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Jonathan Miller: renaissance man and reluctant Jew.

In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller by Kate Bassett, 2013. NY: Oberon Books, 464 pp., $36.

Jonathan Miller, polymath and Renaissance man, is a doctor and popularizer of medicine; learned author; comic actor; globe-trotting director of films, plays and operas; teacher, lecturer and television pundit. Born in 1934, he seemed erudite while still in the womb, appeared to achieve everything with effortless ease and has been called the most intelligent chap in Britain. Miller's father, Emanuel, a graduate of St. John's College, Cambridge University, was an eminent psychiatrist and author. His mother, the great-niece of the French philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson, was a successful novelist. The prosperous family had a nanny, cook and chauffeur.

During World War II his mother feared annihilation if the Nazis invaded Britain. Kate Bassett writes that Miller also "developed an abiding wariness of persecution, although the more immediate fallout was with his father who, in a post-war gesture of clan solidarity, started insisting on Judaic religious observances." The rebellious Miller refused to have a barmitzvah and became a non-believer, famously calling himself "not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish."

In 1989 and again in 2005, when Miller visited his ancestral homeland in Vilnius, he was struck by the absence of Jews. He saw the killing fields just outside the city and was well aware of the Lithuanians' active collaboration in the Nazi Holocaust. In his television programs about animals, he identified with the antelopes, the "ceremonial Jews of nature," whose large eyes were permanently darkened with fear. In Salzburg, a Catholic town in Austria near Hitler's former mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, he shocked the local press by exclaiming that a "disturbing fragrance fingered in the air, a mixture of incense and Zyklon B."

Miller followed his father to St. John's where he was elected to the Apostles, a secret society of twelve members. He trained at University College Hospital in London and became a doctor in 1959. His wife Rachel, whom he's been married to since 1956, is also a doctor. A friend noted that "she doesn't let him get away with much, but couches her discipline with good humour mad affection. She's unbeatable. And I've rarely seen a more devoted husband, more respectful, more loving or more grateful." The three children of this high-powered couple were not good students and did not attend university, but have had solid lives and respectable careers.

In 1960 Miller and three Cambridge friends wrote mad acted in the satiric revue Beyond the Fringe, which opened at the Edinburgh Festival, was a wild success and suddenly catapulted them to fame. Its cheeky wit mocked cultural icons and encouraged audiences to laugh at everything that was repressing them. Parodying the boring and confusing speeches in Shakespeare's history plays, Miller pronounced:

Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter.

Fair Albany to Somerset must eke his route

And Scroop do you to Westmoreland, where shall bold York

Enrouted now for Lancaster with forces of our uncle Rutland

Enjoin his standard with sweet Norfolk's host....

I most royally shall now to bed

To sleep off all the nonsense I've just said.

The revue also had a morbid skit where Miller played a "surgeon operating on a patient with lung cancer while chain-smoking through the mask" as well as a wicked speech in which the stuffy Lord Chamberlain, the official censor of the theater, exclaimed, "I don't want to see lust and rape, incest and sodomy on the stage--I can get all that at home."

Beyond the Fringe was a crucial turning point in Miller's life. Torn between science and art, he abandoned serious neurological research for what he called the "frivolous" lure of the theater. Despite all his impressive achievements, he later felt that medicine was his lost ideal, comedy his tragic fall. After choosing wealth and popular fame, he fiercely regretted the theatrical destruction of his medical career and remorsefully declared, "I think that was a bad thing I did."

Miller's greatest artistic contribution has been the updating of classical operas, while rejecting melodrama and stressing naturalistic acting, in order to "gain 'afterlives' through ever-modulating productions and subjective re-viewings." His Mikado was set in a 1930s Grand Hotel, Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier at the end of the Hapsburg Empire, Puccini's Tosca in the final year of Mussolini's regime, Verdi's Rigoletto among the contemporary Mafia and Beethoven's Fidelio in Pinochet's Chilean dictatorship. Though Miller can't read music, he's frenetically directed operas--as many as six productions in seven months--from Valencia to Venice, Stockholm to Santa Fe. Unfortunately, his innovative creations cannot be replicated and many mediocre imitators have corrupted and damaged traditional operas without adding any new insights.

As a theater director, Miller specializes in anti-romantic and black-humorous interpretations. Gently leading, he discovers connections between the actors and their characters, and enables the performers to fulfill their potential onstage. Bassett notes that he portrayed Othello's Desdemona, for example, "as a vivacious woman defying her father and, when attacked by her husband, putting up a fight. Instead of unliberated saintliness and a limply accepted suffocation, her final scene was ferocious, with legs kicking and sheets flying"--just as they would be in real life when she struggled to survive. Instead of attempting to cover every aspect of Miller's life and listing a bewildering whirlwind of projects, it would have been much better if Bassett had described exactly how, before rehearsals, Miller prepares to direct his operas and plays.

Miller's brilliance (unclouded by false modesty) has inevitably provoked jealousy and envy, cries of "too clever by half' and ferocious attacks. Even in boyhood, his bratty behavior was portrayed by his mother's friend, the poet and novelist Stevie Smith, in her story "Beside the Seaside: A Holiday for Children." A series of articles in the satirical magazine Private Eye wounded and infuriated the sensitive genius by deflating his pomposity and self-importance. They described the great Doctor Jonathan "pontificating with his customary vigour while surrounded by fawning importunate savants."

Miller retaliated not only by attacking contemporary idols in his books on Sigmund Freud and Marshall McLuhan, but also by engaging in public vendettas with divas and impresarios. He dismissed the glamorous mezzosoprano Cecilia Bartoli, who had more pull than he did with the management, as a "rather silly, selfish girl--willful, wayward and determined to have her own was" He likened Sir Peter Hall, director of the National Theantre, to Genghis Khan and unkindly called his chubby adversary "a ball of rancid pig's fat"

It's not surprising that Miller acquired many formidable enemies while working for half a century with some of the most inflated artistic egos of his time. And he's always attracted wide attention with his frank belligerence and vivid vitriol. He's recklessly called rival directors a "little guttersnipe" and a "slag of a dyke," griped in press interviews about "disgusting old opera queens and their rampant heterophobia," condemned operatic megastars as "inflexible monsters" and "Jurassic Park singers," boldly censured the married couple Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu as "the Bonnie and Clyde of opera," and dubbed David Frost "the bubonic plagiarist." Bassett concludes that "Miller's explosive satirical jibes have been professionally suicidal, making intendants flinch from inviting him under their roofs."

When briefly returning to medicine, Miller performed the first autopsy on public television and compared the glistening large intestine to a "huge unconscious Amazon." He had another stunning success with his intricately designed pop-up books, The Human Body and The Facts of Life. Despite some squeamish reviews, the former sold 100,000 copies in the first ten days and the publisher had to cancel the television ads until another 125,000 were rushed into print. Knighted in 2002, Miller was not only considered the brainiest but also the nation's sexiest man--a title usually reserved for rock heroes and film stars.

Bassett's style, disfigured by numerous cliches, can be awkward, as when she writes, "His nascent pedagoguism entailed some overwrought gabbling." And her reductive Freudian thesis--that Miller felt underloved as a child and overvalued as an adult--is unconvincing. But her small-print biography, based on extensive research and on several interviews with Miller, contains many lively incidents. Most readers will finish this book by feeling about Miller as Hamlet did about his father: we "shall not look upon his like again."

JEFFREY MEYERS, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010)--his fifth work on Orwell--and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011). Thirty of his books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012 he gave the Seymour lectures on biography, sponsored by the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.
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Title Annotation:In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller, book by Kate Bassett
Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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