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Pity the polymath

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller - review.

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller
Kate Bassett
Oberon Books, 488pp, £20

Jonathan Miller has had an astonishing career, from Footlights and Beyond the Fringe to writing about Freud and Darwin. He wrote for the first issue of the New York Review of Books, edited the BBC arts programme Monitor and presented acclaimed television series about psychology and the history of medicine. One of the most distinguished theatre and opera directors of the past half-century, he has directed Gielgud and Olivier, John Cleese and Plácido Domingo, Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon. Peter Sellers, Alan Bennett and Michael Redgrave appeared in his 1966 TV production of Alice in Wonderland. Miller has won international acclaim, honorary fellowships and a knighthood.

He also has his critics. ITV’s Spitting Image made fun of his range of talents. In one sketch, he performed a liver transplant while simultaneously making calls to the “national opera” and managing a minicab service on the side.

What is most striking about Miller’s career is not just the achievement but the tensions between success and failure. The most fluent of conversationalists and performers, he has struggled with a stammer since his schooldays and with writer’s block through much of his adulthood. His career is full of books never completed, lectures never given, research never completed. Miller had a three-year fellowship at UCL to write a book about mesmerism, the spiritualist movement and the development of neuropsychological theories. It was never completed. “It seems,” said his lifelong friend Oliver Sacks, “that major ambivalences were involved.”

There is something manic about Miller’s creative energy. In the first seven months of 1991, he worked on six new international opera productions. At the same time, he presented two BBC series and managed to fit in a lecture tour of American colleges. And yet he has always been haunted by his father’s deep sense of underachievement. A distinguished analyst and psychiatrist, Emanuel Miller reared up on his deathbed and pronounced his last words: “I’m a flop!” Despite all the achievements in so many fields, his son has the same enduring sense of failure.

This is linked to a third tension: between Miller’s passion for medicine and science and his career in the arts. When he was interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs on Face to Face, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. Miller answered: for one worthwhile scientific article. However much he has achieved in the arts, he feels that he never made it as a great scientist. That was his true vocation, the path not taken.

All of this is documented in Kate Bassett’s new biography. She has done her research: interviewing numerous people who knew and worked with Miller, from school and university friends such as Sacks and Frederic Raphael to neighbours including Bennett and Claire Tomalin. She has read widely and, as a theatre critic, she is at home with his dramatic work. At times – and this is true of whole chapters – the book reads like a scissors-and-paste job, going from one production to another, with just the occasional anecdote to bring the cuttings to life. There are too many typos and errors and several omissions (at least three programmes I produced with Miller are missing from the chronology). The prose can be clunky and gushing.

Yet the biography’s strengths are considerable. Bassett is good on context (whether 1950s Cambridge science or Gloucester Crescent in the 1960s); she brings to life Miller’s schoolboy passion for science; she dutifully chronicles friendships and feuds and has dug up some real gems – in particular, a story by his mother’s friend, Stevie Smith – with fascinating insights into the young Miller. Bassett is thoughtful about the darker side of Miller’s life, from stammering to depression and the workaholic’s chronic fear of holidays. She is also unusually sensitive to questions about his Jewishness and his sense of being an outsider, someone immersed in Englishness but constantly drawn elsewhere.

In Two Minds is a fascinating account, bringing to life both the highs and lows of Miller’s career. Together with David Thompson’s outstanding Arena broadcast earlier this year, it reminds us of the scale of Miller’s talents. He has been one of the great figures of British culture over the past 50 years.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis