reviews Lenny at the Queen's Theatre
The alarming thing when you listen to old Lenny Bruce records
today is just how unshocking, and how unfunny, the legendary comedian now seems.
This was the drug-fuelled stand-up who reduced sophisticated audiences to helpless
hysteria and who was constantly in trouble with the law on obscenity raps. Yet
if he appeared on television today he wouldn't create a ripple of unease.
There is, however, no doubt that Bruce mapped out new comic terrain. In an
age of bland conformity in the America of the late Fifties and early Sixties,
Bruce defiantly tackled the thorny subjects of race, religion and sex. He was
especially relentless in his pursuit of hypocrisy and, more than 30 years after
his death, he is still venerated as the godfather of alternative comedy.
It looked a terrific idea to cast Eddie Izzard, in my view the finest British
comic of his generation, as the man who showed the way to today's young stand-ups.
But although Izzard gives an intermittently compelling performance, Peter Hall's
production is a lumbering disappointment.
Much of the trouble stems from Julian Barry's script, first seen in 1971 and
now showing its age as the author trudges through the clichés of showbiz biodrama.
We begin at the moment of Bruce's death from a drugs overdose, aged 40 (like Elvis
he died unheroically on the lavatory) before the action dissolves into a dream
sequence in which the comedian tries to justify his allegedly obscene shows to
a judge and a court of law.
Then there are the flashbacks, in which we meet the wife and aunt who brought
Lenny up, the stripper he married and who turned him on to hard drugs, and follow
his progress from sleazy dives to the big time, followed by the endless arrests
that eventually destroyed his career.
Unfortunately there is depresssingly little vim in the writing, and all the
supporting characters remain crude caricatures, though Elizabeth Berkley momentarily
revived my flagging attention with a welcome strip routine as Lenny's wife.
With this agreeably gratuitous exception, however, all eyes are naturally on
Izzard as Lenny, who also contrives to spend a remarkable amount of time without
his clothes on. But though Izzard does his damnedest and bares his all for his
art, he fails to make much of a case for the dead comedian.
There's a key moment in the script when Lenny Bruce confesses that all his
humour is based on "destruction and despair". Izzard's own comic style,
however, is based on an inherent niceness and dotty flights of surreal fantasy.
As a result you never feel the actor is in tune with his character, and the frisson
of danger that enlivened Bruce's performances is fatally absent.
For without the danger, the sense of a man recklessly breaking taboos, Lenny
Bruce's material often seems hideously unamusing. There is something self-advertising
about his social conscience, something hiply self-regarding about his attacks
on "straight" middle America. Bruce certainly didn't deserve the martyrdom
he received at the hands of the Establishment, but you can't help wishing that
his confrontational routines were occasionally funny as well as right-on.
Izzard is a chunky chap, who lacks Bruce's lean and wired look, and his American
accent is far from secure. He is intermittently touching in Bruce's drug-addled
decline, but throughout the play I found myself wishing I was watching one of
Izzard's own winning performances rather than his flawed impersonation of the
far less entertaining Lenny.
All mouth and no trousers
Eddie Izzard's Lenny Bruce may bare all on stage, but we
never quite get the naked truth, says JOHN PETER (Sunday Times)
Prophets and jokers are both necessary and dangerous,
and you invariably get the ones you need, fear or fancy - depending on your moral
stance and the state of your mental health. The key to both is subversion. Laughter
and enlightenment both represent energies held in check by convention. Prophets
and jokers unlock the secret chambers of repression and release energies that
ruffle the guardians of smoothly run societies.
Was Lenny Bruce, né Leonard Schneider (1925-1966), one of them? This is one
of the questions behind Julian Barry's play Lenny (Queen's Theatre), directed
by Peter Hall.
Prophets with a sense of humour are rare. A joker exposes his own weaknesses
as well as yours, but being a prophet is a serious business that cannot afford
the compromise of self-exposure. Moses, John the Baptist and Mohammed never said
anything to amuse their followers, and Jesus Christ, who began his earthly career
as a prophet, is never described in the New Testament as laughing or even smiling.
