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The Untold Sixties: When Hope Was Born

An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale

NOTE: The material in this section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon
his large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.

Inside the English Theatre World
1965--67, (from chapter 5)

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Since  this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.

In the spring of 1965, shortly after my piece on Dürrenmatt had been published, I got the idea for a play which was to cause me as much pain and pleasure combined as anything I have ever written. Though it was never to be performed, it was to make me the talk of the theatre world in several countries and led directly to my receiving my fellowship in Berlin. Basically, it was a play about political assassinations, a theme then at its peak of topicality. It was controversial because it proceeded from a thesis I still subscribe to, one based on profound principles of eastern thought, namely that violence in general, or even any single act of violence, cannot be assigned to any one political persuasionwhether on the left or the rightbut rather to the uncontrolled passions of both sides which eventually lead to confrontation.

I explored this explosive concept at a time when all of us were trying to grasp the meaning of the first Kennedy assassination, before the many facts and interpretations which have since engulfed us were available. I wrote the work from the point of view of the left trying to understand its own motivations and responsibilities at a time when many still held it likely that Oswald was a lone assassin connected with the left. Since then my own view of these eventsand everyone else'shas gone through so many permutations that it is almost impossible to recognize, through all the lies, cover-ups investigations, and preconceived notions, where the actual truth may lie. Even leaving the play's theme aside, it was an extremely powerful piece of theatre in pure terms of stage movement and action, and although I have since approached this in another play, I have never equaled it.

I had the play finished by June of 1965 and had begun submitting it, but no one acquainted with the theatre will be surprised to learn that it was slow to catch fire. In fact, as the summer dragged on and no word was forthcoming from any theatre, Ilene and I again discussed returning to America. We had now been in England almost two years, which with our previous two years in Italy made four years away from the States. Ilene's paintings were selling better than ever, but she was still getting only survival prices compared to those we felt sure they would fetch in America. In fact we had talked the Portal Gallery, where she showed, into arranging an exhibit for her in New York the coming autumn, and we were playing with the idea of going back to attend it, of possibly even remaining there.

We were also beginning to become a trifle bored with our circle of acquaintances in London. We felt, like spoiled children perhaps, that our lives were just not sufficiently interesting, that there just wasn't that much going on in England, in spite of our continuing visits to the theatre. Or that if something was happening, then we had failed to find it. Our own work was steadily improving, and we had both keyed ourselves up to an edge of excitement where we felt we had to break through to some new level of recognition, or we would just give up in disgust. We lamented that we really only had each other to share the intensity of our interest and felt that somewhere in the city there must be people alive with the same level of excitement we were more and more beginning to associate nostalgically with New York rather than London. If there was an arrogance in our attitudes, it was no doubt of the type that centers like New York and London tend to nurture in at least some of their citizens.

One day towards the end of August our phone rang. The voice at the other end claimed it belonged to Jeremy Brooks of the Royal Shakespeare. I had never spoken to Jeremy before, and I listened carefully as he explained that the Company had a desperate emergency which only I could help them with. He seemed somewhat on edge as he told me that the Royal Shakespeare wanted to take part in an international theatre event on October 19, when theatres throughout East and West Germany and in Holland and Italy would simultaneously premiere the new work by Peter Weiss, author of the Marat/Sade.

It was a play taken from trial testimony of concentration camp guards and officials, entitled The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos. The main problem, he told me, was that they had no translation, and the job had to be done within three weeks to allow time for possible revisions before rehearsals for a staged reading. Peter Brook would be directing and was in despair over the problem of finding a translator in time. Brooks told me he realized this was a staggering demand to make on any writer, but he honestly knew of no one else in London who could possibly do the job, and did I think I could conceivably get it done within the deadline, perhaps even a few days sooner, if possible?

I replied that three weeks ought to be more than ample for a rough translation, knowing perfectly well that the new writing skills I had gained and the understanding of translation problems I had recently acquired from a then little-known book by Vinay & Darbelnet had allowed me to do my first draft of the Dürrenmatt in only three or four days. It occurred to me that one of my friends, knowing of my love for the RSC and particularly for. Brook's production of the Marat/Sade, might be trying to hoax me, and I began to listen for any sign of this. To my surprise the voice began to give precise directions as to where I could pick up the script. It was somewhere in the north of London, and Ilene volunteered to go off and fetch it so that I would be as fresh as possible and could start the job that very evening.

