Stephen Fry On How Our Myths Help Us Know Who We Are

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Stephen Fry: I do love the rhythm in language. I think it’s an important part of it even in prose of any kind that’s there to try and persuade, seduce, beguile, charm, or delight a reader. There is a sound element to it, and most readers vaguely hear it tinkling in the back of their head. Certainly, my favorite writers always have a kind of music to them. It can be a very stark and bleak music in some cases, writers who are not ornamental, but it’s nonetheless a kind of music.
Stephen Fry loves words. But he does more than love them. He puts them together in ways that so delight readers, that a blog or a tweet by him can get hundreds of thousands of people hanging on his every keystroke. As an actor, he’s brought to life every kind of theatrical writing from sketch comedy to classics. He’s performed in everything from game shows to the British audiobook version of Harry Potter. And always with a rich intelligence and searching eye. His latest books tell the stories of ancient Greek myths in ways that seem as fresh as your morning coffee.
Alan: 00:00 Stephen, I’m so glad that you’re going to be this show with me because, as you probably know, we talk a lot about communication on this show, and there’s hardly anybody I know in the world who communicates more than you do and better than you do.
Stephen: 00:14 That’s very good, and now of course is the time that I will lose all possible articulacy and ability to put one word after another in the service of a sentence.
Alan: 00:23 Not someone who uses the word articulacy, that’s not possible.
Stephen: 00:28 It is true, as you I’m sure know, but those of us who speak for a living because it’s not something that’s ever exactly taught, there are times when you’re about to go on a stage or standup after a dinner or something, when a little demon inside you says, “You don’t know what you’re going to say, do you? You’re going stand there with your mouth opening and closing like a guppy fish, and nothing will come out.”
Alan: 00:49 I had that feeling while I was doing a play in London about 25 years ago.
Stephen: 00:56 Really?
Alan: 00:56 It was the stage manager, the character was the stage manager in “Our Town.”
Stephen: 01:02 Oh.
Alan: 01:03 Almost his entire part is spoken to the audience, so you don’t get any cues. All the cues you give to yourself, and I heard that malicious voice in the back of my head during a matinee that said, “What makes you think you’ll remember the next line?” It was the devil talking. I immediately started sweating torrents.
Stephen: 01:25 Yeah, it’s the worst feeling.
Alan: 01:27 I got the line out, and then I heard the voice say, “Yeah, you got that line. What makes you think you’ll get the next one?”
Stephen: 01:34 And as I’m sure you probably share, I think all actors share this, and I’m sure all humans share it within different scenarios, and that is anxiety dreams in which you’re standing in the wings and about to on stage of a play that you haven’t even rehearsed, and someone puts the book in your hand, and you don’t even have time to learn the first speech. You don’t know a single line. Have you ever had that dream?
Alan: 01:56 I had probably the worst version of it. I was in a Shakespeare play walking on a parapet with a leading lady, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to say, but I noticed that she had a silver mirror with all of her lines engraved on the back of the mirror. So I thought, “I’ll get away with it. I’ll look at her mirror.” And then I realized she only had her lines.
Stephen: 02:21 Oh, [inaudible 00:02:22] everything. But my mother who was 86 yesterday, she-
Alan: 02:28 Oh, congratulations.
Stephen: 02:28 Yes, I know. I’m very lucky still to have both my parents, both still compos mentis and mobile and full of life and joy and juice. She still has dreams, she says, of going into an examination hall for her, you know, sort of matriculation examinations and what have you, and not having revised anything and drying up. These things don’t leave you, do they?
Alan: 02:53 It’s interesting to me that you seem to have the ability to talk about anything at any moment, and with depth and interest and put thoughts together. I mean, you could just get up tonight, and tell one of the Greek myths that you’ve told so brilliantly in your two books about Greek myths. What drew you to those myths?
Stephen: 03:19 Well, I’ve always loved them. As a boy, they were one of the first kind of story that I really, really fell for. I mean, I enjoyed Lewis Carroll and A. A. Milne and “Treasure Island” and, you know, the usual sort of things that an English child might be read to or encouraged to read. But it was the Greek myth that lit a fire inside me that never quite went out.
