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Steven Berkoff figuring figuration






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Figuring Figuration by Deborah Knight

8.1 `Berkoff´s´ criticism of woman´s culturally figured sexual identity

There may be plenty of pathos in the fact that Sylv’s description of Mike ‘gently’ lifting her skirt is immediately contradicted by her imitation of him raping her, but her subsequent nostalgic ‘I miss him true’ brings the house down. When Berkoff writes that the laughter he heard from his first audiences for East back in 1975 was 'the kind of laughter that came not only from the belly but had the ring of familiarity, that sudden explosive yelp of identification, when they laughed hardest, the dirty beasts’ [Ref 3-01], one cannot help wondering what other emotions lay behind some of those identifications.

George Dillon

If many comics might agree with George Dillon that under the comedian’s mask lies the naked ‘bloody face’ of his or her ‘painful soul-bearing’ [Ref 3-02], for those watching this scene comedy is perhaps also a means of taking the necessary distance to see how very ludicrous the far too oft repeated sad spectacle of female masochism truly is.

Especially when theatrical techniques such as Berkoff’s highlight how unrequited the sentiments and/or how redundant the beliefs are that keep women locked into such painful life roles. By viewing certain events from the varying perspectives of different characters and by allowing each to reveal their awareness of the import of their observations in their narration of them, Berkoff highlights the absurdity of their stubborn refusal to take note of the perfectly perspicacious insights they have as to the causes of their misery.

One could well imagine Berkoff asserting as Joan Smith did in the conclusion to her book, Misogynies, that his aim is to:

establish through a process of ‘insistence and repetition’, to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, that misogyny is not the province of a few isolated individuals…but one of the concealed well-springs of our culture. It is a secret kept by men and women, because neither group wants to acknowledge what is really going on: men because they do not want to admit their fear of women’s power, women because the truth is too uncomfortable to live with, and because they have been deceived. How often have women been told that their position is ‘privileged’, that they are ‘the power behind the throne’, or that they are the objects of special reverence? But for some women, the price of silence has become too great; this book [play] is my contribution to the act of bringing the truth out into the open. (207)

When I read a review such as the one I cited towards the end of 4.2 of the Autobiographical Texts section by Lyn Gardner, I can well understand Berkoff’s irritation with critics as one cannot help wondering if this particular one went to see East with her eyes shut. It is perfectly obvious that the portrait he draws of male misogyny and female pride in its virtuous masochism is intended to be a vivid wake up call to a ‘civilization’ that continues to countenance the existence of this double-sided malaise on every level of society.

pre-raphaelite woman and boy

Although man may well have engendered his own misogyny by turning woman into the paragon of virtue that frustrates him so, woman’s vanity prevents her from seeing the unhappiness she perpetuates in her meek acceptance of the ‘bonzaid’ sexual condition his patriarchy has allotted her. When Berkoff suddenly lapses from ‘rather successfully defending the misogynies of East’ into ‘a tirade’ about how ‘“women are over-junked and over-adored for the act of being women”’, it seems likely that he is simply, in a similar fashion to Joan Smith, venting some of his exasperation with the unrelenting critical blindness of women who persist in ignoring their true condition and passively accepting the state of affairs between men and women today.

One could certainly imagine he would have every reason to continue as she did:

…I have tried to show that masculine behaviour and feminine behaviour, far from being natural, are the means of enforcing an unnatural separation between men and women in order to maintain an unstable and unjust power structure. The result is a state of covert warfare between the sexes in which, while not all men are rapists, every woman is a potential victim. (208)

While Berkoff has just finished touring parts of the world with his one-man show ‘Shakespeare’s Villains’, his long-term ally, Linda Marlowe, is still touring England with her one-woman show ‘Berkoff’s Women’ [Ref 3-03]. Would the similarity in the titles of these two shows imply that another comparative identification is being made between Berkoff and the Bard?

man and woman

No doubt, but perhaps Mike’s comment in West - ‘I’ll drown more villains than a mermaid could / deceive more slyly than Shylock would’ (52) - gives us a further clue as to who is being more nearly likened to whom this time and why.

However, if women are hardly the innocents they pretend to be in Berkoff’s world, more than amply returning man’s initial villainy by rubbing his nose in his own injunctions, the diversity of the portraits of women taken from excerpts of his plays and short stories that make up Marlowe’s show bear witness to his incredibly keen observation and understanding of them and their situation in society. Moving from the fashionably superficial Helen of Decadence to the murderously revengeful Clytemnestra of Agamemnon to the dispirited Mum of East to the neurosis of Donna of Kvetch to the masochistic Sylv of East to the sexually fulfilled Wife of Greek and, in the same play, on to the ‘goddess woman’ feminism of the Sphinx, Marlowe finishes with a monologue that changes the third person narrative of the short story “From My Point of View” to the first person narrative of ‘Woman’. Calmly looking out on to the audience over her cocktail glass, this extremely sophisticated worldly actress says, as if contributing to small talk with the most banal of observations:

Of course I like the feeling of a full cunt…I mean, who doesn’t… and by full I mean choked full, stuffed full, filled with meat. [Ref 3-04] (Gross: “From My Point of View” 51)

If this statement is entirely self-evident to the greater part of heterosexual and bi-sexual women, it has to be remarked for how very unused audiences are to hearing such evidences pronounced in public still today, and especially from the prescriptive heights of a woman who must be well into her fifties. Bathetic though it may be, is it not time for us all to grow a little more accustomed to statements such as this that fearlessly admit to woman’s sexual pleasure in man? Have we not heard enough about her masochistic sense of virtue or of sin that leads her to consider herself as sexual only through the eyes of men? If feminism may have made (debatable) inroads upon those particular myths, has it not conversely contributed far more greatly to the war between the sexes than to reconciling them?

