Features Published 2 February 2017

John Berger’s Intimate Relationship with Theatre

The novelist and critic John Berger died at the beginning of this year. Here, Richard Turney explores his work's "porous and fertile border" with the theatre world, and his influence on Chris Goode and Simon McBurney.
Richard Turney

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‘Field’, an essay written by John Berger forty-six years ago, explores a set of circumstances in which viewing something and being part of it can become confused. Berger describes being held at a level crossing and looking out across a field from his car window. Minimally dramatic events are taking place within its boundaries. Finches chase each other. A kestrel hovers. A flock of sheep moves slowly as they graze. A first event catches his attention, which is then held and led into the space by a series of similar small events. At some point, it appears that the field itself has become the event, not its backdrop or stage. Furthermore, its boundaries have swelled so Berger is now inside it, hence the blurring between spectator and participant. Finally, and until the crossing gate is lifted, the event becomes the size and shape of one’s whole life. The experience is difficult to write about, says Berger. It is illogical, as he freely admits, and possibly preverbal, and yet also instantly recognisable. For Chris Goode, in his deft reading of the essay in The Forest and the Field, Berger’s field offers an ‘abundantly suggestive and enticing alternative’ theatrical space, in which ‘a theatre of lightness’ might occur: ‘lightly framed, minimally controlled, openly accessible from every angle, encouraging of attention, cherishing of both togetherness (in one place) and multiplicity; a theatre in which content is a lightly sketched pretext for the conscious and consensual inhabiting of experimental social form.’ It is an idea so important to Goode’s practice it is there in the title. ‘Without him my work would be half missing’ he tweeted after Berger’s death.

Berger died at the beginning of the year, at the age of ninety. He wrote extensively about photography and art, was a Booker Prize-winning novelist, and so much more, working between forms and genres during over sixty years of restless and remarkable creativity. ‘Field’ illustrates something of Berger’s willfulness and self-reliance: it is an essay that neither begins with or heads towards another thinker, the traditions of looking at landscape are blotted out, substituted for an intense sensitivity to his own experience, and he is unafraid of looking foolish in the hunt for something both nameless and truthful. Goode’s acknowledgement of Berger’s influence on his practice starts to reveal a fascinating relationship between Berger and the theatre that often gets overlooked, and that seems particularly important now as his posthumous reputation begins to form. (I have tried to articulate my feelings about the response to Berger’s death elsewhere.) My own engagement with Berger’s work has predominantly been with his narrative prose, but within that, and increasingly, I find that his work’s porous and fertile border with theatre a crucial component to my reading of him.

Berger was never far from theatre. Back in 1961 he was translating texts by Bertolt Brecht with his then partner, Anya Bostock, including Poems on the Theatre. In an essay, ‘The nature of Mass demonstrations’ (1968) – one that seems particularly pertinent in the first few days of the Trump presidency – Berger understands the indeterminate position of the demonstration as ‘a rehearsal’ for the creative ‘performance’ of radical social change, and also as a performance in itself, giving body to an abstraction, representing a potential strength, living as theatre does on the line between the symbolic and real act. In the 1980s he wrote a couple of plays, Goya’s Last Portrait and A Question of Geography (a collaboration with Russian writer Nella Bielski, which was produced by the RSC in 1988). It is best to get it out of the way early: Berger is not a good playwright. As Goode put it to me: ‘I think he seeks to exert — or maybe feels a responsibility to assert — a kind of control, particularly in the plays, that is not quite necessary and, in an odd way, does not feel quite like him.’ It is indicative that Berger’s best dramatic scene is the central chapter of the early novel The Foot Of Clive: think a claustrophobic version of the ‘Circe’ chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which a collective nightmare, and its attendant impossible occurrences, exerts pressure upon the uneasy patients of a 1960’s NHS ward.

Berger’s most prominent connection to the theatre is his collaborative friendship with Simon McBurney, dating from a performance of Complicité’s Street Of Crocodiles in 1992. In 1994, Complicité staged ‘The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol’, a story from Pig Earth (1979), Berger’s remarkable prose response to the peasant life being lived in an Alpine village. Berger went there for research in the mid-Seventies because he noticed that many of the economic migrants he encountered for A Seventh Man were from peasant backgrounds; he remained there for almost forty years. Complicité’s show correlated the rough-hewn materiality of human and animal bodies evoked by Berger’s prose with a physicality of performance on a stage covered with earth. In Berger’s book, no material thing remains simply itself, as a series of figures hitch animal and human bodies to each other and to the land. In one story, for example, André, a young boy, connects the sight of a slaughtered pig carcass with the mouth of a cave. The thought makes him remember his grandfather showing him a mineshaft where he once dug for gold. The shaft, now covered in moss, feels like the fur of an animal. Complicité were able to find an equivalent dramatic vocabulary for this sense of circular interconnection; as Irving Wardle’s review in The Independent had it,

“the show draws no line between human, animal and vegetable life. A hip-bath doubles as a coffin and a blood tank where actors change into slaughtered pigs. The company merge into the vegetation, offering Lucie their branched fingers for her fruit-picking expeditions.”

