"The world does seem totally mad," says British stage and film director Lindsay Anderson. "Increasingly, I feel part of a minority, as if I'm on a different planet with just a few friends. I have never been an optimist, but I am sorry to have become a near pessimist. As life goes on, I have to struggle harder to avoid cynicism. There are so many reasons for it."
" 'Good Morning America,' the 'Today' show and what's the other one?" he replies without the slightest hesitation.
Anderson, whose production of "Hamlet" opens tomorrow night at the Folger Theatre, is one of those rebellious spirits who came to the fore in Britain in the late 1950s. A diverse bunch, united by their scorn for the crumbling British establishment and by their eagerness to explore the grittier aspects of postwar society, they earned the collective sobriquet of "angry young men." Anderson went on to direct most of David Storey's plays ("The Changing Room," "The Farm," "Home," "The Contractor") and turned out a trio of films ("This Sporting Life," "If" and "O Lucky Man") that won him worldwide attention.
But he didn't like the "angry young man" label then, and at 61, he considers it wholly inappropriate -- rather, one suspects, like a motorcycle jacket on a senior citizen.
He concedes that he's "impatient," "totally honest, probably disastrously so" and possessed of "a strong sense of self."
But only if you press on and ask how others might describe him, does he offer the following adjectives: "Disputatious," "abrasive" and "awfully difficult." For starters. Not that Anderson appears to mind a bit. "I've always expected to get as good as I give," he says. "I imagine that is my Scottish blood, because the Scots are contentious and they do like argument. The English don't very much. So one finds oneself continually putting out ideas in a would-be stimulating form that, strangely enough, seems to incur more resentment than anything else. One doesn't see oneself as being contrary. One merely thinks that everyone else is being rather stupid."
It is lunchtime. He's just been polishing up some of Hamlet's speeches with Irish actor Frank Grimes, who's also been imported for the Folger production. Anderson asks the stage manager to fetch him a light beer and a BLT sandwich ("a big lettuce and tomato," he calls it) from a nearby deli, then settles back into his chair. His tunic shirt, picked up years ago in a New York thrift shop for $2, bulges at the waist. On it is emblazoned a map of the Western hemisphere and the French inscription "Ide'es ornamentales." Anderson has no idea what it signifies. His short gray hair is combed forward, suggesting a kinship with either Julius Caesar or a garden gnome. The large nose tends to tip the impression in favor of the gnome.
This is what he is soon saying about the current drift of the arts: "Unfortunately for me, we seem to have moved into a period where people don't expect or particularly like moral and social concern in the theater or the cinema. Instead, we have a bourgeois art of elegance or mystification or titillation, which doesn't question deeply or challenge people's emotions. It's a kind of theater and cinema I've never had much use for or been much good at. Britain is very like America -- perhaps more so -- in that people find criticism very hard to take.
"I've paid for that. The last film I made in Britain, 'Britannia Hospital,' was strongly attacked and not just because it was a satirical picture of very nearly every English institution, but because it finally threw the responsibility for choice back on the audience. I don't think people are strong enough to confront the nightmare at the moment. They do their best to escape from it. I suppose one is a bearer of bad tidings in order to stimulate people into right action. But that is asking a lot. The conformity we have moved into is not just political, it's emotional as well."
Here's what he has to say about the family: "I think the myth of the family is pleasant and charming, but the reality of the family is mostly harsh. If one tries to be an artist, it's extremely difficult to be a family man. I don't think I'd be capable of marriage. Most artists have been dreadful husbands, unless they find the right kind of doormat. And there aren't so many of those around these days."
Politics, Lindsay? "The sad thing is people have given up politics, haven't they? The defeat of the left is a great disaster, because there is no alternative one can see -- except the pure, egotistical politics of survival and profit-making, which have taken over in this country and are taking over in Britain."
The Royal Shakespeare Company? "I don't go much to the RSC now, but I've seen a lot of their work in the past and it tends to be theoretical and conceptual rather than passionate. When you have to do the same Shakespeare productions over and over again, you end up with directors who think, 'What can I do with it this time?' To a great extent, emotion and humor have deserted the English and their work in the theater is rather bloodless. The other evening I saw the film version of Harold Pinter's 'Betrayal' on TV. It was very professional and all that, but I thought, 'What on earth is this supposed to be about? Why do people bother? How can this be celebrated, because it really has nothing to do with anything except itself?' "
Tom Stoppard? "His verbal facility alienates me. I'm always suspicious of that kind of facility, that kind of 'Look at me! I can turn an epithet!,' which seems to go with complacency or smugness. I am too much of a puritan to be amused by that."
