The heat-death of the universe – from Beyond the Fringe

Beyond the Fringe opened as part of the Edinburgh Festival on 22 August 1960. The earliest known performance of Jonathan Miller’s monologue below, however, was as part of Bright Periods, a revue at University College Hospital, in 1957.
The monologue is now available in One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016, a new collection of Jonathan Miller’s writing, edited by Ian Greaves. 

Some years ago, when I was rather hard up, I wanted to buy myself a new
pair of trousers – but, being rather hard up, I was quite unable to buy
myself a new pair. Until some very kind friend whispered into my earhole
that if I looked sharp about it I could get myself quite a nice second-hand
pair from the Sales Department of the London Passenger Transport Board
Lost Property. Now before I accepted this interesting offer I got involved
in a great deal of fastidious struggling with my inner soul, because I wasn’t
very keen to assume the trousers which some lunatic had taken off on a
train going eastbound towards Whitechapel.


However, after a great deal of moral contortion, I steeled myself to the
alien crutch, and made my way towards the London Passenger Transport
Board Lost Property Sales Department in Portman Square, praying as I
did so, ‘Oh God, let them be dry-cleaned when I get there.’ And when
I arrived there, you can imagine my pleasure and surprise when I found,
instead of a tumbled heap of lunatics’ trousers, a very neat heap of brand
new, bright-blue corduroy trousers. There were 400 of them! How can
anyone lose 400 pairs of trousers on a train? I mean, it’s hard enough to
lose a brown paper bag full of old orange peel when you really want to.
And anyway, 400 men wearing no trousers would attract some sort of
attention. No, it’s clearly part of a complex economic scheme on the part of the London Passenger Transport Board – a complex economic scheme
along Galbraithian or Keynesian lines, presumably. So over now to the
Economics Planning Division of the London Passenger Transport Board
Ops Room:
‘All right, men. Operation Cerulean Trouser. Now, we are going to
issue each one of you men with a brand new, bright blue pair of corduroy
trousers. Your job will be to disperse to all parts of London, to empty railway
carriages, and there to divest yourselves of these garments and leave them
in horrid little heaps on the floors of the carriages concerned. Once the
trousers have left your body, your job ends there, and I mean that! All right,
now – are there any questions? Good – now, chins up and trousers down!’

And they disperse to places far out on the reaches of the Central Line.
Places with unlikely names like Chipping Ongar; places presumably out
on the Essex marshes, totally uninhabited except for a few rather rangy
marsh birds mournfully pacing the primeval slime.
And there in the empty railway carriages they let themselves separately
and individually into the empty compartments; and then, before they
commit the final existential act of detrouserment, they do those little
personal things which people sometimes do when they think they’re alone
in railway carriages. Things like…things like smelling their own armpits.

The Beyond the Fringe gang

The Beyond the Fringe gang

It’s all part of the human condition, I suppose. Anyway, it’s quite
possible they didn’t even take their trousers off in the compartments but
made their way along the narrow corridor towards the lavatory at the end
– that wonderful little room, where there’s that marvellous unpunctuated
motto over the lavatory saying, ‘Gentlemen lift the seat.’ What exactly
does this mean? Is it a sociological description – a definition of a gentleman
which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could
be a blunt military order…or an invitation to upper-class larceny…but
anyway, willy-nilly, they strip stark naked; and then, nude – entirely
nude, nude that is except for cellular underwear (for man is born free
but everywhere is in cellular underwear) – they make their way back to
headquarters through the chilly nocturnal streets of sleeping Whitechapel
– 400 fleet-white figures in the night, their 800 horny feet pattering on
the pavements and arousing small children from their slumbers in upstairs
bedrooms. Children, who are soothed back into their sleep by their parents with the ancient words: ‘Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the
gentlemen trot by.’

The new collection One Thing and Another: Selected Writings 1954 – 2016 is published by Oberon Books and is now available to pre-order ahead of publication in March ’17. In keeping with Miller’s grasshopper mind, One Thing and Another leaps from discussions of human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, to analyses of the work of M.R. James, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Truman Capote, by way of reflections on directing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Olivier and opera.
Jonathan Miller is internationally celebrated as one of the last great public intellectuals. Read One Thing and Another to find out why.