It was about two years, I was just at a friend’s house. We were eating, and for some reason the conversation came around to origin myths or something, and I started to tell the story of Uranus, which children like to pronounce Uranus as we all know, and the original sky god.
Alan: 03:59 I’m glad to know there’s another way to say it.
Stephen: 04:01 Yes, well, it’s still the Greek word, modern Greek word for sky, Uranus. And Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus, one of the youngest of the Titans.
Alan: 04:12 Why were these gods so mad at one another? They keep doing things to hurt one another.
Stephen: 04:16 I think it’s interesting the sons to the fathers. I have a theory that the Greeks-
Alan: 04:21 Oh, that’s interesting.
Stephen: 04:22 Yeah. The Greeks were the first civilization, really as far as I can tell, to believe in progress, to think that it was a good idea to be better than your parents in that sense. So a lot of their myths are to do with sons trying to fly higher than their fathers as it were, the Icarus-Daedalus myth is an obvious example, and Phaethon with the chariot to the sun.
You know, the Greeks could look across the Mediterranean, and there they would see a civilization like the Egyptian one, which went on for 4,500 years without basically changing. They had their religion. A few people like Akhenaten came and went, who tried to disrupt the way the Egyptians ran their religion and their state affairs, but essentially they stayed the same. Unless you’re an Egyptologist, you’re very likely to be unable to distinguish between the third dynasty and fifth dynasty, for example.
Whereas the Greeks wanted to improve everything, to make everything better than the generation before had made it, which we’ve inherited.


Alan: 05:25 Well, let me ask you. There’s something interesting about that to me because the Greek myths, at least in two places, sound like although they seem to acknowledge the introduction of technology into the world with the Prometheus story of giving us fire, and fire is, I guess, our first technology, and lead to the Bronze Age and that kind of thing.
The stories, there are at least a couple of stories, it seems to me, that show us being punished or looked down upon by the gods for having technology, or having curiosity.
Stephen: 06:10 Absolutely right. I think that it was a two-way street. On the one hand, the gods punished us for our presumption, the famous Greek word is hubris. But, also, it’s quite clear the gods were afraid. Zeus said to Prometheus, “You must not allow this new creation of these humans, these anthropos. You must not allow them to have fire.”
Prometheus, who loved us, because he fashioned us out of clay, and he wanted us to be the best we could be, he was puzzled by this. And Zeus said, “Well, if we give them fire, they won’t need us. They will supersede us.”
I think it’s pretty clear from the myth, and certainly from what poets and writers like the Shelleys, both Percy Shelley the poet who wrote “Prometheus Unbound,” and Mary Shelley who wrote the Frankenstein story, of course, which is subtitled “A Modern Prometheus.” The fire that Prometheus stole from heaven against Zeus’ orders and gave to us was, as you say, the fire that flickers, the fire that melts, and roasts and toasts and so on. But it was also the divine fire, the fire of self consciousness, the thing that makes us different from animals.
All creation myths, I think, have to grapple with why human beings, who are so close to animals, we do the same thing, we reproduce, we eat, we defecate. We clearly are animals. And yet we have this language, we have this ability to understand differences between other animals. We can be fairly certain that a kangaroo doesn’t know anything about an armadillo, and wouldn’t be interested, whereas we are curious about everything.
Alan: 07:49 Yes, do-
Stephen: 07:50 I think the thing that’s interesting is that the fire that Prometheus stole to give mankind, against Zeus’ orders, was, yes, the fire, the real fire, the flame through which we got technology, and melting and smelting, and roasting and toasting. But it’s also the divine fire, the fire that makes us different from animals. All creation myths have to grapple with why we’re different from animals. In Genesis it’s because we ate the fruit of a tree that gave us a distinct knowledge between what was good and what was evil and moral sense, but the Greek myth-
Alan: 08:22 Again, another complaint about our curiosity.
