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Steven Berkoff figuring figuration





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Figuring Figuration by Deborah Knight

IV Figuring the ‘Legendary Actor, Director, Playwright, Author’

4.1 Figuring the fiction of identity

Just before the narrator’s interpolation in Graft: Tales of an Actor, “Audition”, Harry surmises that Wosemawee’s beauty was ‘an aesthetic quality that could only be formed from what lay within’. He immediately juxtaposes this supposition with the following effort to describe her:

Her parchmenty skin was veiled in a thinnish make-up, giving her an aura of faded gentility that you would find in the steaming, poetic landscape of a Tennessee Williams play (13)

If we consider this description along with the cultural and literary references that mark the interpolation that follows it and that we looked at above, it seems quite clear that Berkoff is doing his best to mirror in his text the way we are ‘taught to express [ourselves] in stereotypes, and thus to belie the multiplicity of the libido, of the body’ (The Aesthetics of Excess 36). As the construction of my argument shows only too well, ‘the dialectical process… is a conceptual mode of appropriation, an intellectual kleptomania, recuperating all signs and events within its system’ (35). In much the same way, Berkoff’s only hope of capturing the essence that can ‘only be formed from what [lies] within’ Wosemawee and Chittle is by perversely inscribing upon their ‘parchmenty skin’ the ‘thinnish make-up’ of cultural and literary quotation, as is evinced in the references to Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Rossetti. Of course, these figures, as we have seen, can only formulate suggestive approximations that are further transformed and distorted by their reader.

Berkoff I am Hamlet

Having noticed this trait about his descriptions of women in his autobiographical or semi-autobiographical writing, we recall Berkoff’s habit of creating affinities between himself and various famous personages he admires and believes to have contributed to his artistic development. There are many ways in which he creates these identity-building links, perhaps the most obvious being the title of one of his production journals that unabashedly bears the legend ‘I am Hamlet’ above a picture of himself presumably giving a rather middle-aged theatrical rendition of the troubled Danish youth.

When Berkoff writes that Hamlet ‘is an amalgam of all the virtues that Shakespeare himself wishes to project on to him: the great poet living in a barbaric society and wishing to heighten the consciousness of his audience’ (31), it would seem a fairly good indication that he considers Hamlet to be the Bard’s alter ego. This could lead us to reconsider the already somewhat audacious title to be, in fact, a relatively modest covering for its even bolder underlying signification of ‘I am Shakespeare’. In the following quotation from Free Association, Berkoff quite overtly draws himself into the same exclusive fraternity as Shakespeare thanks to their shared attributes of actors who not only founded their own theatre companies but also chose to write their own plays, saying: ‘writing didn’t make me feel as if I was really working and, like Shakespeare, I did it to fuel my company and create my stock’ (62). An arrogant simile perhaps, although better founded than one might imagine, for, in the history of the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, Berkoff is the most performed playwright after Shakespeare.

The following passage that juxtaposes Berkoff’s youthful delight at discovering the subtexts beneath Shakespeare’s metaphorical language with his dislike of realistic theatre can only make us think of his own intensely figurative plays. Of course, he is hardly unaware of his readers’ prior knowledge that it was thanks to the richly poetic language mingling ‘street talk, rhyming slang and Yiddish expressions with Shakespearean grandiloquence’ (The Times 1977) of his first original play, East, that he made a name for himself as a playwright: 

This method of looking at Shakespeare was a revelation and I started to look at his text and the use of metaphor which masked the real and often sexual intent of the speech.

This way of writing is totally unknown and unused today. Writers say exactly what they mean, but do not use language inventively in drama. (Free Association 221)

However, whereas it is not known if Shakespeare’s extra-thespian duties weighed heavily upon him, the director-playwright Berkoff certainly suffers from so often having had to relinquish his true passion for acting (or identifying?) in order to ensure his livelihood by directing others. In his journal, A Prisoner in Rio (1987), Berkoff writes of his frustration at having to give up the part of Joseph K, with whom he had always identified, in order to direct his adaptation of The Trial, saying ‘So I played Titorelli as a wonderful cameo, when my whole purpose in adapting that gargantuan labyrinth was to express the spirit of Kafka via K’ (173).

Berkoff’s inclination for identifying with writers through their characters, as evinced in the Hamlet and Joseph K examples above, is commented on by Paul Currant in his dissertation, The Theatre of Steven Berkoff, in which he begins by alluding to a further Berkoffian identification with the hero of Kafka’s Metamorphosis before going on to speak of others:

As he had with Gregor Samsa, Berkoff felt a sense of identity with Roderick Usher, saying “to play him is to know him. One cannot approach such a life as Usher’s without absorbing his texture” (Usher 83). Berkoff also identified with the character’s creator: “USHER’S condition … could of course be an absolutely accurate description of Edgar Allan Poe himself” (120). Further evidence that Berkoff considers Poe/Usher as one entity lies in Berkoff’s labeling of Roderick Usher as Poe’s “chorus” (83). This is an echo of Berkoff’s belief that the chorus in The Trial was Joseph K’s conscience, and K, so Berkoff has written, was also part Kafka. Thus, a paradigm has been created by Berkoff where there is a symbiotic merging of actor, playwright, character, and novelist or character creator which Berkoff sees as lending a powerful unity to The Trial, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Metamorphosis. (75-76)