And "Hamlet"? "Frightfully good play, really."
Before coming here, Anderson had never heard of the Folger. But he knew its artistic producer, John Neville-Andrews, who had played a bit part in his 1976 production of "The Bed Before Yesterday," a vintage British farce that served, ever so briefly, as a pre-Broadway vehicle for Carol Channing. ("Poor Carol!" Anderson can't help noting even now. "She has become imprisoned in a kind of show business myth that exists as much off the stage as on and has gotten between her and the possibility of her ever becoming an actress again.")
Although Anderson had staged only two other Shakespeare productions in his career, one of them was "Hamlet" and he was eager to have another whack at it. By his own admission, his stock with the British theatrical establishment is not running particularly high at the moment. "The big houses in Britain -- like the National and the RSC -- are not really suitable to me or don't find me suitable," he shrugs. "I find it difficult to work within the confines of conformist establishments. Without particularly meaning to, I tend to be questioning, which makes me an uncomfortable visitor."
So when Neville-Andrews' letter arrived "out of the blue," inviting Anderson to be part of the Folger's 15th-anniversary season, he thought, why not? "I do act on impulse," he says, adding that he was not particularly surprised to discover on his arrival that the Folger was fighting for survival. "I'm really quite sanguine about these things. Nowadays, any independent venture of quality is going to have a difficult time."
Some of the rumbles emanating from the Folger these days, however, would indicate that Anderson has not exactly made life for the Folger any easier. His insistence on having control over every aspect of the production -- even down to the size of the type in the program -- has not endeared him to the administration. Tempers have reportedly flared and compromise has not been easily struck.
"It all goes back, partly, to my theatrical formation at the Royal Court Theatre in the classic days under George Devine," says Anderson. "One of the great things George did, when he gave you a production to direct, was that he also gave you total responsibility. And that meant not merely casting, directing, working with the designers. You were entrusted with the programs, the publicity. It was a very organic process. This, I realized later, was very unusual.
"The first time I went to the National Theatre to stage Max Firsch's 'Andorra,' I discovered that all the things I'd taken for granted, I wasn't allowed to do. I wasn't allowed to select program material. I wasn't allowed to choose the photographer I wanted to take the pictures. I wasn't even allowed to present flowers to the leading actresses on the last performance. These may seem small things, but if you're used to taking total charge the way a movie director takes charge of his movie, they can prove . . . irksome.
"I've got a feeling I've alienated a lot of people. But when you alienate people, you don't generally know, because they don't tell you. You just discover that you're not asked back. That has been a bit my experience since the early Royal Court days."
Anderson was born in India, where his Scottish father was an army officer. His mother was from South Africa and it was expected that Anderson and his two brothers would carry on in the time-honored British imperial tradition. His parents didn't get along, however, and he was shipped back to England at an early age. By the time he was 10, his parents had separated. The divorce tore a big hole in the family's facade of upper-middle-class propriety.
"I never saw my father much after that," Anderson says. "I think I saw him once. He wasn't interested in us. My mother was always very, very angry, because he became a major general or something and was listed in 'Who's Who.' He'd married again by then, a woman who'd had a daughter by a previous marriage. And in 'Who's Who,' he put 'marriage to so-and-so, one daughter.' He didn't mention his own sons."
The idea that a disrupted childhood may have contributed to Anderson's rebellious nature elicits from him a vigorous "Pshaw! It's very common in England that your socially dissident intellectuals come from the middle classes. Less so now, perhaps, but that's only because there aren't any dissidents anymore."
Anderson attended Cheltenham College, which later became the setting for his vituperative 1969 film, "If", a depiction of British public school life in particularly repressive terms. That film ended with the pupils taking up arms and gunning down parents and faculty, but Anderson says he was "just giving imagination and feeling full rein" and that his own schooldays were sunny enough. He subsequently attended Oxford, then when World War II broke out, served with the 60th Rifles and Intelligence Corps.
After the war, he helped found the British film review "Sequence" and wrote some of its more vitriolic articles. At the same time, he was hired to make a series of industrial films for a company that manufactured conveyors for factories and coal mines. The films were supposed to be about the machinery, but Anderson's interest in the factory workers themselves invariably showed through. By the mid-1950s he was poking his documentary camera into the lives of ordinary Brits at work and play. "Thursday's Children," his study of a school for deaf children, narrated by Richard Burton, won an Academy Award for best short film of 1954.