Forty Years On – How they Made a Mess of a Miracle

Dennis Potter would have been 80 today, and in honour of the occasion here’s a rare article he wrote in October 1969 for the short-lived Mirror Magazine. It shows Potter in typically combative mood as he contemplates four decades of television since the birth of the BBC. This is exclusive to the Oberon Books blog but you can find plenty more of Potter’s thoughts on television in The Art of Invective. Our thanks go to William Ham Bevan who brought the article to light.

Mirror Magazine

11 October 1969

All television’s yesterdays… one September day in 1929, the first BBC television transmission was made using John Logie Baird’s equipment from station 2LO high on the roof of Selfridges in London. Dennis Potter, prize-winning author of the Nigel Barton plays and the controversial Son of Man, looks back on forty years.

BBC_Television_Symbol_1953If those well-heeled ladies and gentlemen shopping in Selfridges forty years ago had gone home and found tonight’s programmes awaiting them they would either clap their hands in exultation or – more likely – cower in terror behind their furniture.

For TV is both the wonder and the disgrace of our times. A magic paintbox and a dreary bore. A window on the universe and just another humdrum, pap-fed domestic appliance.

Licensed like a dog, a mad dog, it squats in the corner of the living room, a wall-eyed beast which sicks up the world on to our nylon carpets. You can put on your slippers, sink into your favourite armchair, sip a nice hot cup of tea, and watch a man being burnt to death.

Don’t choke. In a minute or two a row of teeth will smile at you, mouthing a reassuring bromide. Or you can switch channels and sweep into the sweeter world of the commercials: striped toothpaste, coloured toilet rolls and extra-mileage ingredients, the hip-hip-happy moods of what is called, by Act of Parliament, a natural break.

Every night of the week, every week of the year, the pictures go swirling by – a ship breaking its back on the rocks, a bomber dropping napalm on Asian peasants, tea with the Queen, a Hollywood cowboy sprawled on a plastic rock, spangled dancing girls, football from South America, an assassin weeping in the death cell, a pub in a Lancashire backstreet or an American hopping on the moon.

By the time you have drained your tea you can have zoomed along a quarter of a million miles, or have been bored and irritated enough to bite a chunk out of the china.9781783192038

Hey diddle-diddle, the quiz
            and the twaddle,
The telly jumps over the moon
Hughie Green laughs to see
            such fun
For the tosh runs away with
            the boon.

Our children take the technical marvels for granted. They have grown up with what used to be called, defensively, the gogglebox. They are not in the least bit astonished by the sight of a toothbrush floating in a capsule half way to the moon. As far as they are concerned, water comes out of the tap, gas out of the cooker, and pictures out of the TV set. An ordinary sort of machine. Something to pass the time when it is raining.

But years ago, on a very boozy Christmas day, I had a tipsy uncle who was so overcome by the sight of the Queen delivering her stilted seasonal message that he hiccupped, lurched forward to the set, kissed the flickering image with two resounding Christmas_broadcast_1957smacks and, unable to stop his momentum, cut his lip badly on the little table which carried the TV and Her Majesty.

‘I ne-ne-never thought I’d l-l-live to see such a thing!’ he burbled through the hilarity and the blood. It is about the only time I have seen anyone so physically moved by something pumping out of the telly.

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That’s Entertainment: Or is it?

Are we living in the age of prescriptive documentary theatre? And will it ever pass? Playwrights must always respond to the world we are compelled to live in, but what does such forensic focus do for the art of the dramatist? Do new young dramatists feel pressured to expose and explore society’s problems at the expense of their art? One might well argue that it has always been so. But has it? In 1938 Brecht’s The Life of Galileo foreshadowed the horrors of nuclear war, five years before the first atom bombs were dropped in 1943 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet this is one of Brecht’s most accessible and entertaining plays. The eloquent speech for Galileo in Scene 14 has stuck in my memory since I witnessed Michael Gambon’s towering performance in the 1980 NT production, directed by John Dexter.