In his ‘Introduction to Poe and Performance’ that forwards his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher for the theatre, Berkoff writes:

to dwell in the world of Poe is to commit oneself to the self-imposed exile of the anchorite. To enter this confinement of senses painfully attenuated to vibrate to the slightest tremor of the outside or inside world is to discover the spirituality of Poe via his chorus, Roderick Usher. (37)

This comment seems to indirectly forge a link with the author of the book, The Theatre and its Double (that Berkoff claims to have become his bible for a while in the sixties), of whom he speaks a few pages later:

Such an affinity as Artaud felt existed between himself and Roderick Usher made him feel that he was not alone in the world; and through association it enhanced his appeal as an actor. Since he could compare his suffering with that of the fascinating Mr. Usher. “My life is that of Mr. Usher and his sinister hovel. The soul of my nerves is disease within and I suffer from this. There is one quality of nervous suffering which the greatest actor in the world cannot bring to life if he has not experienced it. And I have experienced it, I think, as Roderick Usher had.” (40)

Berkoff Agamemnon

The picture of the actor Berkoff made-up as Usher on the front of the book containing both the adaptation of Agamemnon and The Fall of the House of Usher hardly lets us forget that in this instance Berkoff did succeed in availing himself of the part of Usher despite having to direct the play; he evidently considers himself as sharing with his mentor, Antonin Artaud, the necessary ‘quality’ of nervous suffering that the latter ruled as being the obligatory pre-requisite for the successful theatrical incarnation of Poe’s morbid character.

Paul Currant goes as far as to see in this ‘paradigm of identification – of a kind of total theatre – where Usher is empathetic with Poe, Artaud, and Berkoff, Artaud with Poe, and Berkoff with Artaud and Poe’ (77) a parallel development in the artistic sensitivity of Berkoff the writer and director: ‘This may be one reason that Berkoff’s The Fall of the House of Usher, containing as it does so many subtextual relationships, provides profound and complex insights into the workings of the character’s minds’ (77). Berkoff himself takes this relatively abstract concept of the career advancing effects of artistic empathy as far as the realm of the supernatural. An anecdote in Coriolanus recounts how his presence in the office of the National Theatre ‘on the hour’ (60) Sir Laurence Olivier died resulted in his being asked to replace the cancelled production that the death incurred with his version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, in which he out does himself in the role of Herod. The general tone of the account clearly implies Berkoff’s superstitious feeling that the legendary actor had posthumously bestowed upon him the duty of taking up his position in British theatre where he had left off and treading the planks of the National in his footsteps.

I initially saw these forced self-aggrandizing affiliations simply as crude devices for elevating and marketing his image. No doubt they are as well, but I had not seen that the term ‘self-aggrandizing’ is merely a stronger nuance of the term ‘self-constructing’. If I consider the intensity of Berkoff’s distinctive self-descriptive idiosyncrasy in the following passage from Free Association with my earlier observations on the factitiousness of his autobiographical figuration of Chittle and Wosemawee, I begin to shift my perception of these identifications from the first of the above nuances to the other:

I have been many people and changed like a chameleon. Sometimes I identify very strongly with Kafka and become absurdly withdrawn, cryptic, observing the world from deep within my private body which is not accessible. I become like a bug. An outsider, unloved, given to deep probings and guilt and yet with a sense somewhere of my superiority in pain. Other times I wish to be Kean or Irving, striding important stages and galvanizing the audience like Kean or making myself a sacrifice; being consumed by the flames of my own passion, like an Artaud; or like a Wilde, sensual, loving, pained by the world’s abstruseness and predictability and sitting alone on my own pedestal of words with which I enchant the world. Other times I think of Norman Mailer, a literary pugilist stamping on and punching anything that criticizes. Or a Poe who is stripped bare to the nerves, skin pulled back and raw. And other times plain dull and ordinary me, gripped by indecision and loathing my quandary and lack of work. (176)

Knowing of his admiration for Nietzsche, I cannot but wonder if Berkoff is not purposely turning the elements of the Nietzschean deconstructive principle into a stylized, hence evident, trope. By that I mean he appears to be openly and forcibly placing a copula between the names of his genealogy and himself in order to highlight them in his autobiographical consolidation of an identity as the very tropes that conversely point to the former’s dissolution. Allen Weiss foreshadows the nature of Nietzschean genealogical procedure in Aesthetics of Excess:

Every text is potentially a supplement of all other texts, a fragment of an infinite, universal text that unfolds with every moment of every discursive act. Any text can be grafted on to any other text, to every other text; every text can serve as a cognitive paradigm, can be used as a hermeneutic device, can operate as a moment of narration, can be a fragment of poetry. And every text is the object of a partical identification on the part of the reader. Thus Nietzsche, in claiming that, “I am every name in history,” not only figures, and prefigures, his own madness, but also indicates the ultimate program of reading and writing. (xii)

By likening himself to one writer after another in the preceding passage, Berkoff, like Nietzsche, is calling attention to the multiplicity of his being by carrying to its outer limits what Weiss calls ‘the adherence to fortuity’ (39) in order to disintegrate it. The fortuity of identity is made all the more evident by the fact that the above examples implicitly liken Berkoff not to the authors themselves, but to their texts, or, in the case of Shakespeare, Kafka and Poe, to their textual phantasms, or in Artaud’s case to his theatrical phantasm of Poe’s textual phantasm. By so doing, is Berkoff not in fact rather heavy-handedly indicating the layers of figuration that act as a form of identity for himself? Although he explains in his autobiography and earlier writings how the works of each of the men in the passage above have contributed to his development as an actor, director, playwright and author, he now turns these very men into the emblems that indicate the texts, characters or personal attributes which in turn act as the metaphors he uses to describe or create himself.