"Most generously, Richard did it for free," Anderson recalls. "I liked him, when he was young. The tragedy of Richard was that he was destroyed by cupidity as much as by anything else. He did have a peasant's desire to make money. He would talk an awful lot about making his first million. But once he'd made a million, he wanted to make another one. He would be offered some really terrible film by Hollywood, and he'd say, 'I have to do it. I can't turn the money down.' That in the end destroyed him. He denied the talent he did have."
Anderson had virtually no theatrical experience when he joined the Royal Court in 1957, but he took instantly to the stage. His first major production was "The Long and the Short and the Tall" (starring a young Peter O'Toole), followed by "Billy Liar" (starring a young Albert Finney). Arguably, Anderson's bristly temperament contributed to the immediacy of his productions and gave them their edge of emotional scratchiness. It was his association with Storey, however, that clinched his reputation as one of Britain's foremost theater directors.
"I was incredibly lucky to find an author I responded to so strongly and who was in a very fertile writing period," Anderson says. The collaboration was born with the film, "This Sporting Life," the story of the lower-class romance between a hulking rugby player and a repressed mine widow. But it found its true flowering on the stage -- beginning with "In Celebration," a naturalistic drama about the members of a coal mining family, who have been reunited for their parents' 40th anniversary, and ending, seven plays later, with the elegiac, almost abstract "Early Days," which starred the late Ralph Richardson as a dotty politician sorting through the memories of his life.
The tendency is, nonetheless, to think of Anderson in his earlier, proletarian colors. "Often one does become the victim of cliche', if you like. One is put in a pigeonhole," he says. "I've really done quite a variety of work. I don't think my Chekhov productions are un-Chekhovian. I think my 'Playboy of the Western World' was quite lyric, quite poetic, really. But the image of the angry young man persists in quite a strange way. The tiresome thing is that it prevents people from looking at my work as it is."
In that respect, it should probably be pointed out (and Anderson does) that he also directed that piece of commercial piffle, "The Kingfisher," that brought together Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert as a pair of septuagenarians succumbing to hanky-panky under an old beech tree.
"I didn't feel out of place doing it," Anderson says, although one gathers that rehearsals called for more diplomacy than he is accustomed to exercising. "You can't be too sensitive around Rex. He is quite peppery and he has a measure of insecurity which can account for his often very bad temper. But he is blessed with the most extraordinary charm and also the capacity to forget from one day to the next how odious he's been. Claudette was a bit scared at the beginning. But I thought she proved more than a match for him. He was not able to subdue her, and indeed, I think something in him realized it would be a disaster if he did. They ended up being good, though wary, professional friends."
Still, if that play was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, it does seem more natural to view Anderson by the fiercer light of his 1973 film, "O Lucky Man." An explosive, three-hour picaresque tale that subjected a gullible Everyman (Malcolm McDowell) to every mishap the 20th century (and Anderson's imagination) could devise, it ruthlessly painted the world as an atomic and psychic battlefield. One of its more shocking -- and revelatory -- images was that of a man's head grafted to the body of a pig.
"It's odd, isn't it, this anarchic sense of mine," Anderson says. "I couldn't say where it comes from. Not from personal experience. It must come from somewhere else. Only God could say. Perhaps it doesn't come from anywhere. I don't like institutions and I think we have to be deeply skeptical of experts. Hamlet was certainly no respecter of persons or institutions, was he? That's why he seems so enormously modern to me. I just believe we all have a great responsibility to be individuals."
"I mean, consider 'Good Morning America!' I know one shouldn't even watch those programs, but when you're in a foreign country, you tend to. There it is in the hotel room. The way those programs are run -- well, it's extraordinary. Four- or five-minute sections, without the remotest glimmer of critical comment, social or historical comment, comment of any kind, except a slavish serving of the commercial establishment. If you look at TV and what through our folly we have made of it, it does seem to be the greatest disaster in the history of mankind."
Considering the galloping conformity Anderson perceives everywhere, what legacy does he hope to leave behind him? The question provokes a sardonic chuckle. "Well, I doubt if there will be anyone around in 50 years to attach anything to my name," he says. "I don't mind. Cast your bread upon the waters and it may sink or it may be gobbled up by ducks. One thing you can be sure of -- it will not be returned unto you after many days. You can say goodbye to it."