No, prophets with a sense of humour belong to more secular ages. Jonathan Swift
was one. Voltaire was another. Friedrich Nietzsche was one, too, though Nietzsche's
humour often feels like being tickled with the barrel of an assault rifle.
Lenny Bruce was a joker who probably aspired to the condition of prophet. I
say probably because I do not think he ever quite got his act together. Barry's
play is a collage: part life story, part nightclub act and part obscenity trial
in which Lenny (if I may) defends himself before David Ryall's not unsympathetic
but increasingly exasperated judge by presenting some of his notorious acts and
arguing that they were not really offensive.
The play reminds me of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, a work Hall has directed more
than once, in which another young man with a genius for upsetting people and conventions
is confronted by a repressive society in a state of outrage. Both plays are short
on rounded characters, and both work in short, jagged scenes that are put together
not so much as an organic whole but as a theatrical demonstration: this, you see,
the playwright says, is what happens when an irresistible subversive meets an
immovable system. This is why, in the end, both plays are compulsively theatrical
without being fully dramatic.
The difference, of course, is that Mozart also had a genius for something other
than upsetting people, whereas with Lenny upsetting people was the aim - that
and the public satisfaction of his own private obsessions. All prophets have obsessions,
usually moral ones, which drive them almost with the force of biological urges.
This is why prophets are necessarily cruel: biological urges have no knowledge
of moral inhibitions.
Eddie Izzard's Lenny is short on cruelty. His body, which is frequently seen
completely unclothed, is fleshier than Lenny's, who seems in his photographs to
have been lean, almost whippet-like. (Prophets are seldom fleshy and never fat.)
I never saw Lenny, and nobody under 55 is likely to have seen him, which means
that for most of Izzard's audience the problem of physical likeness does not really
arise. What is missing from his performance is the sense of cruelty, towards himself
as well as others: the dark flower of an obsession that seems to have been crucial
to Lenny's personality, public and private. There is a sophisticated geniality
about Izzard, a beady-eyed generosity towards his victims, which needs to be suppressed.
I think Lenny was scary: Izzard can be driven, almost manic, but never scary.
Partly, all this is Barry's fault. The text does not give Izzard and his director
enough continuity to work through. Lenny has virtually no private self. His marriage
and divorce, his relationship to his family, are briskly sketched in, purely functional
like illustrations to a DIY booklet. To talk always about "them", somebody
tells Lenny, "is rather paranoid" - but the writing gives no hint of
the self-destructive poison of paranoia, hardly even of anxiety. Lenny's language
was scabrous, filthy, full of disgust and self-disgust: here it is almost tame.
Also, the play is too laid-back and long: 10 minutes could easily be cut from
William Dudley's set consists of large sliding glass panels and mirrors that
function as both nightclubs and courtrooms: the sort of places where you become
dangerously transparent and defensive, where you observe both others and yourself
and are observed by others in turn. Some of the characters playing legal parts
wear half-masks: I can't think why. It does not add anything to the play or highlight
anything in it; it is simply a tired, old-fashioned device that went out with
the alienation effect, socialism and free school milk.
Where the production becomes really gripping is in Lenny's great set pieces
of moral indignation cunningly disguised as outrageous humour. Here, Izzard, the
master stand-up comedian, comes triumphantly into his own. The great compulsive
broadsides against sexual and religious hypocrisy cascade from him like streams
of gourmet poison, great glittering riffs of black laughter and fury. What English
stand-up comedy I have seen, including Izzard's own, usually has a strong element
of the conspiratorial: the entertainer knows exactly how far he can go and still
be loved. Max Miller is the paragon of this genre. (Lady on the tube: "Is
this Cockfosters?" "No, madam, the name is Miller.") There are
only a few thrilling moments in this show when Izzard stops being the entertainer
and becomes what Lenny was: an obscene, liberating enemy of public morality, the
prophet as joker.