4.2 Figuratively bound

If we use the above observations to interpret the following passage in which Berkoff does not seem quite so self-consciously aware of this figurative building of himself, the questionable taste of the name brandishing that occurs could then take on a different aspect: that of the description of a sleeping body attempting to chart its own existential identity by throwing out dream lines and reeling in the sustenance upon which to nourish the fiction of a self:

I am invited to a dinner party where John Gielgud will be one of the guests and I am keen to be back for that so that I can tell him of the strange dream I had about him when sleeping in the hotel room in Paris where Oscar Wilde died such a violently unpleasant death in November 1900. I had been invited by Melvyn Bragg to give a small chat on the influence of French culture and its effect on the theatre, particularly the movement arts of Marceau, Barrault, Artaud, etc. I decided, for a bit of a giggle if you like, to book the hotel room where poor Wilde died which is in a now rather swish place called l’Hôtel. Having spent some time with his neglected masterpiece Salomé, which I love, I felt a strong affinity with Wilde and hoped I might make some contact with him. I fell into a fitful sleep and dreamed not of Wilde but of John Gielgud. During the dream I said, Sir John, I remember you in ‘The Ages of Man’, a brilliant one-man show based on Shakespeare’s plays, and very moving it was. So in the dream Sir John says, ‘Ah, you saw the show’, and as if not sure whether to believe me, he asks me which was his first speech. Immediately I thought it must be ‘Oh for a muse of fire’ from the Chorus of Henry V, but of course it was not. I think in the dream he said it was Jacques’s speech in As You Like It – the ages of man. So if I did not contact Wilde, I made contact with Gielgud, which is strange because I was not in any way obsessed by him in the same way I used to be about seeing Olivier.

I thought about this for some while and the following theory occurred to me. It is not possible to make contact with the other side unless you have met or known them. Since I have never met Oscar Wilde and could not know his voice, he would have to send an intermediary who would make the smallest bridge between us. And of course it would have to be Gielgud, who is our oldest living actor and whose connection with Wilde is very strong. He played successfully in The Importance of Being Earnest several times and he is related to Ellen Terry, the leading actress of Henry Irving, who was admired by Wilde. I thought this made a satisfactory interpretation, but then I discovered that Wilde had been obsessed with Gielgud’s Aunt Ellen and had written poems to her! So in fact if Wilde wished to make contact with his acolyte, his twentieth-century interpreter of his most beautiful work, the only person he could possibly have sent would be Gielgud!  (Meditations on Metamorphosis 139-140)

We could of course ask what Wilde’s point was in sending Gielgud if it was only to hear the latter talk about himself, but that would not be very sporting of us as it would deprive Berkoff of the occasion to show off how very cultured and learned he is. Perhaps the true merit of the above passage is the way in which it indicates, to the contrary of Berkoff’s self-accommodating conclusion, how very arbitrary our identity-forming associations are. Georges Bataille wrote ‘it is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in deceptive form’ (Visions of Excess 5).

Ever since sentences started to circulate in brains devoted to reflection, an effort at total identification has been made, because with the aid of a copula each sentence ties one thing to another; all things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of an Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth. (Visions of Excess)

Bataille goes on to give ludicrous examples of similes to demystify the magically valued combinations that traditionally determine the position of man in the midst of the elements:

An abandoned shoe, a rotten tooth, a snub nose, the cook spitting in the soup of his masters are to love what a battle flag is to nationality.

An umbrella, a sexagenarian, a seminarian, the smell of rotten eggs, the hollow eyes of judges are the roots that nourish love.

A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a sobbing accountant, a jar of mustard represent the confusion that serves as the vehicle of love. (Visions of Excess)

And yet, are we not paradoxically bound to construct identities from equivalences and differences in order to give our existence significance? In I am Hamlet Berkoff uses the prescriptive cover of Shakespeare - another actor-friendly director such as he -, via Hamlet, to give weight to his oft-reiterated view that any actor of outstanding talent will be ostracized by the director-orientated theatre of the West Ends or Broadways of today:

But now I am as Hamlet defending the territory of the actor, and his territory has been usurped by the conglomerates. The large companies’ biggest successes are interestingly enough the non-actors’ plays – adaptions of Dickens or musicals based on T.S. Eliot’s poems. They have successfully crushed the actor out of existence; they have promoted reasonable actors but no one of awesome power – not an Olivier, an Irving, a Kean, or even a -- - if they looked like becoming stars they would mysteriously disappear.  (I am Hamlet 73)

Of course, that must be Berkoff lining himself up at the end of a self-appointed genealogy of greats, in an ellipsis that succeeds in combining a very British show of modesty with a very un-British sense of self-worth. Or perhaps the space between the long dash and the short is inviting us to separate the two parts of his name, thereby figuratively inciting us to think of the predisposition for ‘pleasuring the “self”’ that lies beneath the epithet such a public display of this propensity could call unbidden to others’ minds: jerk off > berk off. This interpretation would be supported not only by the time-honoured euphemistic qualities of ellipsis these two vulgarities lurk behind, but also by Berkoff’s renowned sense of self-ridicule. Which in turn would link up rather nicely with my belief in his conscientious signaling of his identity-conferring figuration.

