Peter Ustinov Speaking
PETER USTINOV has made his mark as an actor, a playwright, a novelist, a director, and a producer in films, on the legitimate stage, and in radio and television. These musings extracted from a beguiling conversation with HENRY BRANDON, associate editor and Washington correspondent of the SUNDAY TIMES of London, explain how he came to be the man he is.
BY HENRY BRANDON
WELL, yes — I’m a great believer in beginner’s luck, and that’s probably why I try so many things. There are times when I feel slightly envious of the kind of writer, for instance, who was born in the docks of Liverpool and protects himself by writing about nothing else and is the greatest expert in the world on the docks of Liverpool. I’d find that extremely difficult. In fact, I’m one of those people who are so hopelessly mixed in breeding that they cannot be emotionally involved in the fate of any particular country. In other words, my foot doesn’t really start tapping to any particular anthem or military march.
My father was British, his brother is Canadian, his other brother is Argentinian, and his sister is Egyptian — and that’s all merely in one family. My wife is Canadian, my daughters are American, my son has a British passport (of course, I’m talkingin terms of passports now). The irony is that we’re all of the same family, or blood, if you like. And I also find relatives in every country I go to, so that I really feel perhaps more emotionally involved in the United Nations than in any individual country. All the same, emotionally I’m very European.
It seems likely that my Russian origin has contributed a great deal to my work. I find that I write in a manner which reveals itself to the Russian in that the Russian literary tradition was the first important one which didn’t have its roots in any concept of the classical; from the beginning of Russian literature there are elements of comedy and tragedy hopelessly and irrevocably entangled. I think that’s why Shakespeare is so popular in Russia and Racine is not. A man playing Hamlet very well in the French Conservatory would get a first prize for comedy, because Hamlet is unacceptable as a tragedy in the French sense. Chekhov? I have a sneaking suspicion that Chekhov approved, up to a point, of the restraint with which his plays were done, but he really thought they should be slightly funnier than Western critics are willing to admit. Or funnier than the way that they’re played now, even by the Moscow Art Theater.
Yes, my mother was French, but she lived in Leningrad, which, as I had occasion to find out recently, is very much more cosmopolitan than Moscow. I had read about that, but when you go to Russia you really feel that if Moscow is the heart of Russia, Leningrad is its aspiration. I was naturally rather moved by my trip to Moscow for the film festival last July — it was my first visit to Russia. It did seem to me that so many things which are believed by the West to be sinister inventions of the Soviet government are in point of fact Czarist elements which the Soviet regime has never succeeded in quashing.
In Moscow, I may tell you, a very beautiful girl came rushing up to me with tears in her eyes and called me “uncle” — and I also met my aunt for the first time. I’d never seen her before. And she behaved with that kind of rather suspect dignity which one got used to in British films during the war. In fact, she said exactly what I had seen in a British film and never really believed. When the door opened, there she was, aged eighty-one. I said who I was, and she said, “Oh, come in, I’ve just made some coffee.” It was uncomfortably near that kind of thing that happens when a man comes home after five years in a German prison camp, knocks at the door, and is greeted by a woman who says, “Oh, hello, Tom — tea’s on.”
My English education influenced me in that I was forced — at least for the better part of it — to walk to school every day through a virtual slum, of a type which hardly exists anymore, dressed in a top hat and tailcoat and with a furled umbrella in my hand. The school prospectus said that the umbrella was essential to differentiate us from City of London bank messengers. Certainly, passing through that slum every day with monotonous regularity was the most useful part of my education. And if you believe that education ends when you leave school, then you’re fitted only for certain kinds of work which happen, unfortunately, to be extremely important. But if, on the other hand, you believe, as I do, that school is only the place where you learn to learn, then, of course, it’s a very useful pastime at a period of life when the mind needs such a pastime.
