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Dr. Jonathan Miller


By Anthony Hiss

We were fortunate enough a couple of months ago to usurp an hour of the busy and valuable time of Dr. Jonathan Miller. Dr. Miller, who is short, active, red-haired, in his twenties, and of course, English, was in town for the Boston opening of Beyond the Fringe, the successful satirical revue of which he is both a co-author and a co-star; and he received us, among others, in a cavernous room in Tiffany's Hotel, where he, his wife, and a two-month old baby, Tommy, had been unwillingly billeted for the duration of their stay.

"It's too grand and too public," he announced when we had been seated in a rather too large armchair, offered tea, and asked to admire the new Brooks Brothers suit he was wearing. We complied, and he went on to tell us that he has always preferred to live in "Jamesian seclusion." Wasn't this a very untheatrical sort of wish, we wondered aloud. The doctor confessed to us that, like Mr. James's, his heart was not in the theatre.

"I've only come over here with the show," he said, "to make enough money to subsidize a year's residency in some American hospital. After a year in New York--if we last that long--I'll give it up. I am more of a doctor, you know, than a satirist."

What sort of a doctor, we questioned; and what were his reasons for wanting to work in this country? His field (explained Doctor Miller) is neuro-psychiatry, the study of the effects of physical drugs on psychologically disturbed people; and his reasons for wanting to study in the United States (pointed out Satirist Miller) are simple: "the American public has a curious belief--it's a Puritan hangover--that disease is culpable, so you pay exorbitant sums to be cured. And your doctors make a lot of money."

He paused. "Not, you understand," he continued more slowly, "that I'm looking for enormous wealth. I'd just like a nice house--on Beacon Hill if it weren't so expensive--and a chance to enjoy the best of America." The best of America. We paused, and asked him what he thought it was. "There is a vigor of thought at the highest levels in this country," he began. "Intellectually, at your best, you're thriving, you're much more alive than England. Your writers--men like Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Kazin, Saul Bellow, Malamud--are terribly exciting. Even the non-professional people: look at how trenchant and vigorous a book a woman like Jane Jacobs can produce."

We mentioned that we had read with pleasure a review of Miss Jacobs' The Life and Death of Great American Cities that the doctor had just written for the New Statesman and said we were curious about his interest in sociology, and in writing. "So much of real sociology is common sense," he answered, "that it can't be uninteresting. I should like to be able to reawaken (through my own writing) the spirit of William James and Charles Peirce--their fantastic muscular ordinariness is very much a part of the best of America. I hope to be able to write--if I'm not too extraordinarily busy--when we get to New York."

This last remark brought Miller's show and our Boston back to the forefront of our mind. We said so. "We all like Boston as a city," the doctor told us. "And the show is certainly a hit. But thank goodness for a little Harvard leavening in the audience. A Boston night-time audience is like a matinee crowd anywhere else; and a Boston matinee audience is an advertisement for Medicare.

"As for the show, it's really just gone on from one thing to another. The four of us" (Miller's collaboraters in Beyond the Fringe are three contemporaries named Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore) "had never met before we started. We were all brought to Edinburgh by a promoter to start a show that would supplement the so-called 'fringe' parts of the Festival there--the theatrical offerings and so on.

Dr. Miller told us that there wasn't too much he could say about the show, and that he didn't want to discuss his theory of humor, or anything like that, so instead we asked him (feeling our time drawing to a close) about his background. He grew up in and around London, where his father was a pioneer in modern criminological research. His university was Cambridge (St. John's College), and his medical training had come at University College Hospital (part of the University of London).

"I've spent all this morning," he continued, "at a Boston Hospital--Massachusetts General. We were given a lecture in the same theatre where ether was first successfully used during an operation--a solemn, domed room. Tomorrow I'm going back."

The doctor was interrupted by his wife, who reminded him of a pressing dinner engagement and an impending curtain. As we slipped quietly out the door, we heard him return to Miss Jacobs and her cities. "Cities," said Dr. Jonathan Miller to Mrs. Jonathan Miller while she bustled him into an overcoat, "get the kind of streets they deserve. Slums are permissive, not initiative. Yes, yes, I'm coming."

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