Berkoff Graft

In his short story from Graft called “The Journey”, the protagonist Harry wonders if he can undo (or ‘deconstruct’) the out-of-work alcoholic actor he has become through writing an autobiography. Inspired by the thought, he lets his feet take him around his old stomping ground in Soho ‘seeking to unravel the ball of string’ (130) and ‘come to the place where the stitch went wrong’ and everything following became ‘more and more awry’ (131).

And yet, as he walks, Harry suspects his feet are leading him not into a solution-bearing past, but to the pub of his predilection:

Or was he really fooling himself since he knew his destination well enough, knew it as a swallow knows by instinct where it must head, and flies on trusting its innate knowledge to lead it to a sanctuary where it will thrive and be safe. Its wings just obey a mote of memory and fly blindly on. So does Harry really know where he is going but pretends not to, or perhaps hopes that this time there may be another solution… another destination. (136)

Although Harry had begun the walk suspecting he was ‘making a circumambulatory pattern like a criminal nervously surveying the object of his desire’ (127), the hope that ‘something would leap out of the unconscious memory that could not be triggered otherwise’ (129) turns him into feeling like ‘a detective at a crime scene, restaging all the events just as they had happened’ (129). However, towards the end of his sightseeing tour of the past, the thought occurs to him that he may not be such a talented actor as he thought he was and that rejection has not been a part of ‘some mysterious conspiracy’ (142) but based purely on what he had to offer. He asks himself if he could bear to see his image in that mirror, bear to know the truth, and not what his fantasy has shielded him from, ‘the way a perfume masks your real, essential self’ (141). But, validating that thought would show that all the sacrifices he had made of the ‘simple pleasures and sustenance of life and love and interweaving was for a chimera’ (142) and necessarily bring him to the most anxiety-ridden thought of them all: ‘who and what are you?’ (143). So he compliantly returns to the faith that his agent will call him at the very instant he ‘discovers’ he is standing in front of the pub.

This walk calls to mind not only Georges Bataille’s description of copulas linking one word to the next and leading thought into its own labyrinth, but also the poststructuralist insistence that all discourse leads inexorably towards its prearranged conclusion. Hence, revisiting the past can only really be carried out by blindly clutching on to the guiding rope that is firmly attached to the safety pegs of the present. This agenda is perhaps more clearly discernible in Berkoff’s autobiography than in most because of his decision to follow the meanderings of thought and to ‘free associate,’ thereby allowing the past and the present to intermingle, instead of following the linear course of his life. For instance, although examples of the unpredictability of the meanings of words abound in Berkoff’s description of his upbringing, this seeming childhood sensitivity to the instability of language has to be read in its context as the literary rendition of an adult playwright whose reputation has been built on his richly metaphorical use of language.

Let us look at the following autobiographical description of Berkoff’s early childhood in Luton, where his family was evacuated during the war. Rather than settle into the house they were allotted in order to make something of their lives, every long-term project was constantly held off with the excuse that they would eventually fulfil Berkoff’s mother’s wish of emigrating to the States. The insecurity of living ‘temporarily’ was further accentuated by the added anxiety of the war and the rumours of anti-Semite atrocities being carried out by the Nazis only a few hundred miles away. Berkoff describes his storybook conviction that England would never be invaded by the Nazis (because the English were ‘good’ and ‘good people always won’ {74}) as being more fragile than supposed when a neighbouring child commented that if Hitler should arrive in England he would immediately kill all the Jews. The bourgeoning anti-Semitism of this ‘casual’ remark was obviously not lost on him, as he was being taught at school, along with the other children, that the Jews killed Jesus Christ. The sudden realization that he could not classify himself with the ‘good’ English as he had originally assumed, but should rather consider himself to be ‘an exile or a potential devil incarnate’ (80), led him to gradually change from the ‘fairly normal, venturesome child’ he had been into ‘a ball of apprehension and doubt’ (75).

when some small event occurred I could be thrown into a fit of worry and trembling far in excess of the incident that caused it. If my teacher made me stand up for some breach of conduct I would be scared shitless and quake in fear; if my sister said, for a joke when it became overcast one day, that the sky was falling down, I was seized with the most terrible fright. (75)

The statement that follows, ‘I doubted everything and everyone and would accept nothing unless it was proven to me’(75), seems to testify to the unsettling effect that abstract notions of identity, and the even more abstract connotations they accumulate along the way, can work upon a child’s imagination as he tries to reconcile this strange figurative world with the one originally perceived. And yet, to what extent does Berkoff’s adult understanding colour his portrayal of the effects new and unsuspected meanings of words like ‘Jew’ and ‘English’ and ‘Nazi’ and ‘murderer’ could work upon a child’s mind? Was his unusual sensitivity to the literal meaning of idioms that he uses time and again in his plays already making itself apparent in his extraordinarily strong reaction to his sister’s unthinking figurative description of the appearance of the sky, or is this a classical case of writer’s licence? He goes on to relate a particularly Kafkaesque form of trial his father put him through in order to merit the yearned for bicycle all his other friends had as a matter of course. He was finally promised it on condition that he succeed in being a model of good behaviour for forty days. It would seem the young ‘sinner’ saw therein the parallel possibility of spiritual redemption, for, recognizing ‘the biblical resonance of the injunction of forty days’ (76), he set to with a will. Going against every impulse he was ‘hormonally and genetically programmed’ (77) to obey, he was nevertheless punished for a minor infringement and made to go back to day one again. He did what he was told and waited and waited, for he saw ‘at the end of the rainbow’ (77) a shiny bicycle. However, when the designated day arrived when he was to receive his reward, his father returned home not with a bike, but with beigels. Berkoff’s only commentary about his father’s flagrant violation of his ‘word’ is to write: ‘He knew I liked beigels. Beigels I liked. But I preferred bicycles’ (80).