But I might easily have been educated in Germany or Holland. My father was a representative of the German News Agency in Holland, and it was after my mother was, I think, about seven months pregnant that his immediate boss decreed that he should be moved to London, where he eventually became press attaché at the German Embassy — until 1935, when he couldn’t stand it any more and became British. (He was a German officer in the First World War, though he was never very explicit about all that.) But I know that when he left the German Embassy and became British, he got a cable from the German Foreign Office telling him to report at once in Berlin, followed by a cable from some representative of the German general staff, about half an hour later, telling him on no account to return. And then in 1938 — it all seems very odd now — he got a phone call from the German military attaché in London begging him to use his contacts to try to arrange a meeting between the German and British general staffs in order to force the British to stand firm at Munich. But the British didn’t dare risk a meeting.
THE argument which raged at the German Embassy was not absent in my school, because I sat at the desk next to young Von Ribbentrop. He was rather discreet when my father adopted British nationality, but then I suppose he couldn’t say very much because on the other side of him was the son of the Jordanian minister, and he, of course, was by Ribbentrop’s terms of reference a Semite. So his attentions were divided.
I wasn’t very good at anything at school. I got two out of ten, usually; the son of the Jordanian minister, one out of ten; and Ribbentrop, in the middle, frustrated, usually got no marks at all but was kept on because of the important necessity of giving the son of the representative of a powerful and somewhat aggressive nation a place in the sun. He had been refused, I believe, by Eton, which meant that he automatically came to us at Westminster, where the clothes were similar but the reputation perhaps not quite as giddy, and where there were much smaller playing fields for battles to be won or lost on.
In retrospect, I’d say what I’ve said somewhere before — it’s a joke, but there’s an element of truth in it — that English education is probably the best in the world if you can survive it; if you can’t, there’s really nothing left for you but the diplomatic corps or something like that.
For that matter, I firmly believe that any child worth his salt will learn more by reaction against than by obedience to. I remember certain cases of injustice at Westminster which were horrible in themselves, although on a very small scale; but they did make a child, or rather they did make me, aware of injustice, which is a very good thing. For instance, I was asked on one occasion to name the greatest composer of all time. I said Bach, and was told that the correct answer was Beethoven. When I was heard to mutter that I preferred Mozart to Beethoven I was made to write out a hundred times, “Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever lived.” Arrant injustice, you see. Then, too, the musical subject for the year when I was about seven or eight was Tchaikovsky, and on the end-ofterm exam one of the questions was “Name a Russian composer.” I put down “Rimski-Korsakov” and was upbraided in front of the whole school for showing off.
Also, later at Westminster, I got a school report which I wouldn’t have believed if my mother hadn’t actually shown it to me the other day. It said: “He shows great originality, which must be curbed at all cost.”
Still, from that point of view school was less dangerous than the Army, which, after all, is a return to school. It came to me at a very, very dangerous moment in my life, when I had tasted the first fruits of liberty and had left home — I had an apartment of my own. I had learned to take pleasure in personal gain on a very small scale, though I had also learned what it was like to have no money at all. And just when I was enjoying freedom to the full, I was in the Army — it really was like going back to school. I stayed in it for four and a half years, surviving by my wits as much as by anything else. Beginning at school, I detested cricket; I’ve no aptitude for it. The click of the ball on the bat has certainly inspired great and important Englishmen to rhapsodies of abstract satisfaction; it made even a man like the late Lord Birkett, whom I admired a great deal, write books about it. But I hate that noise almost more than anything else I know — it puts my teeth on edge.
As for soccer, I liked it very much, but I’ve always been rather heavily built, and although I could run quite fast over a short distance, the pursuit of the ball right across the field made me lose courage about halfway to it when I saw out of the corner of my eye other, fleeter people racing for the same thing. I was therefore put in goal, the theory being that as the stoutest boy there it would be extremely difficult for me to get out of the ball’s way quickly enough for me not to be a good goalkeeper.