Whereas I hold Berkoff’s writing in very high esteem for its contemporary efforts to call public attention to man and woman’s perennial discontent and its causes, I am looking forward to the day when actresses such as Linda Marlowe will no longer have to resort to the words of male writers in order to express beneath the spotlight of the stage those positive sentiments that reverberate in the smiling members of her audience. However, in the meantime, I am grateful for his efforts to put over in the public place what Margaret Atwood expresses so succinctly in her article “Pornography”:

If all men and women respected each other, if sex were considered joyful and life-enhancing instead of a wallow in germ-filled glop, if everyone were in love all the time, if, in other words, many people’s lives were more satisfactory for them than they appear to be now, pornography might just go away on its own. (145)

8.2 The omnipresent libido in Berkoff’s writings

Steven Berkoff has had enormous impact on the theatre of England today.


Apart from inspiring Harry Gibson’s Trainspotting and Mark Ravenhill’s Blood Brood, Dominic Dromgoole writes:

In terms of what has followed his example… he is a waterfall. Much of physical theatre stems from his inspiration and his experiments in the seventies. The whole cockney geezer linguistic richness you find in Jez Butterworth et al., was learnt from the freedom and range Berkoff found in the vernacular in his early work. Verse drama took a new lease of life from his boldness. Storytelling is a more ancient tradition than any one writer, but the joy and drama Berkoff put back in it will have helped later innovators as Conor MacPherson. (The Full Room 27)

However, there is an overall reticence in the literary world to give Berkoff the credit he deserves, although newspaper critics are gradually becoming bolder in their praise of his use of language. The above quotation comes from one of the very few books on theatre that includes him, and perhaps the sentence that follows it hints at a certain embarrassment that could be the cause for the traditional reserve Berkoff’s work has met with: ‘Throughout the 1980s [Berkoff] ran counter to the prevailing political dreariness, and was scorned for his innocence and naivety, but he midwifed a lot of the richer drama that was to follow’ (27). It is true that certain aspects about some of the plays such as Sink the Belgrano! and Brighton Beach Scumbags are remarkably childish, but I have to agree with Dromgoole when he writes about the livening effect of Berkoff’s work:

Steven Berkoff

Rather like that other spiritual ubermensch, Bono, [Berkoff] is frequently asking us ‘Do you believe?’ without specifying exactly what we’re supposed to believe in. Tinkerbell? Karl Marx? David Icke? Though the real question is closer to ‘Are you alive?’ a challenge with betokens magnificent arrogance in both men. The presumptions behind the question are preposterous, but I for one am more than happy that there is someone out there asking the question. The fact that there is little intellectual cohesion behind the work matters not a jot, there is a vivacity that works like cocaine in the system. (26)


I hasten to add, however, how wholeheartedly I disagree with his assertion that there is ‘little intellectual cohesion’ behind Berkoff’s work. I hope this dissertation has been successful in proving that there is plenty. Perhaps the following passage gives us a clue as to the nature of the obstacle that stops Dromgoole from seeing the cohesion:

You don’t feel you’re getting the delivery of the whole of a person. Works that are fuelled by rage, in a frenzy, are some of my all-time favourites - Troilus and Cressida, The Bacchae or Prometheus Bound are magnificent - but you never feel that the writers are writing from their center. They’re writing at force, a different sort of art altogether. It delivers the most thrills, but the least completion. It is gloriously irresponsible to itself. Berkoff is in that company. (The Full Room 26)

Is Dromgoole not revealing himself to be guilty of the very fault he accuses Berkoff’s work of? What does he mean by writing from one’s ‘center’? We so often hear terms of this sort casually tossed about and we all nod our heads knowingly, but what do they mean? Perhaps the following passage from The Aesthetics of Excess may help the reader to decide for him or herself whether Berkoff, like any other writer, is writing from his ‘center’ or not:

In a sense, rhetoric as a discipline (and as a hermeneutic) has all the answers and none: all on the structural, conceptual register; none on the passional, corporeal register. Rhetorical analysis provides an explicitation of the linguistic armature of expression and meaning, but is incapable of providing an account of the libidinal economy which underlies and motivates expression. Finally, rhetoric is not merely an aesthetic pretense, not a pseudo-concept, but rather the very slippage of meaning that underlies all conceptuality. Tropes proffer not the figures of meaning, but rather the very conditions of figurability. The impurities of rhetoric are not inherent in any deviation from literalness: rather, tropes are “impure” insofar as they indicate those primary process activities which underlie their own generation, those libidinal charges which subtend all transference, and thus all communication, all signification. It is within this rhetorical “excess” that the trace of the body remains, as evidence (or prolegomena) for all future hermeneutics (or metaphysics). The libido is the site of the interchange between the psychic and the somatic; rhetoric, the foundation of style, bears the traces of this procedure, of this movement between logos and corpus. (xi)

In fact, if we reflect on the nature of the theme Berkoff revisits incessantly in his journals, short stories, and plays, and on his use of bathos and elevation to constantly remind us of our dependence on figuration to express ourselves, perhaps we could consider him to be writing from his ‘center’ a little more than most.

Steven Berkoff


© Deborah Knight 2001



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