Death of a Salesman

If we consider these reflections made by Harry in “Audition”, about the scene in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in which the son steals a pen from the man who is interviewing him for a job – ‘Did Arthur do that at one time in his life? Of course he did, for this kind of observation comes from your own experience.’ (Graft: Tales of an Actor 14) – we are reminded of the following incident of stealing in Berkoff’s own life and the importance he assigns to it in his eventual choice of a career. Far from ‘civilizing’ him, the ‘biblical injunction’ Berkoff received from his father led finally to his being sent at the age of fifteen to one of the new detention centres which were ‘the latest fashion in incarceration’ (143) for stealing the bicycle he was unjustly never rewarded.

Steven Berkoff in Clockwork Orange The account of how he came to suffer the further ordeal of solitary confinement not only calls to mind the trails and tribulations of Dickensian heroes, but also those of Alex in A Clockwork Orange when he is subjected to the Ludovico’s Technique in Reclamation Treatment. Let us not forget that Berkoff later not only played a prison officer in the film of this book, but was also inspired by the adolescent protagonists’ language, ‘nadsat’, when writing his first original play, East.

At any rate, Berkoff explains that the ‘short, sharp shock’ the state had dreamed up for first offenders may not have succeeded in returning him to the community ‘a chastened youth’ (143) as intended, but he did return with the centre minister’s incidental remark ringing in his ears that his beloved dancing ‘mecca’, the Lyceum, had once been a theatre. It would seem the casual observation had metaphorically presented him with a choice: either he could continue trying to escape the destiny of life as a salesman that his Jewish East End heritage had marked out for him through pursuing those idle pursuits that brought on the retribution of ‘Johnny Law’, or he could change his ‘identity’ in the hitherto entirely foreign world of the theatre.

In the light of this incident and his use of his cultural background in his plays, the above quotation implies a certain common ground Berkoff sees himself as sharing with Arthur Miller, one of the few modern playwrights he admires along with Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, for his way of using the actor as ‘an instrument or an ally to create the “social hero”… not the wimp, not the Noël Coward neurotic narcissus, but the animal of instinct prowling the jungle of the cities’ (Free Association 113).

Where do Berkoff’s lines of words and identifications lead us in his autobiography? No one but an actor such as he can be quite as aware of the borrowed nature of identity. In “Audition”, Harry revels in his newfound access to a new role, week after week, in which he can express himself:

Nevertheless, each week one ransacked the world of drama as if raiding an old clothes store, trying on what suited. It was all there to bring out something of you that you wished to show, or give, or express, and why was it that you could only reveal yourself through the words of others, as if the writer gave you permission to show who you were. For some it was drink that allowed them to loosen the doors to their soul, but for the actor it was words. And if the words were right, you felt you were more alive as they drew the essence out of you. (13)

In “Role”, Harry wonders if it is

the actor interpreting the writer, or the writer interpreting the actor, allowing the actor to understand himself. Who he is. This is who I am. I am this. This is really me. I am like this person. These are my feelings. I am sensitive like the hero. I am a sentient being. I am a brave person. Romantic. Passionate. Loving. But can be a funny, wild rascal. All those things. They are me. Really. Yes. I am just a cocktail of emotions. I am Herod. Harlequin. The golem. Hamlet. I am a man in search of a soul. I am anima and animus. (47)

Our Harry of the above short story “Journey” succeeds in surmounting his jealousy of the office workers he sees enjoying their evening leisure after a productive day by reciting passages to himself from Hamlet.

Some of Shakespeare’s lines flew into his brain or emanated from there for no particular reason. Perhaps triggered by something… giving him a shot of inspiration, a bolt from the blue. Was he too old to play Hamlet? Not in Harry’s mind, no, not so. In his heart he would never be too old. The role sang through his spirit… awakened him when he was tired, forlorn, depressed. Suddenly, eureka! Hamlet would shake him, fire him up. (132)

So now Harry continued his journey, his sails being momentarily filled with little gusts of Hamlet. Yes, and even now his blood started to warm. He felt the words tingling his flesh and arousing his spirit. That is what drama is… it is the embodiment of another spirit. (132)

In the following passage in which Harry achieves a sense of superiority over the office workers, his gradual incarnation of the identity of his predilection is echoed in the text by the concluding sentence’s loss of a subject pronoun.

They could never play Hamlet – never. But he, yes he, Harry could, and would, and shall, and even now is. Somehow Hamlet seizing Harry or Harry seizing Hamlet had placed him even temporarily on a higher plane of existence and he was seeing the world through his eyes, through the sharp but delicate prism of Hamlet. Through the heightened, coruscating vision of the Dane and was happily floating above the throng. (134)

In the play East, Les tells Mike, after seeing a beautiful woman on the bus, that they have accustomed themselves to ‘thinking of love and sex in terms of gang bangs behind the Essoldo’ and goes on to comment ‘we get what we think we are, we give ourselves what we deserve’. When the critic Benedict Nightingale evokes this scene in order to say ‘Les’s comment passes’, but ‘clearly reflects Berkoff’s own’ (The Daily Mail, 1999), I have to agree with him. Berkoff’s entire life work seems to have been dedicated to changing the socially imposed identity his birth bestowed upon him to one that he can call his own. And possessively so, for it seems he purposely defies interpretation.

