a Wild Cockney Oedipus
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
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
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
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
"That," said Berkoff, "seemed a good
idea for the end of 'Greek' because love transcends
everything. There's nothing repellent if it's contained
San Francisco Chronicle April 22, 1984