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Jonathan Miller: Finding Epiphanies in the Mundane

My mother taught me something of which I was very impatient at the time: the value of monotony. With hindsight I see that the imposition of her routine was in effect a spiritual exercise, which has lasted the rest of my life. She saw epiphanies in the mundane.

Eventually I became fascinated by the appearance of the commonplace as well. I learned the pleasure of simply watching. I take enormous pleasure from watching, in restaurants, in railway carriages or on street corners. Anywhere. Elevators are good places. I like to see the way we handle social encounters at awkward moments. I like to see the little signs, the tiny gestures, the twitches and grimaces of embarrassment. And it is here, amid the most minute detail of the commonplace and the ordinary and the mundane, that I find the greatest displays of humour.

-Jonathan Miller. "Among Chickens," GRANTA Magazine.

With such a diverse career, it's difficult to pinpoint for what Jonathan Miller is most noteworthy, though many would highlight his extensive directing work in theater, opera and film. "My whole life in the theater has been yielding - I've said this many times - to people coming to the door with a Frisbee in their hands and saying, do you want to come out and play?" Spanning more than 40-years, Miller has "played with" many of the most distinguished theater companies in the world, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Miller's "humanism" and appreciation for "the negligible details" shines through both in the productions he chooses to direct and the ways he chooses to direct them.

In 1970 he directed Laurence Olivier as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." "Because Shakespeare is great, we think the characters are, and they're not," Miller explains in an interview with SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY. "The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that his characters are extremely domestic. Human beings are not enormous. We like to think we are and we cast huge metaphorical shadows, but we don't."

After his production of "King Lear" was criticized for "lacking theatrical grandeur," Miller responded, "When they talk about the absence of grandeur in Lear, that is not really a drawback of the production, but rather the topic of the play...a very mingy, wretched figure with no grandeur that acquires it at the end..."

And his recent production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" displays this same appreciation for the mundane. As Miller explains in his interview with Bill Moyers: "Chekhov, perhaps as a result of being a doctor, has a passion for the negligible detail that actually, the people that he talks about and describes and dramatizes are people who are totally forgettable. But when you put the sequence of their interactions and interrelationships together, you feel you have an epiphany, to use your word. You have actually understood the tragic nature of human life. And he gets it in ways that I think very few other playwrights do."

THE YORK PRESS in Britain reviewed the production: "This is a harsh yet humorous Cherry Orchard, full of realism and stripped of the vestiges of romance. In our self-centred age, it is more apt than ever."

And Miller's belief that even the most commonplace characters and setting on stage can create a transcendent effect for an audience, connects with his views on religion and disbelief: "I don't feel I've lacked anything by not having transcendental beliefs in huge issues, why I don't go looking for sunsets and sunrises and huge horizons in order to get my sense of awe. I get my epiphanies by confronting the mortality of all of us negligible people."



Photo by Robin Holland

Posted May 4, 2007

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JONATHAN MILLER
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