Who Keeps the Score on the London Stages

In Who Keeps The Score On The London Stages? Matt Wolf recounts the anecdote about the time Berkoff phoned him to invite him to lunch in order to speak to him about the bad review the critic had given him for his otherwise almost unanimously acclaimed National Theatre staging of Salomé. ‘I had visions of us meeting in a back alley somewhere in the East End where he would beat me up with ten of his friends’ (136), Wolf says, explaining why he passed on the offer.

He had good reason to be cautious in the light of Berkoff’s notorious threat to murder the Guardian’s critic Nicholas de Jongh in the early eighties. Berkoff makes short work of invalidating the threat in Free Association, saying that he had been hurt by Nick de Jongh’s review of his Hamlet and felt this critic had been using him as a whipping boy for years:

Shortly after this review appeared, I met him in a London bar, leaned over and gave him a bit of my old Stamford Hill repertoire, implying some kind of speedy demise. Of course I was only acting, but he took it seriously – so my acting did convince him after all, which was the point I was trying to make. (59)

In those days of course, Berkoff was still getting mileage out of his image of the rebellious self-made East Ender making it good in theatre land. The above persona of the streetwise hoodlum is a far cry from the gentleman the Italian critic Francesco Pugliano’s perceived at the Asti Theatre Festival twenty years later.

[Berkoff] could be seen seated at the tables of the village’s small cafes amiably talking to people in front of a good bottle of wine, and you could hear him addressing people either in Italian, French or German, with elegant, bohemian manners. (Asti Festival, 1999)

Was he acting there too? In the same year, Lyn Gardner writes of her meeting with Berkoff at the opening of his 25th anniversary West End production of East:

Perhaps it’s just that he will always put his foot in it: there was one glorious moment in our interview when, in the midst of rather successfully defending the misogynies of East, he suddenly launched into a tirade against “great, flabby actresses talking about themselves. Women are over-junked and over-adored for the act of being women. It gives me the pip.”

To borrow Nick de Jongh words, with an actor like Berkoff, ‘you can never really know’ (Who Keeps The Score 134) with whom you are dealing.

Thirty pages or so before the end of his autobiography, Berkoff creates another implicit link between himself and a famous artist. Putting Salvodor Dalí’s famous declaration, ‘I am the greatest painterrr in the entirrrre worrrld’ (363), down to ‘the imp that fired his spirit’ (363), he goes on to say that ‘the imp is the child that all original artists keep within themselves’. Several lines further down the page ‘all original artists’ have been replaced by the personal pronoun ‘we’ in the sentence ‘we keep the child alive inside so that we can refer back to pre-adult life like pre-Ice Age’ (363). The reason for this evocation of the Surrealist artist’s legendary arrogance becomes, perhaps, more evident at the closure of the book, when Berkoff interviews himself in order to reveal the part that believes him to be ‘the answer to the twentieth century’s cry for the new’ (390).

What about you Berkoff? I suppose, you arrogant bastard, you believe that the world is going to be populated with Berkoff plays. You think you are the answer to the twentieth century’s cry for the new. You with your handful of scatological tripe that only punks and students do at a festival bash so they can cock a childish snook at authority and spew out a few four-letter words. Huh!?

Well, to be truthful I would have to answer yes. Yes, I would have to say, if I were to search my heart. Yes. For the very reasons you gave.(390-1)

Berkoff Free Association

The photograph on the front cover of Free Association shows a three-quarter angle close up of Berkoff’s face. The side that is nearer the viewer is unpainted while the other is made-up to bear a Salvador Dali-style moustache and thick eyebrow. An unspoken avowal of the borrowed nature of the self-styling image he closes with? It would seem so.

And yet, this identity-conferring statement, this life-purpose-giving sentiment, is not the concluding sentence. The passage that validates it begins with ‘My plays are performed by the young’ and ends with ‘They are concerned to express their song, their spirit, their sex, their ideals and if some of them find these in me, then I am proud, since they are the seed that grows into the tree’ (391). If I have italicised the words ‘my plays’ and ‘me’, it is to draw attention to a similar blending of the author with his texts that we looked at in Berkoff’s identifications. In a concluding paradigm of identification that shifts Berkoff into the historical or genealogical role, ‘Berkoff’ has become the emblem for the texts that in turn constitute the metaphors the young have chosen as a means of self-expression. Berkoff’s conclusion is: ‘The young are the adults of the future. So that is what I believe and not only believe but must believe, not with arrogance or anger but because that is what the plays are to me. They are living embodiments of my life’(391). Here, it seems to me, Berkoff is both affirming a life-motivating identity and evoking its dissolution in the very posterity that will deform it.