Stephen: 08:25 Yes, exactly. But what to me is truly fascinating, Alan, and this relates to our own scientific endeavors. Is that the gods were right in a sense. Prometheus gave us fire, this gave us a divine spark, an inner creative fire as well as the ability actually to harness flame, and to use it for technology. We built cities, and we traded, and slowly we didn’t need the gods. They became a sort of trace memory. We didn’t really live in fear of them anymore. We lived far more in the fear of other tribes and other emperors and so on. We lived a human life.
And so the gods receded into a kind of memory. Now we stand, at the beginning of the 21st century, or at least, actually, nearly a fifth of the way through it, and we can be absolutely certain, I don’t think anybody can doubt this, that by the end of this century, we like Prometheus will have created sapient, sentient, entities of one kind or another, whether we call them bioaugmented robots, or whatever we choose to call them, driven by artificial intelligence. Nobody doubts that we will have created such things. We will be faced with exactly the same quandary that Prometheus and Zeus faced.
Some of us, the Prometheans, will say, “Give these creatures, these entities we’ve created, self consciousness,” the ability to decide on their own life strategies if you like. Give them a kind of life. Others, like Zeus, will say, “No, because if we do that, they might get rid of us. They might not need us, their creators.” We are faced with precisely the problem that Prometheus faced, and I think that’s-
Alan: 10:02 You know, it’s interesting you bring up the word hubris because I was interviewing a scientist about 20 years ago about exactly this question. It’s a common question that people have, and I passed it on to him. He had invented a robot. I said, “So how will you feel if the robots you invent, you work on, if generations of them from now have the ability to make up their own minds about things, and decide to replace humans. They don’t need humans anymore. How will feel about having done that?” And he said, “Well, would I win the Nobel prize?”
Stephen: 10:44 That’s a very human response. We know how Zeus felt about it. He saw that Prometheus had given mankind fire, and he chained him to the Caucasus Mountains and had an eagle come and tear his liver out every day. And because Prometheus was immortal, it grew back overnight, and this torture continued and continued.
It’s no accident I think also, Alan, that around the time that the enlightenment had started to push away the last cobwebs of medieval Ecclesiasticism and the total theocratic way of looking at the world and everything, and was releasing science and philosophy into free thought. At exactly that time, Beethoven wrote a Prometheus overture. Shelley, as I say, wrote “Prometheus Unbound.” Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein.” Because, suddenly, that myth, that idea that if there were gods, the Enlightenment thinkers mostly thought, some of whom were theists, many of whom weren’t. Shelley was actually sent and expelled from Oxford University for her atheism.
If there were a God, they argued, those gods must be like the Greek gods, in other words, capricious, mean, jealous, unkind, inconsistent, unfair. Yes, beautiful, noble and wonderful, but essentially they’d be like the world. If you look at the world, the world is beautiful, grand, absolutely full of love and majesty, but also full of cruelty, caprice, and unearned misery, and squalor and horror and wickedness, none of which can be explained any more than the beauty can be explained except by slow, scientific piecing together of how things might have come to be.
When we were released from religions, we were able to see how sophisticated the Greek modeling, as it were, of existence was compared to the Hebraic one. You read the Greek myth, there’s juice, and wit, and humor, and delight, and so many recognizable truths. I can read the Bible back and forth, and yes, there are a few good stories no question. Damn, there was a good story on the Midianites, and various other good battles going on, but mostly it’s as dearth as can be, and doesn’t have a ring of truth about it, any of it.
Alan: 12:58 I think the book of … the book of Job is an especially good story to me.
Stephen: 13:01 It is a fine story, but cruel beyond imagining.
Alan: 13:03 Because it explores a theme that I haven’t seen explored until Woody Allen’s movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Stephen: 13:12 Yes, very true.
Alan: 13:14 The idea that bad people can do bad things, and not feel remorse and die happy. And we don’t wanna believe that most of the time because we want a sense of fairness, so we have Raskolnikov, and we-
Stephen: 13:27 Yes. Oscar Wilde, as ever, put it perfectly in the mouth of Mrs. Prism, in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” when she tells Cecily that she is … “Do not speak slightingly of the three volume novels, Cecily. In earlier and happier days, I wrote one myself.” And Cecily says, “Did it end happily?” And Miss Prism replies, “The good ended happily, the bad ended unhappily. That is what fiction means,” which is brilliant.