‘Tartuffe’ by Moliere

Molière’s Tartuffe which Oberon publishes in fine translations by Chris Campbell and Ranjit Bolt has proved to be one of the most entertaining plays in the repertory, revived again and again, laughter echoing down the ages, but it is also regarded as the seminal play on religious zealotry and hypocrisy. Could the subject be more relevant than it is today? And why not laugh at ridiculous extremes? Stoppard, Bennett, Bean and Brenton, among others, have entertained us gloriously for decades while still having plenty to say about the world or the state of the nation. Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice took us on a riotous journey through four waves of immigration in East London since the 17th Century. The thought police whined and wailed while the rest of us laughed. Brenton & Hare’s Pravda is a thrilling piece of theatre about the power of the press, and it might well have started to erode the walls of the Murdoch court of scandal, the News of the World, which fell in 2011 like the Berlin Wall. Who would have thought it possible that theatre has such power?


‘Thark’ by Ben Travers

But there are still too many thumpingly turgid polemics playing to the converted. Worthy issues, earnestly documented, using actors as mechanical mouthpieces, rather than human characters. As John Whiting says in The Art of the Dramatist, theatre is not a public address system. Agreed, yet all too often I long to escape in the interval feeling overstuffed with noble thoughts but starved of wit, style and poetry. Oddly, it might seem, even radically minded fringe theatres are turning back the clock, well some of the time. Witness recent revivals at the Jermyn Street Theatre – The River Line (Charles Morgan 1952), On Approval (Frederick Lonsdale 1927); The Potsdam Quartet (David Pinner 1973).

'Cornelius' by J.B. Priestley

‘Cornelius’ by J.B. Priestley

The Finborough Theatre – London Wall (John van Druten 1931), Cornelius (JB Priestley 1935), Outward Bound (Sutton Vane 1923), The White Carnation (RC Sherriff 1953). In 1988 The Orange Tree produced Absolute Hell (Rodney Ackland 1952) which led to the NT and Channel 4 productions. The Almeida recently produced Ackland’s Before the Party. Even The Park, the flashy new theatre in Finsbury Park has just given us a revival of Thark (Ben Travers 1927). And these are just a few revivals published by Oberon, all now back in favour. I wonder why? Entertaining perhaps?

James Hogan, Oberon Books (November, 2013)

A revealing look at a ‘Strange Interlude’

Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 play, Strange Interlude, is one of the heavyweights of the American cannon – a Pulitzer Prize-winning, five-hour opus which spans 25 years of one woman’s life. The play’s nine acts are rarely staged in full, and indeed Simon Godwin’s new version for The National Theatre has been stripped back to a lean three hours. Despite this (relatively) fun-sized incarnation, Strange Interlude is earning serious acclaim from the critics, including 5 stars from the Telegraph‘s Charles Spencer.

The extract below introduces another critic named Charles writing from a different era. Charles Morgan was a contemporary of O’Neill’s and a much-admired playwright and novelist in his own right. He was also one of the most revered (and feared) critics of the early twentieth-century. A new book, Dramatic Critic: Selected Reviews (1922-1939), returns the spotlight to Morgan’s writings on the theatre and holds a mirror to English theatrical tastes in the inter‐war years, via some of the most influential stage plays of the 1920s and 30s. His review of Strange Interlude for The Times was first published in February 1931, and unlike his 21st century peers, Morgan was there to enjoy the full six hours…

Click the image to take a look inside Dramatic Critic, or read on below.
P.S. Get 30% off with this discount code: ONMORGAN13


Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill
Lyric Hammersmith

It is unfortunate that the “mystic premonitions” of Mr. O’Neill’s ninth act should add their weight to the sixth hour, for they are an encouragement to those who will say that five hours and more of playgoing are necessarily too many. They are not too many for the treatment of a theme that demands them, and it is right to say at once that Mr. O’Neill’s work has too much substance and challenge in it, and keeps the mind too continuously occupied, ever to become an inconvenient weariness of the flesh. He is telling the history of a woman’s emotional life from the girlhood in which her being was centred in her father, through the vicissitudes of marriage, passion and motherhood, until the late age in which, desire having failed, she reverts to the man, Charles Marsden, who has become in her mind her dead father’s representative and substitute. Nine acts are not too many for a history of the seven ages of woman.

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