So, with cricket and soccer at school I got by by learning — or perhaps it was germane to me — to make people laugh. Just as in the Army I was not in hot water when anybody else would have been simply because I became almost a kind of mascot. During those ghastly kit inspections they like to have in the Army, where you have to fold your socks in a certain shape — I was incapable of doing that once my feet had stretched them — I managed to lay out the kit in such a way that, although the sergeant might happen to be horrified, the officer was amused by it, it was so ridiculous.
So again, as at school, I usually escaped trouble by employing the technique of the melancholy clown, the sad sack. I didn’t do it consciously, but I see in retrospect what happened. And once you do that, of course, or if you have the kind of personality that lends itself to that, things begin breaking your way in some mysterious fashion.
I should have said that after Westminster I went to a thing called the London Theatre Studio. My mother was instrumental in arranging that because she belonged to one of those immense artistic families, like the Dolmetschs, in which everybody did something. It was almost a kind of artistic collective, or kibbutz, if you like. I’ll spare you the details and merely say that my mother is a painter and my cousin the artistic director of La Scala. Another cousin is Tcherepnin, who is professor of music at De Paul University in Chicago.
Anyway, if I’d decided to become a stockbroker or something like that there would have been repercussions in my mother’s family, as if I’d selected a profession in which there was no future for a boy. It was accepted as completely natural that I should gravitate toward one of the arts as the only serious kind of thing for a man to do — lucrative, safe, and honorable.
But the drama school was really a last resort. My father had almost washed his hands of me. I had been bottom in everything at school except French, history, and geography, and, as is the way with fathers (I know it myself), he grew more and more disappointed with the reports I brought home. Eventually he accepted the situation with a kind of resignation, and I went into the theater as a ne’er-do-well. Or, rather, I went to drama school.
EVERYTHING went wrong for me there. They said I was — well, not exactly arrogant, but that I knew my own mind too well, that I wouldn’t learn, and that I was unrelaxed; that in all the more athletic activities of the drama school I was stiff and unbending and hopeless. My father then got into a really disgusted mood with me; how on earth was I to be launched in the world? I couldn’t find a job, and he grew more and more sour. Then I managed to pass an audition at the Players’ Club, giving a turn as the Bishop of Limpopo. I remember my father saying, “Not even drama — vaudeville,” although he liked to laugh more than anything else.
Suddenly I made a kind of hit with what amounted to a female impersonation of a German lieder singer giving her final farewell performance. I got marvelous notices. And despite my father’s denigration of vaudeville, I used to see him in the audience with a few friends, though he’d leave before the end so that I shouldn’t know he’d been present. His pride had become rather ill disguised by this time, and toward the end of his life he couldn’t really understand what had happened, because my whole career was all contrary to what his father had told him about things.
Those Players’ Club days were a long time ago. Now I consider myself a writer first and foremost. Acting is intrinsically easier than writing. To act well is, of course, difficult, but I think it’s more difficult to write a bad play than to give a bad performance, to put it at its lowest level. I think acting is in many ways the most powerful outlet for observation — and a most economical one, too, because you can suggest things with a fraction of a movement of an eyebrow, which would need much more extensive treatment in literature.
Yes, it’s true, I’m tempted to abandon acting now and concentrate on writing. Occasionally a part comes along which allows me to take a sabbatical and is fun to do — it’s a form of holiday that I don’t mind at all. But acting in the theater in a long run is absolute torture; it doesn’t do the theater any good either, because I don’t think the audience gets its money’s worth after a certain time. I can’t think that the human frame and the human mind are made for a repetition of the same thing, day in, day out, for a year or two years or more.
Television? I don’t find it at all fascinating at the time. It’s really the medium of intimacy. That’s why politicians so often go wrong on it when they’re told by their advisers that at that particular moment eleven million people are watching. They very often talk as if they knew eleven million people were indeed watching, whereas those eleven million are in units of four, three, two, or, most probably, one. You are in fact really talking, or revealing yourself, to a single person. If you talk to that single person as though he were eleven million, he will turn the set off, and quite rightly.
