quick fox indeed’

31 August, 2017 — By Piers Plowright

Sir Jonathan Miller flanked by Susan Bullock and David Webb at Marvellous Miller, the ENO’s celebration of his work last year. Photo: Tristram Kenton

JUST don’t call him a polymath. Doctor, director, actor, mimic, presenter, lecturer, sculptor, painter, philosopher, writer, and wit, Sir Jonathan Miller doesn’t believe in the word – at least not as applied to him. Nor – even worse – does he like to be called “A Renaissance Man” – whoever he may be. If I had to describe him in one word, I’d call him a “gatherer”.

For more than 60 years this enquiring, observing, scrutinising, analysing, probing, testing man has crossed the bridge between Science and the Arts, noticed the negligible, the absurd, the surreal, and made illuminating connections in the theatre [both kinds] and opera-house, on film, TV and radio, in discussion, at the lectern, in his studio, and in print.

And a new selection of his writings – spanning his whole career and neatly edited by Ian Greaves – gives you an excellent flavour of this multiplicity.

The collection is not chronological – all the better for not being – but skips entertainingly about between the 50s and the noughties, covering, among many other things, showbiz interviews, lectures to learned societies, diaries written while rehearsing, reflections on pain, jokes, mesmerism, Alice in Wonderland, non-verbal communication and the power and meaning of mirrors.

What runs through everything is a passion for what he calls in his foreword to the book “an assortment of lifelong obsessions and passing fancies”. In fact, although Jonathan Miller long ago gave up his Jewish faith, there’s a Talmudic saying that I think describes his method rather well: “There are three things you can learn from a thief: never give up, nothing is too small, and never go back to the same place twice.”

The first two things are certainly crucially Millerian and even when he does revisit – his TV and stage productions of King Lear for instance – each approach to this craggy masterpiece is quite different.

There’s a very revealing moment in his lecture to the Californian Institute of Technology in April 1999 when he’s trying to explain to a bunch of scientists why a man fascinated by and trained in the biological sciences, medicine, and neurology should have “descended into the disreputable morass of the theatre”. It’s not as big a jump as you might think, he points out, because what really interests him in the working of the brain is when it goes wrong, allowing him to observe the oddness of human behaviour. And doing that leads him on to studying the degree of performance and illusion-creation, not just among the brain-damaged but among people who probably consider themselves perfectly sane.

His admiration of the work of the American psychologist and sociologist Erving Goffman on non-verbal communication and the way people present themselves in public has been very influential here. No one who’s seen Miller perform one of Goffman’s case-studies – “The-man-who-hails-a-taxi-which-ignores-him-and-so-has-to-pretend-he-wasn’t-really-hailing-a-taxi-but-performing-an-elaborate-adjustment-of-his-coiffure” – will forget the seriousness and the hilarity of these human actions. We are all performers.

So from neuroscience via a few wiggles into the worlds of the theatre, the opera house, TV studio, revue-stage, and lecture hall. Everything is connected in Dr Jonathan Miller’s world and thank God [or Science] he’s been willing to ignore all keep out signs and follow his “satiable curtiosity” wherever it leads him.

Isaiah Berlin’s seminal 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox takes its title from a saying by the 7th-century BC Greek philosopher, Archilochus:

A fox knows many things; a hedgehog knows one important thing and applies it both to Tolstoy’s theory of history and to many important creative writers and thinkers, dividing them into pricklies or bushy-tailers.

Jonathan Miller, in my opinion, is a very quick fox indeed.

One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954-2016. By Jonathan Miller, edited by Ian Greaves, Oberon Books, £20.

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