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"Greek"- a Wild Cockney Oedipus
Los Angeles

The side of Steven Berkoff's ego that exudes a detached, yet passionate hubris revels in the controversy over his play "Greek," a raw, poetic Cockney eruption of the Oedipus legend, crossed with a Plains Indian myth on incest. When "Greek" opened in Los Angeles last year, audiences were stunned by the obscenity, lyricism and volcanic exuberance of the four British working class characters in whiteface: Dad, Mum, son Eddie and his little woman.

"Greek" ran for eight months and won five awards from the Los Angeles drama critics. In New York, it closed after only 12 performances off-Broadway following "overwhelmingly venomous attacks" in every major periodical. Now it's San Francisco's turn.

The New York critics were entitled to say whatever they wished, Berkoff commented recently - with a suspiciously benign air that barely concealed the barbs lying in wait. "Any urban place tends to have people who know it all and they know nothing! I've never come across a lower level of critical response in terms of their verbal dexterity. My personal point of view is that you cannot show life to decadent people. Their taste buds are gone. How can you awaken those idiots? The one thing I resent is that they stopped a great public who are needing my work from seeing it. New York audiences do not wish to see they trash they get — 'La Cage aux Folles' and 'Nine' and other such lumpen, cancerous pieces of c-r-a-p. — They want to see life and 'Greek' is a manifestation of life."

Berkoff, a self-educated, triple-threat original as actor, director and playwright, was back in Los Angeles performing in his two-character play, "Decadence," a stinging study of the English upper class, their indulgences and consequent "numbness."

His early Parisian training in mime is evident in every choreographed movement. Berkoff began to get his reputation as a wild man of the theater with his first original play, "East," about the violent life of poor East Side kids. He put it on at the National Theater along with his version of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and his version of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," in which he played Gregor, the man turned cockroach. "I liked the story of a man who was so incredibly in pain that he became a source of illumination," Berkoff said. "People in pain — like Hamlet — have the greatest illumination, the most interesting lives."

He has played Hamlet "as an outsider" with his group on an Israeli kibbutz and in Jean-Louis Barrault's Paris theater. He sees Hamlet as "the underdog, the victimized person who is yet trying to hold together the moral scruples that keep society intact. He can't bear to have any stain, any rot. He is like a searchlight that exposes the contamination of our corrupt society in all ages. We need a Hamlet to expose and point a finger today."

Since his first visit to L.A. with "Greek," he appeared — after considerable soul-searching about self-corruption — as the Russian villain in the James Bond opus, "Octopussy." Now he has decided "to be a movie star for a bit. I'm going to be a huge movie star here. Hollywood is not about playing 'Decadence' five nights a week. I it's only natural to try to divert some of my skills and shake them up."

Shaking things up comes naturally to this Jewish native of London's East End, whose tailor father was born in Romania and maternal grandmother in Russia. "My life," he declares, "began under the czar. My earliest stirrings were probably hearing the sound in my grandmother's womb of thumping horses. My genes heard the Cossacks crushing down the little cobblestone streets and the knocks on the door."

The words tumble on, burning with fire and ice as he spits out his contempt for "anal repressive" mentalities, moralities, nationalities — damning them as "Nibelungen" (mythical German dwarfs) and "Wagnerians" — the worst curses in Berkoff's blistering vocabulary. His steel blue eyes look past a visitor. They are totally absorbed in his own visions: the cool assessments of a self-proclaimed outsider, a man who only feels "at home and at peace in" in America. He sees it as land of Hershey bars, hot dogs and root beer, tastes he acquired when he was here for three months at the age of 11.

'The English," he says, "are like the Nordics. They're like the Nibelungs. I don't dislike them and I don't like them. They seem to have flaws in their nature based on years and years of nationalistic fervor and self-aggrandizement that I find really puny! The average English person I respect has the greatest decency and honor and dignity that you won't find anywhere — a sense of compassion. What I don't like is a certain cold-blooded way of thinking, a perverted clinging-on which I wrote about in 'Greek.' They swell the doorways with their sagging mediocrity so when anyone with fervor wants to get in, you can't , because these bloated traditional fat carcasses are shoving their great guts in the doorway of anything new."

In England, Berkoff carried on with a slowly rising tone, "They're very frightened of the new because the new suggested a kind of potency. The new suggests a kind of potency. The new suggests a kind of erectus spirit. What is new is stimulation. That's why 'Greek' is underpinned with a kind of sexual allegory. Sexuality is the man's last anarchic act. He - man, the human being — can be a god and actually create flesh and blood. The last bastion of his independence is his erection — he should hang a flag of his own making on it and then he'd be free. His last stand for freedom and anarchy is that (sexuality) because his brain is being mulched by the press, by the filthy consumerism that's fostered on television. The greatest invention of the last 3000 years is being used as a garbage heap for commercials when it could be the next best thing to God. It's the most brilliant way to communicate. Instead, man's brain is being trampled."

He pulled away, with an effort, from his characteristic stream-of-consciousness outpouring and back to "Greek." "I always liked the legend of Oedipus. I think transcendental theater comes from exorcising all the demons of your imagination and it's the extirpation of these kind of ills I write about."

Deliberately deepening his Cockney accent, Berkoff went into a very funny - and unprintable - description that Lenny Bruce would have loved . It was Berkoff's uninhibited version of how all the great Greek playwrights sat around every year thinking up ways to shock the greatest theater audiences the world has ever known. Then they goaded Sophocles on to write about a man who inadvertently made love to his mother, killed his father and tore out his eyes in remorse.

"In writing the worst you can think of,' Berkoff noted, " you come to the purest thing you have, which is a kind of value of life. Take away everything - your life, your love, your eyes and what are you left with? You're left with total awareness. Where the Greeks went wrong — because they're a little Nibelung — is that Oedipus is condemned for incest, which is taboo in all societies. The plague is there until society purges itself of sin. You cannot escape fate and karma. In that way, the Greek Oedipus is logical, but illogical because it doesn't allow for emotional evolution. Rather there's a kind of penal code of law and fate. Emotional evolution is what I stand for."

He was going to put out his Eddie's eyes until he read "Seven Arrows" by Hyemeyohsts Storm and thought, "bollocks to all that." In Storm's account of a Plains Indian legend, a young boy named Night Bear sleeps with his mother, Sweet Water, and says, "It seems an easy thing to hear when a son kill someone, even his mother, but it is hard on people's ears when they hear of a son loving his mother."

Commenting on Night Bear's act, another Indian says, "Man accepts war and its killing. He accepts suffering, lies, deceit and greed, but I, White Wolf, tell you that these are the things that are unreal. Sweet Water entered within this gift in love and found love"

"That," said Berkoff, "seemed a good idea for the end of 'Greek' because love transcends everything. There's nothing repellent if it's contained with love."

San Francisco Chronicle April 22, 1984

 

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