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.

jonathan-miller

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.

Faith… and Doubt

‘The effect of the entire creation is perhaps best measured by occasional involuntary gasps coming from the audience…’ The Stage

‘…in turns funny, knowing and profoundly sad.’ ★★★★★ Sunday Telegraph 

One of Oberon’s most recent publications is a beautiful duo of plays for one actor, written by Matthew Hurt. Believe and The Man Jesus are based on the epic stories of the Old and New Testaments, and the process of writing them forced Matthew to consider what his own belief system looked like. Though evidently inspired and moved by these biblical events, Matthew here explores the deeper question which he is always asked – ‘Are you religious?’ ‘Do you have faith?’ 

9781783192021Believe was commissioned and first performed by Linda Marlowe 9 years ago. The Man Jesus finished a UK tour just last year. Despite the gap between these two plays the idea to put them together in a volume seemed logical: Believe is drawn from stories in the Old Testament and The Man Jesus from the Gospels of the New Testament. Also, they’re both solo plays. One for a female performer, the other for a male.

On each of the separate occasions that these plays have been produced – when Linda originally performed Believe in London and Edinburgh; when Margareta Gudmundson did Believe in Sweden; and when Simon Callow toured The Man Jesus to just about every town and village in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I’ve been asked the inevitable question: are you religious? Working with Oberon to put these plays into a single volume, I found myself asking a variation of the question again:

What do I believe in?

When Linda first asked me to write something for her, she’d barely seen any of my work. What she had seen was not particularly accomplished. So, what was it that prompted her to take a chance on me – a young and untested playwright? What was it that gave Margareta the will and determination to painstakingly translate a play she’d never seen performed? What was it that Richard Croxford, the artistic director of the Lyric Theatre Belfast at the time, had in his head when he went along with Simon Callow’s suggestion that I have a go at writing a play about a subject as colossal as Jesus?

Directors, designers, lighting designers, stage managers, producers – the list of people who commit to something without knowing what that thing is runs long. So what is it, apart from the practical imperatives of needing a job, that enables everyone involved in creating new work to take a flying leap into the dark?

I think that thing is faith. Not faith between people and gods, but between people and people.

The Book Launch in St John's, Hyde Park Crescent

The Book Launch in St John’s, Hyde Park Crescent

The belief that one person can have in another person, or in a group of people, gives the other a promethean power to do something that they might not have been able to do before. Before Linda challenged me to come up with ideas for a one-woman show, I had no intention of writing anything to do with the Bible. Similarly, I’d never thought for a moment I’d one day write about the Son of God. But once these gauntlets were thrown down, I didn’t become paralysed by feelings of inadequacy. (As I might well have done – the list of dramatists, let alone artists, who’ve worked on religious subjects is intimidating.) This was neither arrogance nor naiveté on my part. What was it then?

It was a galvanising resolve somehow implanted in me through the belief that they had in my potential. They wanted me to do it. They believed I could it. I would do it. They had faith, and gave me faith. Of course, nothing is ever that easy. Doubt pricks at you. But this is exactly when the sense of expectation – or maybe the word is hope? – that is implicit in faith, takes you by the hand and sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, leads you on. And so something is created out of nothing. This is faith as creative, not destructive.

The miracles we show in The Man Jesus all come about when Jesus unlocks a mysterious capacity in those around him: infecting his followers with an ecstasy like drunkenness at the wedding in Cana, for example. Or, as Joanna, one of Jesus’ female followers, reports when he cures her of her chronic bleeding:

“He’s just within reach and I grab the back of his garment
…He turns and asks: Who touched me?
My bleeding has stopped. I know it. For the first time in
twelve years, it’s stopped.
The men around him are urging him on, but he won’t move
forward.
Somebody touched me, he insists. I felt my power go.
It was me, I say, and it’s stopped. You healed me.
I don’t know if he knows what I’m talking about.
Your trust, he says, healed you.

Jesus’ miraculous gift is that he somehow enables the ‘ordinary’ folk around him to contact something extraordinary that exists inside of them.

Similarly, the divine intervention in the four women’s stories in Believe isn’t external intervention at all. It’s an intervention proceeding from the God-like part within them. They may believe the hand of God to be at work, but what is really happening is that they stumble upon vast underground chambers in their inner worlds that they hadn’t previously known to be there. Worlds that are somehow simultaneously a part of them and yet outside of them, pre-supposing them.

Faith is the portal to this realm of the transpersonal. Without it, our numinous potential is denied. For me, this is a magical idea. You could almost say: a religious idea.

So, am I religious?

As long as we have faith in the potential for creativity in each other – and I mean creativity in its broadest sense – then I think the question “do you have faith?” is a more important one.

Matthew Hurt

Matthew Hurt

Not only do I think it’s more important, I think it’s more challenging. If you believe in God, you’re only disappointed – or not – when you take your final breath. If you choose to believe in people the risk of disappointment is constant. Rather than allow this to be a deterrent, it should be a motivation.

Towards the end of The Man Jesus, the disciple Simon Peter is fleeing Jerusalem, his life in danger because of his association with the recently executed terrorist Jesus. Throughout the play he’s been puzzled by the meaning of Jesus’ words. As he slinks back north to Galilee, the ideas that have been rattling around his mind begin to settle; finally, he starts to understand Jesus’ words as

…fighting talk – a challenge – to enter the kingdom of which he really is the Messiah. A vast landscape lit up by the sun – all the seas glowing under the moon – a kingdom inside of me.

This is how I understand the faith we can have in one another. Our belief in others can trigger something powerful, and potentially transformative, in them; allowing them access to the power of the kingdom within.

It’s a divine gift.

Believe / The Man Jesus: Two Plays, is available to buy HERE
For more on the subject, see Mark Lawson’s article on Religion on the Stage HERE