Before I knew it, Ilene had returned bearing the book. I was somewhat dismayed to find that the play was at least twice as long as the Dürrenmatt, but I set myself to work. I have already given my impressions of this work and the effect it had on me in my first chapter on Berlin (and my dramaturgical notes for this play are included on this website). I will therefore limit myself to saying that I completed the rough translation, polished its first two sections into a second draft, and appended an introductory essay and numerous notes, handing the whole thing in after ten days. I was of course aware that I would be creating a good impression of myself by doing this, but I was scarcely prepared for the awe my feat aroused at the Shakespeare.

As a result of that one phone call, my life took on an edge of excitement which it has retained to until this very day. To describe in detail what happened next after I finished my translation would be needlessly complicated, and even to simplify it would be to tread into the territory of resumé-writing or mere name-dropping (and the basics about the play are in any case covered in the section containing the dramaturgical notes). I can perhaps best sum it up this way: a few days before the phone call I was lamenting that I would never meet any "interesting" people, yet a few weeks afterwards I was already meeting more than I could possibly cope with. I was even beginning to entertain intermittent doubts as to the worthiness of my ambitions.

And this heightened pace was to continue, with a few gaps, for the next year at which time life became even more exciting when I left London for Berlin. But I still had a whole year ahead of me in London, a year in which I could conceivably, through my new-found acquaintances, have catapulted myself to the heights of "success" in the English cultural world, if this had been my aim. But my goals, to the extent that I had any precise ones, had been determined by forces much larger than anything so petty as my own personal success or failure. And I certainly do not think I could have realized, in any case, how fragile the whole fabric of English culture then was, including its very pinnacle, on whose rim I now stood, doing my best to keep my balance.

At the Front in British Class Warfare
London, 1965-66, (From Chapter 10)

Within a day or two of the first performance of my translation of The Investigation, I found myself with a London agent. This was Dr. Suzanne Czech, a wiry little white-haired lady born in Austria, who not only admired my translations from her native language but swore to me with fire in her eyes that my own latest play was one of the most powerful pieces of writing ever done for the theatre. Although the American translation rights for the Weiss work had already been reserved by Ulu Grosbard, my own "English" version was soon to be performed on BBC radio and commercial English television and premièred in Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. This not only kept my name in circulation that fall but brought me more money than I had ever before seen from all my writing put together.

If I was feeling the least bit heady or exultant over this, it did not last long, as there was plenty to bring me down. The world of "successful" theatre people, far from being populated with elegant, eloquent souls indulging in noble discourse on the highest themes, as I might have imagined in my more romantic moments, seemed to be merely another level of the business and cultural jungle, populated by sleek, ravenous beasts ready to make a meal of each other.

While any romance I might have entertained about this world was tempered with at least some realism, I had nonetheless supposed that most of the people in the London theatre world knew each other fairly well and respected one another. I was soon to learn that this was very far from being the case. In fact, except on the very highest level, very few people who worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company had even met anyone working for the equally renowned Royal Court Theatre or for the emerging National Theatre. Not only did they not know each other, they often hated each other's guts.

On almost my first meeting with the Shakespeare's literary manager, Jeremy Brooks, he had parried my question about whether the company would be able to consider doing my own play with his own request. He asked me to sign a petition to save the Royal Shakespeare from what he regarded as its imminent destruction and told me that if I did not sign, the company might never be able to produce any modern play again.

What had happened was that the National Theatre was just starting its first year, and there were rumors that the Arts Council of Great Britain had decided to provide no further funds to the older company for its London theatre (though they would continue to finance the Shakespearean productions in Stratford) on the grounds that the new National Theatre would be taking over their London function. Although the RSC was best known at home and abroad for their Stratford productions, they had already for several years been doing productions of both Shakespeare and the modern classics, extending down to the most contemporary, at the Aldwych Theatre in London. In fact, some critics had commented that their main passion seemed to be for producing modern plays, and that they had continued putting on Shakespeare merely as an excuse to mount the more modern pieces.