I think television has changed the face of politics much more than it has affected the arts, even if it has made certain arts really accessible. Politics it has transformed completely. I think that if, say, Eden had lived a hundred years ago, he would, despite all his unfortunate illnesses, have managed to maintain power, because at the time when an infuriated crowd was there to break the windows of his residence, he would have been in Scotland, like the Duke of Wellington, and would have come back three weeks later when the incident was closed and forgotten.
This is no longer possible, because now the television camera is everywhere. Very few people, for instance, would deny that Kennedy’s victory over Nixon was really fathered by their television debates. The television camera is not exactly a lie detector — that’s putting it too strongly — and in any case one isn’t actually trying to find out the truth. But one can find out the truth about a person: not whether a man is telling the truth but whether his personality on television is a true one or not.
THE first play I wrote (apart from juvenilia) had a kind of spontaneity, a freshness, which I can never reproduce now because I know too much. I gave that play to Herbert Farjeon, in whose revue I was appearing then in 1941. I wrote it between 1940 and 1941, in pencil, in school exercise books (I remember those English exercise books with “danger don’ts” on the back: “Don’t follow a rolling ball into the street without looking both ways” — that sort of business). Farjeon never said anything, though I saw him practically every day. At last I broached the subject and asked if I could have it back, but he was very evasive.
Then — it was the day Russia was attacked by the Germans — I went down to the country to see my parents, who were living in Gloucestershire, and we got all the Sunday papers in order to devour the news. There was tremendous excitement. We listened to the radio and tried to pick up Russian stations on the shortwave, and this went on until well after lunch. Then I read James Agate’s column in the Sunday Times, and the headline was “A New Dramatist.” I remember having a pang of jealousy. I started reading it, and, goodness me, it was all about my own play, which Herbert Farjeon had had typed, at his own expense, and given to Jimmy Agate. So now came this rave notice about an unperformed play. It ended: “A new dramatist has arrived and the play will be seen.”
Well, it wasn’t seen until about eighteen months later. But Agate’s notice did make a big difference. Shortly after that, I went into the Army, and when my play came on I was transferred to the Army cinematographic service. Since then I’ve made a living by playwriting, acting, and directing; I’ve directed five films all told.
Acting is the quickest way of making a living. Writing is a longer-term thing. It is also, from the purely day-to-day angle, a kind of insurance policy as you begin to acquire what the French call an “oeuvre.” This has a certain value because they keep on playing one’s work in repertory, and so on, in obscure countries.
Yes, I may have mentioned Chekhov, but I’m not really conscious of being influenced by any writer at all. There’s none that I really dote on; to that extent I’m much more influenced by abstract things. I’m very much influenced by Mozart, for instance, which sounds like an awfully pretentious thing to say. Yet I’m very, very keen on a light touch which can reveal itself on close scrutiny to be profound. Again, there’s something in the way I write which owes allegiance to Russianism, and that means that I’m not afraid to be a square. There is something essentially square about Russian writing — it’s so square that it becomes octagonal, which is something that people who use the word “square” hadn’t really bargained for. There is a quality in the film of Billy Budd, if I say so myself, which is an attempt to be so honest that it is absolutely without artifice. If it has a quality, and I think it has, it’s a quality I’m most proud of: it looks you straight in the eye, or as straight as it can. and says, “Here I am — take me or leave me — boom!” And there isn’t even one trick of the camera to try to bamboozle you into a feeling that it’s smart or modern or streamlined.
Yes, my new play is about capital punishment. I hate capital punishment. It was more humane when it was public, not done with this present vile ritual, and God knows we are full of vile rituals. It is enough to make one retch with anger when one reads in the newspaper that two Spanish anarchists have been sentenced to be garroted because a military tribunal of baleful idiots has decided that they’re not fit to be shot. I hate to think that Goya, of all people, lived in vain. I believe we’ve reached the stage when it is the duty of writers with strong convictions to say what they think.
