Monday, 25 October 2010
It is the ‘negligible details’ which make good art and drama, Jonathan Miller suggested when talking at Barton at the weekend.
He read Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts including suffering... takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along and the poem’s reference to Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus where people, animals and ships all seem to be looking elsewhere despite the splash of the white legs disappearing into the green water. He drew attention to the same phenomenon in a different Breughel painting (reproduced above): the Conversion of St Paul appears to cause a slight hold up on the busy road to Damascus rather than the drama of the moment (he said) which founded Christianity.
The highlights of his life story as he told it turned on close observation and on the diligent application of what is discovered by this close observation. It began before he was born birth with his father as a Great War doctor taking seriously the symptoms of shell shock. It continued with his own education, including a Biology teacher who got his pupils on an expedition to squeeze egg and sperm from fish and then observe under a microscope the single fertilised cell divide for the first time. It continues with current publications about and his own observations of the hand movements people make when speaking.
He repeatedly declared himself an enemy of the stylised gestures and cliches of many dramatic and especially of many operatic performances. He dwelt at length on the way humour works by revealing to us something we in fact then recognise. And I was particularly struck by his observation that, although he would often change the period in which a play or opera is set (provided he had researched the negligible details with care), he could never do so when the writer or composer had set it in his own day (where the original negligible details would be unconsciously intrinsic).