Actually, the controversy was much more heated than this simple description conveys and went deep into the class warfare so bitterly consuming England. Until Peter Brook and Peter Hall had come along and taken over the production of Shakespeare at Stratford, most English productions of the bard had been long-winded, predictable readings of the plays, using dated sets, poor lighting, and heavy-handed direction. Shakespeare had become a showcase for ham actors wallowing in the sacred words, while audiences drowsed as they waited for the immortal lines to come along.

Brook and Hall had set English audiences on the edges of their seats by using adventurous sets and costumes, modern music, and lighting techniques brought in from America. They had employed these effects, new for England, to make the plays seem more relevant to current conditions and had also, in the case of the longer historical sequences, taken certain liberties with the texts. This had horrified purists, but it had created a new audience for Shakespeare and enlivened much of the old one.

But even this account, based on purely theatrical principles, was not the real reason a number of people had it in for the Royal Shakespeare. The real reason, as I was to discover for myself, was far less related to anything having to do with the theatre and far more connected to much baser motives. For the real reason that some people were out to axe the Shakespeare was that Peter Brook was a Jew and Peter Hall was of lower class origins. Furthermore, their literary manager Jeremy was a garrulous Welshman, as was Peter Brook's chief protegé David Jones, and another of their top assistants, Michael Kustow, was also a Jew, as was their casting director, Gillian Diamond. And to add insult to injury, they were now actually looking for some slight assistance to an American, namely myself.

That the cultural hegemony of England's fair and sceptered isle should be in the hands of an assortment of Jews, Welshmen, and low-grade foreign adventurers was more than many could tolerate. It was no doubt these attitudes which played a considerable part in the foundation of a "national" theatre at a time when the Old Vic was fading and the Royal Shakespeare had already attained considerable international fame and might have been expected to move into this role itself.

The prejudice against Peter Hall for his "lower-class" origins was an open secret in London. Or rather it wasn't even a secret, since there was really no trick to discovering it. At the mere mention of his name among anyone remotely informed about the theatre, one would regularly and predictably hear the comment that Hall's father had been a railway clerk (clerk rhyming with "lark," of course). At first I was taken aback when I heard this, as I could not imagine what light Hall's father's work could shed on his son's directorial abilities. I soon learned that I was expected to make some sort of comment on this, however, and I would usually make do with a properly obscure English murmur, indicating I knew what the other person meant

Then, if the speaker were a liberal, I would be told that it was a proof of how far Britain had come, and how free from class prejudice we all now were that the son of a railway clerk, could head a theatre that produced Shakespeare. Occasionally I would try to tell these "liberals" that if they were really free from class prejudice, they would never have dreamt of mentioning any of this and that this sort of thing rarely occurred in America, but I would draw only a blank stare of incomprehension for my pains.

Alternately, if the person were a Tory (and this was a good deal rarer in my circles), I would be told what a scandal it was that a mere worker's son should be allowed such a position. What I was really hearing was a continuation of the conversation I had about "meritocracy" with my friend at the British Council in Florence. As incredible as it may seem to those accustomed to regard the English as a model of fairness and good sense, the implications of Peter Hall's father having been a railway clerk seemed to be one of the burning issues in London's intellectual world during the Sixties. I assume all of this has changed now, but for all I know it may still be discussed in some circles.

In this context, it was not surprising that very little was done to "popularize" culture in England at that time. True, the lower classes had their own traditional pastimes of darts, dog races, and the pub, but since the passing of music hall there had never been a more generalized "popular" culture in Britainsupposedly, this was only a vulgar American phenomenon. Such attempts as were to be made from on high during the early Sixties to "reach the masses" were on the whole heavy-handed, condescending, and fairly risible. The counter-culture was to prove more successful in breaking through this barrier, but even here the victory was not an absolute one.

We are so accustomed in this country to viewing the English class conflict as something distant and unreal, as no more than an episode in operettas ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan to My Fair Lady, that it may be hard for some Americans to visualize how bitter a struggle it really wasand perhaps still is. The English "public" (meaning private) schools continued to pump out products to rule the "Empire" decades after it collapsed, while the vast majority of youth had their life destinies sealed for them by comprehensive exams they took at age eleven. It was almost impossible to break out of either pigeon-hole. Many letters in the English underground press were soon to reveal the guilt and tension this "streaming" of students was creating, for the system had ceased to serve the interests of either upper or lower classes.