Lenny worked in that dangerous strip of land, prickling with moral antipersonnel
mines, between actions and the words you use to describe them. Why exactly is
it an offence to use the word "cocksucker" in public? According to the
rules of public morality that accused Lenny of obscenity, it is offensive because
it offends people, so there. In this way, silence acquits, just as certain words
can be used for purposes of sanitation. This is not only a sexual matter. The
Nazis called Jews vermin, but the actual extermination programme was politely
called The Final Solution. Its successor today is ethnic cleansing. In sexual
morality, too, things have not changed that much since Boccaccio, one of whose
narrators in the Decameron remarks that women like to hold in their hands what
they are ashamed to name. In Shaftesbury Avenue we are all very liberated, but
how acceptable would this play be in Grantham, say, or Berwick-on-Tweed, or any
Irish town outside Dublin? In the early 1960s, Lenny was refused entry into Britain
by the Home Office because he was "an undesirable alien", and from the
Home Office's point of view, this was entirely reasonable. Of course Lenny was
undesirable. Today's Home Office does things differently: after all, they admitted
Augusto Pinochet. But quite a few town councils up and down the land would still
ban Lenny if they had the power and if there were a second coming.
Being a prophet, though, with or without jokes, can be a thankless business.
Swift and Nietzsche both went insane, perhaps partly because the liberties they
craved and argued for, social and political in Swift's case, intellectual and
spiritual in Nietzsche's, were finally out of reach. And perhaps Lenny's increasing
drug addiction and his wretched death from a morphine overdose, too, were a sign
and an admission of defeat. We still do not quite know what freedom is. Lenny's
case is not proven either way.*
The Big Play
by Benedict Nightingale (The Times/Aug. 21, 1999)
THERE IS plenty wrong with Peter Hall's revival of Julian Barry's
play about the late, great Lenny Bruce, and, with Eddie Izzard (above, with Elizabeth
Berkley) in the lead, there's also a lot that's utterly right. Some have claimed
that Izzard's portrayal of the American comedian's life isn't abrasive enough.
Those, however, who saw Bruce in action will know that Izzard has caught the essence
of a man who was impishly subversive in the early years and raddled and beaten
as he succumbed to dope, arrests, court cases, bankruptcy and premature death
in 1966. Watch Izzard's Bruce slope up to the mic and hold forth about that secret
gay, the Lone Ranger, or about the horny feelings that overtake a maimed accident
victim as he sees a nurse amid the corpses. You know that Izzard is bringing skill,
charisma and even moral depth to Bruce's attacks on repression and hypocrisy.
The King of Comedy
As he prepares West End stage, Eddie Izzard tells BRYAN
APPLEYARD why the American firebrand remains the 'godfather of alternative stand-up'
Stand up and be counted: Eddie Izzard as Lenny Bruce. Grooming by Patti Harrison,
photograph by Jason Bell
Izzard was born in Yemen to English parents; Lenny Bruce was a New York Jew. Izzard
is a transvestite; Bruce was not. Izzard is nice; Bruce was not. Izzard likes
to look on the bright side; Bruce did not. Izzard is a surrealist; Bruce was a
It would be hard to find two people with less in common, except for one thing:
Izzard is the finest stand-up comic of his day, and so was Bruce. Which is why
Sir Peter Hall's decision to cast Izzard as Bruce in his new production of Julian
Barry's play Lenny is, in spite of everything, a brave and honourable act. It
is a statement that, across the generations, the uniquely weird, high-pressure
art of stand-up unites more than it divides. Izzard - the stocky, languid embodiment
of a fine and exotic English whimsy - can, indeed, become Bruce - the thin, nervy
expression of Jewish fatalism and anger.
Izzard wanted the part badly. "I heard it was being done and I knew this
was the part I'd been looking for. It brought together drama and comedy. I talked
to a bunch of people, I had to get to Peter Hall. I knew how to bullshit my way
through. I said: 'I can do this, let me do it.' And he said: 'Well, we want you
to do it.' " In fact, Barry, having seen an Izzard video, had already suggested
him to Hall.
"I wanted to do it with a stand-up comedian," says Hall, "because
stand-up is not acting and I don't think an actor could do it. That thing about
sharing yourself with an audience - it's the most exposed thing in the theatre."