Perhaps witnessing the sophistication of Complicité’s dramatic vocabulary quietened Berger’s own theatrical ambition, as he wrote no play after this. When he returned to the theatre to collaborate on projects with McBurney, they incorporated pre-existing prose texts by Berger.

This collaboration was particularly productive in the late nineties. In 1997 Berger and Complicité adapted To the Wedding, his novel of love and AIDS, for BBC radio. In 1999 the two made a piece called The Vertical Line, a ‘one-off excavation’ using the disused Aldwych tube station to evoke the Chauvet caves and the artists who worked there thirty-thousand years ago. (There is an audio recording here.) It was commissioned by Artangel, who also produced the McBurney-directed Vanishing Points, a piece made for the series of events held in 2005 called Here is Where We Meet John Berger, which adapted a collaborative text written by Berger and Canadian writer Anne Michaels.

The relationship between Berger and McBurney’s goes beyond the specifics of any particular show. McBurney described Berger as ‘his guide’ in a tweet written after his death, and he expressed the shared aims of their creative lives as he saw them at the time in a piece titled ‘We are Both Storytellers’, written in 2005:

“What is confirmed when we listen to a story together, when we watch a story together, (Not you and I but us all, that is to say the number of people who make a human community, which is the number of people you find in a theatre), is that we not only listen to or look at the same thing at the same time, but we imagine the same thing at the same time…together. What we are often encouraged to think of as a ‘private’ or ‘individual’ event in the obscurity of our own unconscious is a shared and collective activity making sense of the darkness we all stand before.”

In this quote there is much of Berger: his belief in the difference between storytelling and later more solitary modes of narration, such as the novel; the corrosive nature of neo-liberalism and its attendant cultures; the ongoing search for things ill- or undefined; and the certainty that art can help us resist and reaffirm. In the idea of a human community being the same size as a theatre audience, I also hear a less finespun version of Chris Goode’s idea of the theatre as a ‘conscious and consensual inhabiting of experimental social form.’

Goode also acknowledges the importance of Berger’s thinking about animals and nudity for his own work. If Berger’s influence ended with these two practitioners, this would already suggest a significant impact upon the shape of contemporary British theatre. Beyond them, such a multifaceted, political, and suggestive writer has generated all kinds of partially hidden influences and engagements that others will be much better placed than myself to ennumerate. Every Berger work implicitly asks us about how we encounter the people and space beyond ourselves, in one continuous act of being in the world. Most urgently, Berger’s articulations of hope are also circulating, alongside a constellation of other bright voices resisting despair – the activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, perhaps the most distinct, whose writing is visible in work from Powder Keg to Josie Long’s most recent standup show. Solnit describes Berger as ‘a muse, a role model, a high-water mark’, and writes about him in a series of Facebook posts after his death. Accidental Collective’s recent post-referendum, post-Trump nomination show Here’s Hoping at Ovalhouse is infused with Berger’s thought, and Daisy Orton reads from Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark on stage. (Maddy Costa writes about the book and show in a wide-ranging blog post about the freshly vital relationship between hope and theatre. Accidental Collective also beautifully adapted here is where we meet in 2014).

The ideals of certain kinds of theatrical experience are also increasingly important to my understanding of Berger’s writing. To return to the McBurney quote above for a moment, in it he emphasises the liveness of storytelling. Such a claim is more straightforward for him as a creator of live events than for Berger as predominantly a writer of books. And yet also Berger prefers the term ‘storyteller’, after the Walter Benjamin essay of the same name which emphasises the story’s oral, communal lineage (compared with the novel’s bourgeois solitude) and thus this same sense of liveness and presence that is for me an impossibility for the written word. I am uneasy about the relationship between reader and writer that this explanation of the work proposes.

To think this through we need to go back to ‘Field’. Berger’s work abounds with spatial metaphors for the book form: Keeping a Rendezvous; here is where we meet; The Shape of a Pocket. The field might be the first attempt of Berger’s to define the place of his writing, and it is particularly valuable for two reasons. One, it offers a way of thinking about the minimal plotting in much of Berger’s narrative work, with its accumulation of collaged passages, one after another, turning or returning to a form or register, location or subject, white space between them, increasingly engrossing, and eschewing the flashier pleasures of plot. The narrator of Berger’s remarkable Booker-winning novel, G., suggests ‘I see fields where others see chapters’. Secondly, as we have said, the spectator/reader begins on the outside of the field, and is transformed into a participant, inside a newly created place.

Such ideas inform much of Berger’s work. A number of people this week have been moved to respond to Berger’s death by speaking of his ability, in front of an audience, to pause and think, slowly. Ben Lerner also suggests that Berger’s quality of listening in person is equally remarkable, a quality he also sees in the blank spaces of the written work:

“In the course of our time together, he said many remarkable things, but more memorable than his eloquence was the kind of space his listening made for us, his visitors. A radical hospitality. His attention rinsed the language a little, helped us to mean.”