I think, in a sense, a lot of modern, well you know, 20th century novelists, one of the things that’s most shocking about, as you said there’s Raskolnikov, but that is very morally driven, and Dostoevsky as we know is quite a religious man. But say Evelyn Waugh, if you’ve read any of his comic novels, people are always, good people suffer appallingly in his books, and bad people breeze through life and we’re shocked by that because we expect fiction to reward us with the punishment of the bad, and the commendation and rewards for the good. And when it doesn’t, we’re really discomforted because we sort of demand that art pinches the loaf of life, it runs things off it, it makes things better, where nature makes them messy.
Alan: 14:42 Interestingly, in the Greek myths, which you love and which you’ve translated in a way into modern speech and modern, actually, more than that. You’ve written beautifully, you’ve told the stories with a literary flair and ability that’s admirable. So it’s more than translating for us. But I have the feeling that you feel, and straighten me out on this, but I have the feeling that it’s more than that you’ve loved the stories, but that you feel they still are relevant to us, like the Prometheus myth.
Stephen: 15:23 Absolutely, and they’re full of … I mean, here’s one that always, I think, gosh, here’s … You know, I think Carl Jung called the myth the construction of the collective unconscious, And what was it about the collective unconscious of the Greek people or the Mediterranean people around the Greek world, as it then was, that made them … when for example, they talked to the Muses. We’re all familiar with the idea of these nine female representatives of the different arts that the Greeks venerated, you know. So there was religious poetry, there was epic poetry, there was history, and so on, and music and dancing. And each one of these Muses represented them.
But how would you begin to explain how it came about that in the Greek myth the Muses were the daughters of a Titaness, an original Titaness called Mnemosyne, which is the Greek word for memory? In other words, the myth says the arts are the daughters of memory. And just to say that art is the daughter of memory is like saying something very poetic. It makes you want to unpick it and think about it.


Alan: 16:26 Let me put you on pause for a second because something I don’t understand about the creation of the myths. It sounded to me as I’ve read about it, that they were the creation of many people over much time, and yet there’s this organization of thought that seems only to come from one head, unless they were gathered in a writers room and they were pitching ideas, and finally arrived at-
Stephen: 16:55 It’s a very good observation. Yes, and-
Alan: 16:58 So how did they achieve this organization because suddenly everybody agreed that the seven Muses were the daughters of memory. How did they to that? That’s an inspiration. How did they all share that?
Stephen: 17:11 Exactly, it’s an extremely good point. The fact is, everything we know about Greek myth, as we know about any culture, is either through their archeology, or magically through the Greeks, and this is why their mythological cycles are so exceptional, through writing. Because, I think, what makes the Greeks exceptional was the circumstance of history, which meant that their civilization rose at the same time as the alphabet arrived in the world. And alphabetical writing, script writing, really arrived only 5,000 years ago. It’s incredibly recent, as I’m sure you know, language is only 50,000 years or thereabouts.
Alan: 17:49 So that in itself was a technological advance.
Stephen: 17:52 It was, exactly, and Greek were techne, which is a wonderful word from which we get technological and technique. That ability, that knack, that ability to think your way through a problem and transform it by using a tool of some kind , either a tool of the mind or a physical tool. Techne, it’s a great word, isn’t it?
And so we have Hesiod and Homer, the first two great poets. Homer, as most people probably know, we can’t be sure he existed. He seemed to come from Ionia, the eastern coast of what is now Asia Minor or Turkey. Was he blind? Was he one person or several? I think those who’ve read his two great epic poems, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” would say that there’s clearly a single voice there. It’s very hard to argue that there isn’t.
And Hesiod who wrote “The Theogony,” “The Birth of the Gods.” And he it was who laid out this family tree of the primordial deities, the next generation of Titans, the generation after that of the Olympian gods, the ones we’re most familiar with, Zeus and Hera and so on, Aphrodite and Hermes, Apollo. He gave them their full pedigrees, their full family trees, their genealogies. And so because of this, other writers came along, and they took bits of Hesiod and bits of Homer. They put them together with local cult stories that they’d found, and they wrote them down.