Peter Hall was so gifted a director and administrator that he was able to keep afloat amidst these controversies caused by class and was even eventually to take over the National Theatre. Peter Brook was slightly more self-destructive, and I suspect his story may have something to do with the problems of being a Jew in modern England. That these problems were acute I had no doubt long before I first came to England, simply from my experiences with my own half-brother and half-sister. I had seen them both completely deny their Judaism, even though they were like myself half-jewish by the same father. This did not disturb me terribly, as I had never thought of myself as a practicing Jew and had in fact been raised as a Christian. Or so I explained it to myself at the time.

What did disturb me was that I found that neither one was prepared to discuss their jewishness or even admit it existed. They had if anything gone entirely in the other direction and done everything they could in their habits and appearance to ape the manners, speech, and thought patterns of the gentile majority. This even included indulging in gratuitous anti-semitic remarks. It was not for me to judge them, and I realized I was dealing with not only another nationality but another generation, but I was nonetheless horrified by the contortions their Englishness had forced them to perform with respect to their Jewishness.

During the next year I got to know Peter Brook fairly well. I had the deepest respect for his work and had when younger sat through his film of The Beggars' Opera many times, savoring the clever effects and delighting in the color and movement of the final scene. And I have already described my feelings about the Marat/Sade. But if I came to him at first in an attitude of reverence, it did not take me long to discover feet of clay. Peter was trying to play every side of the theatre world at once, from highest establishment to wildest and most radical experimentalist, and the mixture didn't always gel. His was a strange career in many ways, in that he started at the top almost before he left university and directed a long series of commercially successful productions in London and New York. Only after reaching forty did he develop a taste for the experimental, the outré, some would say the totally weird. When I met him, he had just reached the turning point from being a widely hailed, major director commanding broad audience appeal to becoming a full-time experimentalist and cultist.

Perhaps because his own roots in the theatre were in more conventional work, he now tended to go overboard for any experimental idea, however wild it might be. He was also to a great extent coming under the influence of a number of ideas that blossomed out of the counter-culture. I would not say that I had any influence on the direction he was already going in, but I do know that he listened very carefully to everything I had to say during that time and incorporated many of my ideas, as he had those of others, into his current and later productions.

My very first impression of him was as something of a poseur. Two weeks after I had completed my translation of the Weiss piece, I received a phone call from Peter's assistant David Jones, who has since become a well-known director in his own right, telling me that Peter wanted to direct my text as is, with very few changes, and would like to meet with me that afternoon to discuss details of the production, which I was to help with. A few hours later I was ushered into his office, and Brook greeted me with considerable effusiveness, complimenting me on the translation. But then he felt the need to turn to a specific page of the original text and explain some imagined subtlety of the German to me. He was dead wrong, though I said nothing.

The sole purpose of his maneuver had been to make me believe he knew German as well as I did. In fact, he had succeeded in proving to me exactly the oppositethough he may have picked up some German from attending Brecht rehearsals in East Germany or have been familiar with the language from a childhood knowledge of Yiddish, his German was definitely a good deal worse than he wanted me to believe. He then went off on something of a monologue about the play. This combined a few practical observations with a great deal of what I have come to think of as English "criticalese."

This is a specific jargon which English intellectuals indulge in, perhaps best typified at that time by the dialogue on a Sunday noon BBC program called The Critics. This program was listened to religiously by students and little old women all over Britain who wanted to believe they are au courant with the latest cultural trends. It combines a vast amount of verbal foreplay and titillation but produces almost no climax to speak of, thus keeping listeners in a perpetual state of nervous excitement and caressing them into the conviction that they are experiencing something of vast importance.