A similar active silence surrounds his work. His shorter essays seem chiselled out of it. I see it in the way poems often appear as structuring devices within his novels, and I feel it in the white space of the poems themselves, just as it surrounds the lines of his drawings. In his collaborations with photographers and visual artists, one feels a companionable silence as the author and reader look at the images together across time.

This goes some way towards something I have often experienced when reading Berger, but never found easy to express, and find the ‘storyteller’ tag unfit to describe. Like a letter, perhaps, Berger’s work invites reply, or, better, has always already made room for it. It is there, I think, in the figure of Marisa, who pops up as an addressee in a number of later Berger essays. ‘Thank you for the painting, Marisa, I’ve put glass over it’ begins an essay on Brancusi in The Shape of a Pocket. I read Marisa as a kind of proxy for myself, or as Berger’s representation of his ideal reader. We learn that she is a reader and admirer of Berger who appears at his house one day in a battered car having driven across Europe to visit him. He invites her in, they become friends, and her presence is enriching enough to write about. Her narrative offers the possibility of driving into a book as if it were a physical place. It suggests that the boundary between Berger’s writing ‘I’ and the real person is almost non-existent. We can look at the field from the outside, and then find ourselves encompassed by it. As the quote suggests, the relationship then becomes reciprocal, Marisa sending him things that he enthusiastically responds to, and thus book labels itself as a site of interaction. It also opens out the reader-writer encounter: this writer is not speaking to me alone, as the closed and intimate nature of reading can make it seem. Instead it places me as a part of a community of interlocutors. (‘Not you and I, but us all’, as McBurney writes, having to pause to make clear the difference between the relationship between reader and writer on the one hand, and performer and audience, and audience with itself, on the other. This is one of the reasons, I think, why in much of Berger’s work he represents himself: it figures the books as places that we can meet with him. It is also there in the care and hospitality with which Berger treats his subject matter, a tenderness that implicitly suggests invitation. Berger’s ideal relationship with his reader seems to me to be most like certain kinds of theatre – the kind ‘Field’ is suggestive of, and that watching a story enacts for McBurney.

An essay called ‘The Hour of Poetry’, reworked as part of and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, sees poetry ‘as if it were a place, an assembly point’, somewhere ‘to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart…it is the continual labour of reassembling that which has been scattered’. It sounds like a description of his aspirations for his own prose. Berger is often uncharacteristically hesitant when he discusses this, couching his thoughts in caveats and similes as he thinks through the kind of place writing might be.

With these metaphorical and, at best, tenuously real places, we might imagine that Berger should have been more interested in developing his work for the actual meeting place that the theatrical encounter provides. Why he doesn’t, I think, is because his texts are fired by the tension between absence and presence. They are full of unlikely or impossible encounters and friendships, such as with the dead, for example, or memories and places which are always on the brink of slipping away into nothing. He writes, and always has, about absence and its trace: the absence of home, the absence of a friend or lover, the absence of the multitude of the dead, the absence of agency. This begins with his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, published in 1958, in which a character called John searches, bereft, for clues about a missing friend. It is an interest which seems to inform many of his obsessions, such as, for example, photography; ‘All photographs are a form of transport and an expression of absence’, he states in A Seventh Man. Marisa takes a photograph with Berger when she meets him for the first time with a homemade pinhole camera. She sends the photo to Berger, who reproduces it in the story of their encounter. She comes out as a ghost, shimmering, dissolving into a background much sharper than her. Berger is just about recognizable because he is familiar; she is barely there at all.

Such fascination around presence and absence is perhaps why Berger has not been more directly involved in the theatre. As attracted as he surely was to the idea of the theatre as a reciprocal, open space, and as inviting as McBurney’s notion that the theatre is a temporary community must have been, I feel too that there is a resistance already inscribed into Berger’s work. The relationship between what is there and what is not appears too crucial for him to sustain a creative engagement with a form in which liveness and presence are such readily available tools. Presence in Berger needs to be tenderly engineered, or fabricated, or figured, or hoped for, or offered, both beautifully and (perhaps) impossibly. It is indicative to me, in this regard, that when Berger did collaborate in a theatrical event, it was something like The Vertical Line, which tasked itself not just with imagining the moment at which Jean-Marie Chauvet and his team discovered the cave paintings in the Ardèche gorge, but also with imagining a meeting with the painters themselves. The piece thus works precisely within these notions of the present and irretrievably absent. McBurney speaks the words Chauvet himself wrote:

“Everything was so beautiful, so fresh, almost too much so. Time was abolished, as if the tens of thousands of years of separation no longer existed. We were not alone, the painters were here too. We thought we could feel their presence. We were disturbing them…”

I want to end with lines of a conversation between the character John (recognizably a self-portrait) and his daughter Katya, in Berger’s late masterpiece, here is where we meet. They have been in my mind from the start. I see them as an emblem for the perhaps paradoxical, certainly intimate relationship between Berger and the theatre. Standing in the Grand Théâtre de Genève hours before the evening’s performance, John says:

“There’s something about empty theatres…

Yes, they are full!”


Richard Turney teaches at Canterbury Christ Church University. He is planning a conference on Berger’s work to be held in September.