Bruce - "The godfather of alternative stand-up," says Izzard - exposed
himself by exposing what he saw as the obscene iniquities that lay concealed beneath
the smooth surface of America in the early 1960s. ("I'm just pissing on velvet,"
he said.) He discussed sex, religion and politics in ways that made him a hero
of the nascent counterculture, twice had him expelled from Britain for being a
threat to public order and finally had him brutally prosecuted in the US for obscenity.
He was unhinged - his last performances ended with unfunny, rambling accounts
of his court case - but inspired. He abandoned jokes, inventing instead the angry
sideways take on life that was to dominate the energetic British stand-up scene
of the 1980s. He died of an overdose in 1966. Some said he was killed by police
persecution but, in truth, he was killed by the ruthless nerve-shredding demands
The height of his success was in New York in the early 1960s. He appeared,
briefly, in Britain at Peter Cook's Establishment Club in Soho and his work was
spread further by a few records. But his real fame came after his death, when
he was embraced as a hero of the alternative culture that flowered after 1967.
He was the first man to establish comedy as the new rock'n'roll and he was the
model for every young, angry or just weird stand-up who came after. Bruce is the
patron saint of stand-up.
The infinitely gentler Izzard doesn't do jokes, either. He only ever knew one
- When is a door not a door? When it's ajar - and he simply can't get into the
dynamic of using other people's stories and delivering punch lines. And, like
Bruce, like every good stand-up, he exposes himself, but through life rather than
satire. He admits his audience into the child-like banalities and wonders of his
His mother died when he was six and, byseven, he had formed the conviction
that he must become an actor. "It was desperation for the love of an audience.
When there's no love coming, you thirst for it."
But there was no obvious route to stardom, so he moved fairly soberly through
his schooldays and ended up reading accounting and financial management with mathematics
- "It was the longest course name I could find. I thought it would look impressive"
- at Sheffield. That lasted a year, then, having been inspired by Monty Python,
he started doing sketch shows at the Edinburgh Festival.
"I failed and failed. I was confused. I'd played my big card. I just thought
I'd do that Python thing and get into TV."
Then he failed again when, for two years, he did street shows in London with
a student friend, Rob Ballard. Finally, he realised he had to do stand-up. London
was, at the time, becoming the world capital of the art.
"I'd never considered it. I'd always admired Billy Connolly, but I was
too scared to do it myself. I had developed this 'me' character on the street
and I could talk to an audience. I started trying to write stand-up stuff. But
it was very difficult so I just went ahead and booked a gig. That failed."
He worked earnestly at his style in comedy workshops - not good training, as
everybody laughs at you in the hope you will laugh at them. Then, one day, he
took apart a sketch he had written for two people about a man who was addicted
to breakfast cereals. This was pure autobiography: Izzard loves cereals, adores
Twixes and mistrusts fruit - pears, in his world, spitefully stay rock-hard for
days and then suddenly go rotten when you're not looking. He rearranged the sketch
for one person, did it himself and it worked.
He had found the style that was to blossom into its mature mix of surrealism,
inspired banality, history lessons and religious and political speculation, all
tied together by strange, dreamlike associations. Jesus, for example, could not
run away from the Romans because he wore flip-flops; when Spock peered into that
scanner on the deck of the Starship Enterprise he was secretly eating a Twix;
Hannibal's elephants were good skiers - it's the momentum - and Noah, sawing wood
for his Ark, is mysteriously metamorphosed into a man punching a baboon in the
face. "I found" says Izzard, " I could talk stupid bollocks 'til
the cows came home . . . it's bullshit but it sort of works."
Meanwhile, there was the transvestism. Since he regularly appeared on the stage
and in the street dressed in women's clothes, he felt he needed to explain himself.
He took this quite a long way, successfully proscecuting some lads who beat him
up. But the key distinction he wanted to make was that he was not a drag queen;
he was heterosexual, a male lesbian.
"I really had trouble explaining this. I'm a pervert by most social definitions
all around the world. So I just called myself an executive transvestite and everybody
said, 'Oh, that's fine, then', and it was all right."
And so he was, by the 1990s, a stand-up star, an exotic, heavily made-up cult.
He had built a wall in his head to keep the fear at bay and he could confidently
control big audiences for two hours or more. Yet he was not conventionally famous
because he refused to do television. He was a TV but he wasn't on TV. It was all
part of his continuing plan to become an actor.