I had developed a cordial dislike for this sub-variety of the English language, but I had also become proficient in it, so I murmured the conventional counterpoints in "criticalese" myself, which seemed to satisfy Peter. In essence, we agreed that Weiss's play, while a profoundly moving work because of its content, was unlikely to find a large or lasting audience in England, first because most English play-goers supposed that the concentration camps concerned only the Germans (and not the English at all), and second because London, unlike New York, had a very small Jewish population. It was therefore decided to do a staged reading, which Peter would direct, rather than a full-scale production, as was later undertaken by others in New York. We also agreed that the text was far too long for an English audience to take, and I told him I had already worked out a system for making cuts which would not violate the spirit of the work. The rest of our conversation dealt with production details and plans for the rehearsals, then only ten days off.

A dinner I attended with Peter Brook around that time also stands out in my mind. Jeremy Brooks had called me a few weeks after the first performance of the Weiss play to say that Peter wanted to have dinner with me and another hopeful young playwright named Tom Stoppard to pick our brains for his next production, and we should come with that in mind. I should probably also mention that Jeremy was to become for a time one of my closest friends in London. In addition to his theatre work, he had gained considerable renownthough not richesas a novelist, and yet he was also one of those who did most in London to discover and encourage new writers.

I told Jeremy I felt I had more than a sufficient number of ideas running through my mind, and Peter was welcome to them, if they were of any use to him. As luck would have it, I arrived at Peter's bringing the latest news of the big theatre scandal then dominating London. The night before I had attended a round-table discussion at the Royal Court Theatre dealing with the government's censorship of a play then running there, Saved by Edward Bond. It included a scene in which two juvenile delinquents from the lower classes stoned a baby carriage ostensibly containing a baby. This was considered excessively brutal, and the Lord Chamberlain had acted to ring down the curtain after complaints were lodged, though the play had passed its required earlier censorship by the same official's office.

I should perhaps explain here that until quite recently, it had been the law for almost two hundred years that all plays appearing on the English stage had to be passed for obscenity and other allegedly antisocial tendencies by the Lord Chamberlain. There was at that time a vigorous movement to abolish this function of the Lord Chamberlainall of my friends were quite active in this movement, and we were eventually successful. The previous evening Kenneth Tynan, Mary McCarthy, who was visiting from America, the play's author, and several other notables had appeared on stage at the "Court" to denounce the Lord Chamberlain's action, and Peter was quite interested in my report.

But to my great surprise, he did not take the part of the Royal Court nor of the play's director William Gaskell. He seemed, if anything, happy that the Court was having problems with the censor and actually suggested that there was little reason to join in defence of the "Court," for they had chosen a bad play and ought to suffer the consequences. I agreed with him that the Bond play had few really impressive moments, for the child-stoning sequence was perhaps its only exciting scene. But it still seemed to me that this play involved an important issue of censorship, around which we should all unite.

Tom Stoppard arrived a bit late, and the conversation had by then begun to move slowly around to my own play and my recent translation of the Weiss. This was my first meeting with Tom, who at that time had been trying in vain for over a year to secure a production of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I found him somewhat fatalistic, but he had good reason to be so, for like most artists he was leading an extremely precarious existence at the time.

Hearing of my recent work with the Shakespeare, he chose to regard me, ironically enough, as part of the establishment that evening and launched into the standard lament of poor leftist artists everywheregod knows I had used it often enough myselfabout the rigged system, the unfeeling establishment and the coming revenge of true socialism. I suspect Tom and I were both jockeying for position in the hope that the Shakespeare might be producing our plays, but this was not to be even for Tom, although Jeremy had been working behind the scenes on behalf of both of us. Tom's play ought to have been a natural for the "Shakespeare," but it still went overlooked until the rival National Theatre picked it up after a smaller production in Edinburgh.

We had both had our share of Brook's attention, and now it was his turn to demand ours. Peter launched into another of his long monologues couched almost entirely in "criticalese," as indeed was almost all of our conversation, and through its murky recesses we began to dimly discern his purpose in inviting us to dinner. He informed us that he had determined, based on his vast experience of the theatrewhich neither of us would have dreamt for a moment of challengingthat the age of the playwright was most probably over. The future of the theatre now depended on the age of the director. There was little surprising in this concept, for it had been bouncing around radical-experimental theatre circles for some years, indeed for some decades. But what was new was the almost religious fervor with which Peter delivered his dictum.

[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]


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This book excerpt is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross. It may be
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