Monthly Archives: September 2017

Our new interest in others’ personal experiences

 

Memoirs, an old-fashioned literary genre, do seem to have come back in vogue in recent years. However, while those of decades past recounted the lives and achievements of people already well-known from the arts, sports, politics and business, now we can read about people we had never before heard of.

One major factor in this growth in the genre has probably been the profusion of weblogs. These often centre on routine and mundane personal experience, like diaries used to. Another factor might be the continued popularity of “reality TV” documentaries where ordinary people’s daily lives are given a singular attention and status. After all, memoirs are relatively easy to write, being a development of the essays on personal experience which everyone had some competence and practice in writing from school.

However, one rather alarming aspect about many of these recent memoirs is that they describe lives of violence, abuse, illness, addiction and suffering, and frequently with a sexual element. It does suggest that modern audiences have developed a particular voracious and gruesome appetite for accounts of other people’s sufferings. As observed by Shirley Showalter, Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It in 1995 seemed to be the progenitor of this trend. Even the less lurid and horrible stories still seem to feature sustained pain and hardship before they lead eventually to some reconciliation and success and happiness, a process which, it goes without saying, will allow a journalist or broadcaster to describe the book as “inspiring” or “life-enhancing”.

Human beings have always loved stories of difficulties overcome and enemies defeated, so I suppose it is not surprising that these elements feature strongly in modern memoirs. Even if, in the lives of successful celebrities, you sometimes feel as if the writer had to work quite hard to find enough of those examples of hardship and challenge to attract the ordinary reader.

While the lives of famous people have always been useful for newspaper and magazine serialisations, now these, joined with the tales of ordinary folk, seem also to fill endless hours of BBC Radio 4, and to allow interview opportunities on any number of other radio and TV programme. Their particular value is for book festivals, fitting in with our endless appetite for all celebrity, or for any secrets. At this point, in case I become too superior or judgemental, I have to recognise and accept the role played in this development by the long-established TV format of chat shows, something I have enjoyed since childhood – at least, as long as they featured interesting writers, actors, film-makers, musicians and artists.

As memoirs have become more popular, another literature and publishing genre that I grew up with, collected letters, has definitely become less so. Understandably perhaps: hardly anybody writes letters nowadays, and people of note have long had plenty of other ways to record their ideas and achievements. Personally, I had never made a habit of reading collections of letters, but I certainly could see they have been an essential primary source in any worthwhile biography or history. It is memoirs which seem to some extent to have replaced collected letters in the publishers’ non-fiction repertoire.

Shirley Showalter also proffers the theory that the increase in writing and reading memoirs may be because many find it a useful therapy in stressful times. That certainly sounds plausible – and is certainly a more attractive notion than the alternative that more of us have become more ghoulishly and sadistically drawn to suffering and violence.

 

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A colourful cast of characters

 

As mentioned in an earlier Leaf Collecting post, a big impact was made on me as a young theatre enthusiast by the book Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern. It describes a journey around 1972 made by the director Peter Brook and a multi-national acting group through the African countries of Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Benin and Mali.

As Heilpern summarises near the start of the book, “Eleven actors and Brook left for Africa and thirty actors returned. Everyone connected with the journey learned how to act, one way or another.” One of the most vivid sections is his brief biographies of the actors at the start, full of colourful detail as if they were characters out of a 19th century novel.

For example, Malik Bagayogo, from Mali. “Bagayogo seems to have a perfect physical build, as powerful as an athlete. Yet he was crippled down his left side as a child. He was kept away from school – he can still scarcely write – until his father took him to a healer in the village who miraculously cured him with herbs and leaves. The treatment took three years…When he was eleven years old, Bagayogo met a blind beggar, a singer who travelled from village to village. He became his guide. The beggar taught him everything he knew, songs and poems about ancient traditions, animals, sorcerers and devils… Sometimes he starts to sing a melody suddenly remembered from his childhood. The actors scramble to write it down before it’s lost for ever.”

