It’s a Great Big Shame!
Life is Sweet
Four Days in July
Nuts in May
‘Abigail’s Party’ and ‘Goose-Pimples’
‘Smelling a Rat’ & ‘Ecstasy’
Too Much of a Good Thing
There was a time, about twenty-five years ago, when spontaneity was the rage. This was encouraged in daily life, as well as in the theater. Indeed, the cult of spontaneity demanded that the barriers between the two should be removed: theater was life, life was theater. “Happenings” turned the world into a stage. Inhibitions were an enemy, to be kicked over in public. Audiences had to “participate.” And the participants in theater workshops were provoked into revealing their “true” selves in so-called encounter sessions. People would howl and cry and laugh hysterically, while others would sit around, watching this mental stripping with embarrassed fascination. Orchestrating these spectacles was the leader, or director, or whatever he (almost always a he) was called, who looked at what he had wrought with the smug demeanor of a guru.
Much of this was more group therapy than theater. Happenings could be fun, even creative, but the cult of spontaneity produced little of lasting value. For most theater workshops and happenings were too narcissistic, too unformed, too raw to be meaningful to anyone besides the participants. Letting it all hang out does not create a work of art. Transforming one’s feelings into something else can do so, but that takes talent and discipline. The former is always in short supply, and the latter is hard to reconcile with pure spontaneity. And yet the experimentation of the 1960s was not a wasted effort. For some remarkable things emerged from the dross. Peter Brook’s work in the theater, for example, and the movies of John Cassavetes owed much to improvisation. And then there is Mike Leigh. His latest film, Naked, won him the best director’s prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.
Mike Leigh was born in the north of England in 1943. He was trained in the theater at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and in film at the London Film School. When he arrived in London in the early 1960s, he was excited by Cassavetes’ movies, and by Brook’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Improvisation,” as he put it, “was around.” But he distanced himself from its psychodramatic excesses. Happenings didn’t interest him. Acting, writing, and directing did. He no longer acts. But so far he has written and directed twenty-four theater plays, twelve TV plays, four movies, one radio play, and several short sequences for television. He describes himself as a story-teller. His stories are made up during many months of rehearsal. “There is nothing extraordinary about our technique,” Leigh told me in his London office. In fact, I think there is. What is extraordinary is the combination of improvisation and discipline, spontaneity and precision.
The notes for his published plays mention that they have “evolved from scratch entirely by rehearsal through improvisation.” This is true of the movies as well. To make Naked, a story about a drifter in London, who is so terrified of domesticity that he abuses every women who falls for his manic …