But they were an artificial supergroup of funny guys from Oxford and Cambridge assembled by the official Edinburgh Festival to compete with its unofficial fringe festival comedies. They were such a hit they moved on to a commercial gig in London, and then to New York. After their Broadway success they disbanded, but while Bennett cultivated a career as a playwright, the other three stayed in the public eye throughout the 60s. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were the most visible, on British TV and a few Hollywood films (notably Bedazzled.) Miller was studying medicine, but kept get invitations to direct plays, TV shows and movies.
The Body in Question, Miller's series carried in the US on PBS stations about the history of medicine, was one of the programs of the golden age for such stimulating series that included Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, the James Burke programs, Robert Hughes' The Art of the New, Ronald Harwood's theatre history All the World's A Stage, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Probably the last were produced by Bill Moyers into the 1990s. All of these were as important to my mental nourishment, sense of self, and my sanity.
While I was aware of Miller as producer and director of several Shakespeare plays for the BBC project of filming all of them, and I'd heard him talk about at least one of them, it was years later in California when I was writing regularly about theatre that I watched tapes of these productions provided by the Humboldt University library. It was then that I read with great interest his 1986 book Subsequent Performances, about approaching new productions of classic plays. Even more recently I caught up with his provocative 1960s television adaptation--or reimagining--of Alice in Wonderland on DVD.
|directing Alice in Wonderland|
As a director, producer and administrator of the Old Vic, he brought a fearless originality to his theatrical productions, while at the same time endearing himself to the people he worked with--particularly actors--with his humor, encouragement and respect for their own creativity. Though he was the victim of clueless criticism, he got good notices as well. Many of his theatre productions were hits with audiences, and several of his opera productions ran for decades. Though I probably would not have agreed with some of his interpretations, they were dazzling in their daring and internal consistency.
Early in his directing career he mounted new plays and adaptations, with authors generally enthusiastic about his approach. Even when he tended to stay with older works and favored Shakespeare and Chekhov in particular, he also rediscovered older plays seldom done on the modern stage, and brought a range of European plays to the British mainstream, particularly when he ran the Old Vic.
|directing John Cleese in BBC Taming of the Shrew|
He used his experience as a doctor observing everything about a patient to collect small human gestures which he suggested to his actors. To the madness of Lear and other characters, he brought medical knowledge of how disorder or old age are expressed in concrete behavior.
|Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins in|
Miller's BBC-TV Othello
Some changed how many plays are now approached. For example, after his working class Iago (Bob Hoskins), no production of Othello can ignore the precedent. He made the racial components of Othello and The Merchant of Venice more realistic by softening the apparent differences, while revealing and sharpening racial divides in The Tempest--also an interpretation no subsequent production can ignore.
He enlivened classics like Hamlet and Lear and several Chekhov plays partly by emphasizing characters that are usually played as minor, such as Claudius in Hamlet. He approached opera as another kind of play, bringing new interest to audiences.
He wrote this to explain his conflict at the National when Peter Hall took over. He felt Hall (who I praise in an earlier memorial post) was too pretentious about the role of theatre. He had enjoyed the National in the early years, when he worked closely with Lawrence Olivier, who he greatly admired.
In A Profile of Jonathan Miller, a notable number of actors and producers name Tyrone Guthrie as Miller’s closest resemblance in directorial style. In addition to his humor, they often mentioned his warmth with actors, inventiveness and keen eye for behavior. He began productions with a strong sense of time and place, and with a visual style selected, but collaborated closely with designers and actors to produce effects that worked for them, the audience and the show.
Miller’s work in directing opera transformed opera productions down to the present. Robert Brustein claims that Miller’s direction of Robert Lowell’s Old Glory transformed American theatre. “Alot of stage directors...know only about the theatre and not too much about anything else,” observed opera orchestra conductor Kent Nagano. “Jonathan knows about everything.” In addition to his knowledge and intelligence, Nagano adds, “That’s what he brings into his productions—a sense of everyday life.”
Miller directed tragedy, and in every play he looked for the irony.Whether or not it is a tragic irony, in the 1980s Miller helped found the UK's Alzheimer's Society and was an its president for many years, using his skills and presence to bring attention to the previously obscure disease. In 2019 he himself succumbed to it. His mother died relatively young of early onset Alzheimer's, but Jonathan Miller, who once said he would be satisfied with living 80 years, made it to 85. May he rest in peace. His work lives on.