And Andreas Katsulas, “the giant American-Greek….The son of a one-time gambler and bootlegger who was imprisoned for a year or two in Illinois…He’s emotional, forthright, explosive – unconcerned, he likes to say, with ‘the mystical shit’. He does a job. His father always said, ‘Work eight hours, play eight hours, sleep eight hours. Don’t do any more or less.’ So he doesn’t. His father also said never trust anyone, not even your mother. And he doesn’t do that either. Also, he watches every penny he spends, which gives him a reputation for meanness. Yet, when one of the actors needed quite a bit of money in a hurry, he was the only one who offered to lend it, counting out the notes in ones from a tin in a secret hiding-place…”

The Englishman Bruce Myers “(had) made history when he was expelled from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for being drunk onstage while playing Napoleon in Man of Destiny”, writes Heilpern. He continues, “Of all the actors who might have been in this group, Brook ended up choosing someone I’ve known all my life. ‘Don’t laugh’, Myers said to me when we were fourteen. ‘I’ve decided to become an actor’ … Myers was to get lost in the Sahara Desert. He could have died. He can be wild and frightened, just frightened of life, I suppose. And he can have moments of such calm and mastery, of wisdom almost, that your eyes would be opened. Before Africa, he took a leading role for a short time in Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was filling in for an actor who’d fallen ill, and he had only a few days to prepare the part. Brook told me that his first performance was one of the finest achievements he’d ever seen on the stage. Then (Myers) lost it…he found himself in a state of terror on stage…He went to the Lake District to teach sailing and climb mountains…”

Miriam Goldschmidt was “German, black, wide-eyed like a child, devious as a cat. She likes to drink, goes over the top from time to time, has a wild surrealist imagination, living close to the edge of craziness maybe. At twenty-five, she’s the youngest member of the group. More than anyone she has a real need for the world of make-believe. Her mother died when she was two. Her father, thought to have been born in Mali, died in a car crash. Her adopted parents both died in a car crash. Her third mother died of cancer, as did her first. Her boyfriend of nine years, an archaeologist, died in a car crash. One time, during an improvisation, Brook asked her to come on last. ‘I don’t want to come on last!’ she snapped. ‘It’s the story of my life…!’ People thought she was joking…”

Lou Zeldis was described as “tall as a windmill, vague as a giraffe. You would notice him in a crowd. He’s a striking bisexual, usually dressed in flowing robes as if taking part in a biblical epic. Perhaps he is. He lives very much in a world of his own, a world of fantasies and dreams, lived out with a little help from his friends. He’s been busted a couple of times…The second time, he was jailed for six months downtown Las Vegas: quite enjoyed it. Very little fazes him. He talks rarely. When Brook has a discussion, he often falls asleep. That is, unless he’s listening with his eyes closed…”

Michele Collison was “a small mountain, or a large hill, height 6 ft 1½ ins, weight 180 lbs before breakfast. Unless you’ve seen her blow her wages on a meal, you’ve missed one of the great theatrical happenings…”

Most of Brook’s group were not well-known at the time of the African trip, and scarcely better known now, 40 years later. However, one who was already established has become more famous as the decades have passed.

“Helen Mirren… a star maybe, outspoken, generous, bright, luscious, lost. Violence is a part of her, part of the strange alchemy that goes into the making of a sex symbol…However she resolutely refuses to appear in the nude except for money… She’s famous for many fine leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company…and some massive publicity usually labelling her as ‘The Sex Queen of the RSC’. This can lead to tears, but you have the feeling she can’t resist playing up to it. It makes life easier sometimes. ‘Oh, don’t let’s talk about serious acting,’ she’s been known to say to earnest journalists, ‘let’s talk about my big tits.’ Part of her dilemma might have been that she couldn’t decide whether to be a straight actress or a great big sexy movie star. You can’t have both, apparently. The Brook experiment was entangled with her search for an answer.”

Heilpern’s comments are particularly apposite since it is quite obvious that, in subsequent years, Mirren did manage to combine serious acting and sexy celebrity.

The primary long-term legacy of the enterprise was Brook’s dramatisation of the Indian epic poem The Mahabarata, first performed in 1985, given its UK premiere in Glasgow in 1988 and later adapted for television.  Bruce Myers and Miriam Goldschmidt featured among its large cast, plus a third member of the African explorers, the Japanese Yoshi Oida. The film is on You Tube – high time to watch it again, I think – as is The Empty Space, a documentary by one Gerald Feil about the Brook group’s residency in New York shortly after the Africa trip.

 

Reference: Heilpern, John (1979)  Conference of the Birds: the Story of Peter Brook in Africa   Harmondsworth: Penguin

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