So we have this written evidence. And no one can doubt, I’m sure, that there are fabulous Malory myths, and Polynesian myths, and African myths, South American myths-
Alan: 19:33 But they don’t get written down.
Stephen: 19:34 … but they weren’t written down. They didn’t have alphabetical writing. They only had the oral tradition, which is a wonderful one, of course, but it loses so much in terms of just sophistication really that you can get.
Alan: 19:46 So what is it about the Greek myths that are relevant to us today? And don’t we have our own myths that we’ve organized in one way or another? Do we have popular culture myths in movies and that kind of thing?
Stephen: 20:03 I think, you know, I think one makes distinctions that we can all argue about between folklore and myth, legend, fairy tales, and so on. You could say that in my country, Britain, there’s Robin Hood, for example, is a legend. It may or may not be based on a real person. He seemed to answer in need of the Anglo-Saxon people being suppressed by the Norman invaders, and to create a sort of rather preposterous fantasy idea of blonde, Saxon, blue-eyed English people living in the greenwood in oak trees while greasy lank-haired Normans went around being beastly to them. All of which is nonsensical, of course, but it answers a need we all have for a certain kind of hero.
Yes, some of the greatest mythographers have been American. Perhaps the best known are Edith Hamilton on the one hand and Joseph Campbell on the other, who’s been a great influence, as you know I’m sure, on people like George Lucas in creating what you might call modern myths. We could compare myth to fantasy writing, single-authored fantasy writing like Tolkien and J.R.R., I mean George R.R. Martin of the “Game of Thrones” stories, and, obviously, J.K. Rowling and others who have created their own … I think Tolkien used a splendid word of his middle earth, a legendarium he called it, his world. We now talk about the Marvel Universe in the same way. So there’s no question we still-
Alan: 21:41 Do we draw, do you think … pardon me. Do you think we draw in our daily lives on our myths?
Stephen: 21:49 Yes.
Alan: 21:51 I’m assuming that the Greeks did because it was tied to a religious concept.
Stephen: 21:57 Yes, it was tied to a religious concept, but also of course they … I mean, it’s very hard. Many great scholars have puzzled over just how much the Greeks believed in their own gods. Did Aristotle or Plato-
Alan: 22:10 I wanted to ask you what you knew about that because was it just great stories or did they-
Stephen: 22:14 Well, it’s more than that.
Alan: 22:15 Did they actually worship the people in these stories?
Stephen: 22:17 I think, he’s a controversial figure these days by association, but I think he’s very much worth reading, and that is the German philologist first, and then, of course, now philosopher as he’s known, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Nietzsche as you call him in America. His first book was called “The Birth of Tragedy.” And in it, he beautifully articulated this idea that civilization and human beings are made up of two contending energies inside us each. And they are represented by the gods Apollo and Dionysus.
Apollo is the god of reason and order, and harmony and music, and numbers, prophecy. Dionysus was a god of frenzy and wine, and addiction, and kind of animal lust, and desire and need. And that those two contended within the Greeks, and that they were aware of it, and they tried to play service to both sides of themselves. They knew you couldn’t be a proper human being if you were only Apollonian, and you couldn’t be one if you were only Dionysian.
Alan: 23:26 You know, this is so interesting to me, talking to a fellow actor.
Stephen: 23:31 Yes.
Alan: 23:33 It reminds of what I think good acting brings us to, which is a kind of a celebration of both of those forces-
Stephen: 23:45 Absolutely.
Alan: 23:45 … that you just mentioned. I would put it another way, but it’s a similar idea to that.
Stephen: 23:50 It is.
Alan: 23:50 If you can be both a clown and the village priest-
Stephen: 23:55 Yes, exactly.
Alan: 23:56 … you can give us humanity in a better, more of a fully rounded way. Do you think so?