I love watching the theater of the absurd as a member of the public. But I can’t write that way because I don’t believe many big themes can be tackled with that technique. And I think it’s a time when big themes are tremendously important. We’ve recently seen, for example, how fallible our great constructions of legal systems are. Wasn’t the whole time-honored structure of English law made an absolute fool of by a handful of ladies of easy virtue?
I’ve always thought that the English were really an extremely romantic, violent, and tempestuous nation by nature. As it happened, the long, the unexpectedly long, reign of Queen Victoria turned them aside from all this. But I think the English are in search now, after Victorianism and its aftermath, of their lost violence, and this, unfortunately, often seems to take the form of petulance, and flatulence as well. I mean the Angry Young Men, for instance. No, I don’t think they’ve ended already— I mean, “Damn you, England!” and all that kind of thing, which seems to me, by the way, to be really a form of narcissism.
Of course, I think any revolution (I suppose one can call what’s going on in England a sort of revolution) only really gets under way when the opposition is on the run anyway. The Russian Revolution looks romantically as though it had started overnight; so does the French Revolution. But they didn’t start overnight at all. They started with intellectuals and thinkers who had mobilized the crowd very cunningly.
The Russian government at the moment is very careful not to make the mistake of underestimating the influence of the intellectuals — that’s why they’re continually either cosseted or reprimanded. In England, on the other hand, revolution or no revolution, the intellectual is ignored, because England has invented a great safety valve: in the words of the psychiatrist in my latest play, you “are consulted in order to be ignored.” There is nothing more frustrating than to sit on the board of, say, the Arts Council and present all the facade of allocating inadequate moneys, which, after they’ve consulted you, they do exactly what they like with. By “they” I mean the permanent officials. You can very easily sit on advisory board after advisory board in England and find they are really just safety valves on the boiler of state.
All right — women. Have they influenced my life and outlook and all that? Well, it’s a bit early for stocktaking. But I don’t mean by that that I intend to have three more wives! Women have played an important part in my life, children too.
I think an only child, as I was, develops more quickly because he is able much sooner to realize the value of meditation and being left alone. He can also become negligent toward the feelings of others simply through lack of practice. Because we are creatures of habit, and everything is habit-forming, even being alone, I found it rather difficult to adapt myself to the exigencies of marriage, simply because it meant sharing, up to a point, thoughts and even actions which I had formed the habit of dealing with in isolation. And it never occurred to me that it might be construed as being slightly unfriendly to continue like that. And when I’m left alone and work for two or three weeks by myself—because I cannot drag the whole family with me — I find I very quickly relapse into those early habits with a kind of relief, and then have to readapt myself.
But I do miss them after a week or two — I miss them a great deal. What I miss is the fascination of watching creatures develop and the kind of pride you take if something you’re responsible for suddenly makes an individual decision. Because, you know, I think it’s fatal to think that children are there for your own amusement. They are a kind of confirmation of life, the only form of immortality that we can be sure of. There’s an element of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather walking about now in myself. I mean there’s a gene which belongs to him, and he’s still here in that sense; at least, he’s represented by chargé d’affaires!
I was going to say that the structure of society interests me a good deal, too, but perhaps I’ll just say that I’m fascinated by the practice of dressing up on formal occasions. I find the launching of a battleship or something like that an irresistibly comic spectacle. Why people have to put on hats with feathers blowing in the wind — I see no difference, really, between that and the African jungle.
And I find it extremely amusing to go into the shower bath after a game of tennis and see a man with no clothes on but wearing an expression on his face as if he were dressed. Sometimes at a place like the Royal Automobile Club you get four generals who’ve just played squash, and the generals’ clothes and hats are hung up, and they’re absolutely purple in the face, with a line around their necks and the rest of them as white as a sheet — and they’re looking into the distance and clearing their throats and discussing things as though they were dressed. It’s these moments in life that I think indicative of the follies and pretensions of human beings. Yet I’m inspired by the effort of man to get away from his nakedness and build something solid and reliable and worthy, even if it means abandoning such ridiculous rituals as battleships and their firing salutes to each other.