V Figuring the Essence of the Person

5.1 The elliptical identity

When Weiss states that ‘all interpretation is essentially periphrastic of silence; the body is the ultimate referent of all expression, the foundation of all sublimation; the body itself is expressed by every ellipsis’ (28), he is simply setting the elements of the paradox of figuration side by side: we cannot define the individual body except by giving it a fabricated identity made up of culturally determined allusions. Nor can we leave it to reside in the non-determinate state of ellipsis, which is the only way to grant it a true identity of its own, without immediately wishing to fill in the hole that is left with some sort of communicable meaning; as we saw when the various ellipses in the construction of Chittle in Free Association obliged me to set my interpretive forces in motion in order to make sense of them. Initially seeing them as echoing the old patriarchal refusal to give women their right to an identity of their own, I now see them as taking on a completely different and surprising signification. Rather than deprive her of her own incommunicable uniqueness, perhaps they are actually meant to mark that very individuality by refusing to confer upon her a borrowed, eclectic identity. Unfortunately, the reader fills in what the writer leaves out, as I did when I interpreted missing information with the clues at my disposal, perhaps not to my entire satisfaction, but enough to keep on reading.

Although the historical Berkoff may be seen to suddenly appear in the text hand in hand with the figure of an ellipsis - Harry’s allusion to the elliptical rape scene in A Streetcar Named Desire - in his compilation of short stories Graft, it is obvious that he could not use the language-free trope of ellipsis to inscribe himself within the text when he took up his pen to write his autobiography. His only chance of alerting us to his dependence upon the ‘free associations’ he is obliged to make in order to give us a picture of himself is by bringing to our awareness the figurative similarities that run between his autobiography and his fictional short stories. If his figuration of various women has taught me to notice his own likening of himself to various famous personages, it also amuses me to see him as purposely highlighting the ellipses in their make-up in order to show up their absence from his own personal, generic figuration. This interpretation would generate a surprising reversal in the traditional signalling of the woman through the male, with the woman’s identity thereby being shown to reside in her signifying emptiness while the male is revealed as identity-less because of the over-determination of his figurative make-up.

5.2 The wordless libido

Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire Let us come back to the literary moment of ‘Berkoff’s’ authorial interpolation one last time. At the very instant Harry’s libido is evoked in the projection of his desire onto the elliptical rape scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, the ‘narrator’s’ own voice suddenly bursts out to further distance that energy.
Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire In the play, Stanley’s last words before physically imposing himself on the coquettish Blanche - ‘We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning’ (A Streetcar Named Desire 130) - show that his ability to respond, if not appropriately, at least in concordance to his perceptions is far greater than what her incoherent, socially imposed mixed messages have ever revealed hers to be [Ref 1-50].

The twenty-year old Harry or Berkoff may dream, but he is a far more civilized, or repressed, animal than Stanley. His initial outburst ‘you were the first and most exquisite creature I ever saw’ seems hardly meant to be interpreted literally, but metaphorically. Running straight into ‘and seemed to materialize from Alice in Wonderland’, the second part of the sentence loses its spontaneous, joyous quality as if the underlying passion that instinctively and rather clumsily figures Wosemawee as an Eve-like creature is swiftly being sublimated by thought into producing a far more controlled evocation of a white-socked child, with all the attendant taboos of civilization that place such a creature out of immediate physical reach. Knowing that it was at about this time in his life that Berkoff spent his year at the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art reading and talking Nietzsche with the other students ‘like budding Sartres’ (Free Association 113), we must recall Allen Weiss’s interpretation of the philosopher’s genealogical procedure as a ‘mode of desublimation, whereby intentional meanings are decomposed into their libidinal components, where linguistic unity is revealed as the pretext for the regulation of the body’ (28). He states in The Aesthetics of Excess,

The cultural production of meaning entails the sublimation of libidinal intensity into intentional signification, whereby intentional significations are organized within a calculable, hence controllable, system of meaning. Meaning is thus the reduction of intensity to intentionality; the shifting termini of libidinal cathexes are systematized and expressed by the stable relata of intentional experience. (28)

As for the mysterious nameless woman Berkoff went to see in Brighton in Coriolanus, whose existence is understood via allusion rather than through concrete detail because of the elliptical information in Berkoff’s narrative concerning this weekend, perhaps her peculiar figuration is also due to a wish to conserve the wordlessness of her pre-linguistic libidinous essence. This could bring us to reconsider the possibility that there always was only one woman in Berkoff’s life at that time, by the name of Clara. Her referential reduction to the acronym ‘C’ which occasional lapses either into her full name or complete namelessness could then simply be Berkoff’s figurative method of signaling her changing position within his psyche: from the intermediate state of a conscious and possessive refusal to linguistically share her identity with us, to her sudden condition of acquiring a full name when he is considering her intellectually, or to her converse condition of namelessness when she disappears into the wordlessness of his libido.

A common pictorial trait runs between Berkoff’s autobiography and his two volumes of short stories, consolidating the self-fashioning theme we have already seen to link them. Each book shows two sides to Berkoff’s face in very particular ways.