"If you do comedy on TV you pick up all this baggage. I mean imagine Paul
Merton or John Cleese playing Hamlet. You can't because television has fixed them
in this comedy thing. Mel Gibson had all this action hero baggage when he played
Hamlet - but he was just trying to drag this career thing across to something
But then: "To use a female empowerment term, I hit a glass ceiling. I
could do all these shows with two or three thousand people every night of the
year but I still couldn't reach as big an audience as I would with, say, an eight-minute
slot on the Clive James Show."
So, as he broke on to the West End stage in 1993 and, subsequently, film acting,
Izzard began to trickle on to television - via Have I Got News For You?, numerous
chat shows and even Question Time. He had become an actor so he now could afford
the television. But, though he releases videos of his shows, he still does not
do his full-scale comedy work for television.
He is, without doubt, the finest flowering of the British stand-up comedy wave
that began, heavily influenced by Lenny Bruce, in West End clubs in 1979. That
wave, he is convinced, is as strong as ever. He has counted 85 comedy clubs in
London compared to five each in New York and Los Angeles. And now drama and media
studies courses at a number of British universities are offering courses in stand-up.
The art is being institutionalised as a national asset.
"In America," says Izzard, "the best just get snapped up by
film and TV. We don't have industries of that size, so the best stay on the circuit."
And he is, again without doubt, the most sympathetic star it is possible to
imagine. "There is a sweetness about him," says Hall. Izzard works conscientiously
at his craft and draws love from his audiences. He is, unlike almost every other
comedian, always positive.
"I'd rather be pro than anti. Of course, railing against things is an
easier comic tool, but I want to create, build things. I'm positive about politics
- I don't say all politicians are bastards. And I think Europe can work, it's
a great idea after 2,500 years of war. But where's the comic spin on that? It
took me ages to get there. I'm quite Buddhist in my approach. I don't hate people."
Izzard overturns the old wisdom that comedy is all about cruelty and humiliation.
For him it is about strangeness, puzzlement - what was Spock always looking at?
- fantasy and fleeting incongruity - why is that dog food called Cesar and why
don't Americans pronounce the "h" in herbs? It is about the fact that
God probably would talk like James Mason and it is about his own compulsive autodidacticism
- he uses a CD-Rom of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to fill his act with a startling
range of documentary material. The theme is clear - this is comedy that springs
from the perennial truth that normality always evades the normal imagination.
And Izzard is, above all, normal.
"I'm normal and boring, this is my problem. I'm not windswept and interesting.
Some people at school you hate because they're so f***ing interesting and everybody
fancies them and wants to shag them. But I'm just boring. That's probably why
I'm keen to do things that scare me - like stand-up, or doing the whole thing
in French in Paris or going to America. I suppose it comes from being a transvestite."
Normal or not, he is a strange man to meet. In black T-shirt and black jeans
- no make-up this time - he smokes his way through a lot of Silk Cuts as he tries
earnestly to answer my questions. He is very proud of having subjected himself
to intense self-analysis and this keeps emerging as very conclusive summaries
of his own motives - the death of his mother crops up again and again.
Yet I felt, at the end, that I knew this Izzard no better than the Izzard I
had watched on the stage and on video. And that, I suppose, is the point. Modern,
post-Brucean stand-up comedy uses the comic's life as its raw material. Inevitably,
therefore, the life and the art become one. I cannot get to know an Eddie Izzard
who isn't a stand-up because that is what he always is - and always will be, however
good he gets at acting.
"I'll do stand-up 'til I die. It's just too good. You've got to do it
all the time or the fear comes back . . ."
In Bruce and, latterly, Izzard, stand-up has moved on from jokes and clowning
to become an existential continuum. Like thought itself, like Samuel Beckett's
"eternal quaqua", it just chatters on, evading punch lines and climaxes,
"Stuff endings!" cries Izzard as if - no, because - his life depended
Lenny by Julian Barry, directed by Sir Peter Hall, will be at the Queen's Theatre
from July 27 to October 16
From the Times Newspaper