Berkoff Free Association As I said before, Free Association featured the actor Berkoff, with one side of his face made-up in character while the other remained free of paint. In Graft: Tales of an Actor, the side of Berkoff’s face that is farthest from the viewer disappears into deep shadow, while the other is brightly lit. His left eye stares coldly out at us, while the way in which the three fingers of his right hand rest upon his brow and the bridge of his nose suggests that the concealed eye could also be secretly peering out at us between them. Berkoff Graft

Berkoff Gross Intrusion

The volume that reunites Berkoff’s most daring stories, Gross Intrusion and other stories, into which he says he put more of his ‘spirit’ [Ref 1-51] than in his other work, features a detail from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement taking up half of the front cover and a full frontal photograph of Berkoff taking up half of the back cover.  Both other halves on the front and the back, which lie closest to the binding, are in simple black. Berkoff Gross Intrusion

The design has clearly been conceived to show the historical Berkoff as lying directly beneath the black and white reproduction of the Italian artist’s painting. Whereas Berkoff holds his hands behind his back and looks calmly out at us, the extremely anguished-looking male figure in the painting entirely covers one side of his face with a hand, thereby thematically linking the book to the other two above. However, the fact that Berkoff himself is no longer to be found on the front cover, but hidden behind, implies a further layering, or deepening, of the ‘multi-faceted’ motif he has developed around his ‘identity’. This time the allusion to the Last Judgement brings a religious or moral dimension into the picture, which in turn is supported by Berkoff’s description of each tale in this volume as being a form of ‘secret confession’ (192), that he had written in about an hour, ‘in one huge explosion, without stopping for breath’ (192), by taking as his departure point the first line that popped into his head. The effort to escape the censoring effects of conditioned morality seems evident in the following words: ‘What ever surfaced in my mind, from out of the murky depths, would be my headline. Each story in an unconscious way seemed to extirpate some knot of bitterness and gall’ (192). Having taken Hubert Selby Junior’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Tennessee Williams story called “Desire and the Black Masseur” as inspiration to see things in a more ‘candid and raw fashion’ (192), Berkoff considers each of his resulting short stories to be ‘a secret confession, even if the guilts were only imagined and never acted out’ (192).

In “Daddy”, Berkoff’s story about a young man who only recognizes his father through the swirling steam of the public baths at the very moment the latter is about to perform fellatio on him brings to mind some of the details of his autobiographical account of one of his own father’s perennial lies to his mother: Although Berkoff senior would often tell his wife he would sleep over at the Imperial Turkish Baths in Russell Square so that he could chat to his pals, his son never saw him when he would go there as a young man after dancing all night at the Imperial, even though he would see plenty of other ‘fat old men…[eyeing] the youths’ (Free Association 140). Although a passage such as the following description of the protagonist,

From where, he often wondered, grew this strange flower of his desire… the offshoot from his natural f*cking male self, often called a womanizer, a ladies’ man, a Don Juan… where developed this curious thing that grew like a small delicate unknown… unclassified plant within his psyche… blossoming in those special seasons within the body and spreading its noxious fragrant scent through his senses which did not resist but simply and casually obeyed its strange demands… and that particular afternoon taking time off to feed this flower in the Turkish baths…(36)

calls to mind the author’s own carefully publicized image of himself as a ladies’ man, I think the true autobiographical merit of this story lies not in the similarities that run between it and Berkoff’s life, but in its far more pertinent metaphorical evocation of the difficulty inherent in expressing oneself, and not the Other, through language. For instance, when Cyril attempts to escape from his socially imposed heterosexual identity by attending to the empirical dictates of his body, he is obliged to resort to the wordless anonymity of the Turkish baths that he is in the habit of visiting to follow his sexual inclinations, for it is ‘as if sewn into his unconscious that male desire and furtiveness [are] immutable’ (35). There, he enjoys the way in which he is ‘depersonalised’ into ‘mere hard warm pliant flesh’ (33) by the men ‘of a feather’ (33) whose identities remain obscured by the steam:

naked and nameless, no names given…not even speaking… that is part of the ritual of sacrifice… the knowledge of the name, the timbre of the voice which would identify or code the speaker would make it impossible… would reveal a conscious act…so no. I have left my body… it does things that the owner of a voice would never do… only unguarded blood-filled and aching flesh making its own demands, being the king for the day… (33-4)

No words exchanged… just let the hand… strong heavy masculine hand work its joys… and let one’s body melt away into the steam… into the water…into the drains (35)

Occasionally, despite himself, his thoughts turn to his ‘upright, righteous father’ (36) who is a prison warden and before whom he feels the guilt of his clandestine desires must

be writ in letters of fire… these thoughts flew between him and his blood and drained some stiffness from his member but he immediately washed them away… the heat made his mind swim… its power melted away any distasteful images before they could coagulate in his mind… it purged and purified until all that was left was body… naked relaxed and expectant body…(37)

It is ironic that, when he suddenly recognizes his law-enforcing father’s balding head lowering itself onto ‘him’ and the ‘reality’ of the heterosexual outside world he was attempting to escape comes rushing back with all the appearance of a ‘dream’, it is he who restores the status quo by rushing out:

He was in a dream… knew he was trapped in a nightmare and struggled to free himself from it… knew certainly that this nightmare would go, too incredible… too horrible… must go… but the flesh was real… the heat was real… the sudden release of the stranger’s hand was real… the standing up and rushing out of the room was also real… (38)

He swore to himself that the face of his father that lowered itself on to his cock, was a manifestation of his guilt… a vision of fear that harboured itself in his brain… a revenge on his split mind… the flower seeking to dominate his being… (38)

In a paradoxical reversal of roles, the story’s denouement places Cyril in the position of law-enforcer and the father in that of the ‘stranger’ as the incest taboo rushes in to pick up where the homosexual taboo had temporarily left off and the tyrannical demands of filial discourse exert themselves over the sexual morality of the parent:

[Cyril] was not, since he hurried away, in time to witness the stranger several minutes later leaving the same establishment at a rhythm which was not usual among the clients who had sweated and relaxed for two hours… more the pace of a criminal in a city full of police. (39)


© Deborah Knight 2001



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