Stephen: 24:03 Exactly, and it reminds me of one E. M. Forster’s “only connect,” the great lines in “Howard’s End.” “Only connect the prose and the passion, the beast and the monk.” And only connect, “and both will be exalted.”
Written in popular culture, I think the most exciting example of that, because it’s so clear possibly unconsciously, who knows? He was a very intelligent man, Gene Roddenberry, but the Star Trek stories, if you think of the original series. There is an exploration of civilizations, or you could take the S off and say it’s an exploration of civilization.
What are these civilizations that this Starship Enterprise is there to discover? They tend either to be planets that are bestial and animalistic in their brutality, or they are so harmonious, they’re full of kind of priest-like figures that there’s no room for the human spirit, no juice and appetite to them. And Kirk comes in to try and correct that imbalance, and on the bridge of his own ship he is living out that because on his left-hand side is the Dr. Bones, who’s all, “Why you green-blooded monster, Spock!”
And, you know, he’s all appetite and energy and physicality. There is the cold Spock, who’s all reason and order. And in between, Captain Kirk tries to be the perfect human being who has a bit of each, who must use reason and order and science, but it must also recognize the human heart and its instincts.
Alan: 25:27 It’s almost as though we recognize as time goes on, from the infancy of humanity to the present, we recognize, it seems, that we have this dual nature.
Stephen: 25:43 Yes.
Alan: 25:43 That we have nurture and we have torture.
Stephen: 25:48 Yes.
Alan: 25:49 Those two capabilities at the same time, and we make up stories to explain that to ourselves.
Stephen: 25:57 And the best way we understand anything is to dramatize it, is to make a story of it. That’s why I think ritual and myth and ceremony, and indeed drama, are such valuable ways of telling the truth, much more valuable-
Alan: 26:10 Tell me about story. I wanna hear about story from you because you’re so involved in story. You act out stories.
Stephen: 26:16 I do, I-
Alan: 26:17 You tell Greek myth stories. What makes a story work on another human for you?
Stephen: 26:24 Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, I always love … In “The Last Tycoon,” you know the Fitzgerald, and in the film, the version I know is the one with Robert De Niro playing a kind of Irving Thalberg figure, running a big studio. There’s an English writer who is having a terrible time. He’s very literary, and he’s a successful playwright, and he’s won awards, and he’s been bought by this big Hollywood studio to write screenplays, and he’s always … The figure of Stahr, the Thalberg, the producer figure, the last tycoon himself, is constantly having to correct him, and say, “No, do it this way.”
The English writer eventually says, “Look, I know how to write. I have written novels, and I have written plays that have won awards all over Europe, and all over the world. You’re telling me how to write?” And he says, “No, no, please. I’m sorry. Let me tell you something,” he said. He then explains how he stands on the balcony of his office, and looks across, down on the soundstages of this massive lot.
He says, “I know every movie that’s been shot here. I know that this one is under budget and is doing fine, that this one the star is on cocaine and we’re in real trouble and may have to fire him. I know in this one they’re having, the leading actor is schtupping the female, all those sort of usual things. I know exactly what’s going on, and so I like to stand here when the sun sets. And two nights ago, I heard the inner door of my office open. Nobody comes into my office because Doris is there in the outer office. She won’t let anyone in. It doesn’t matter if it’s Groucho Marx or Humphrey Bogart. Nobody gets in without she ringing the device and buzzing and I will let them in.”
“So I was fascinated, and I stood still, and I could hear somebody pacing into the room. I heard a match being struck. I heard what sounded like coins being put on my desk. Then the telephone was lifted. I could hear a voice breathe for five minutes, and then the phone went down. Then the footsteps went, and I heard the door being closed. I waited a while, and I came out, and I looked towards the phone.”
The English writer leans forward and says, “And what happened next?” He goes, “Now you got it.” He was telling him that movies are made of story, and of saying, “What happened then? I need to know!” And he just made it up on the spur of the moment.
Alan: 28:57 Yeah.
Stephen: 28:58 And, of course, that is a classic that we’ve all heard stories of great writers. I remember seeing a wonderful interview that Schlöndorff did, the German filmmaker, made with Billy Wilder. Billy Wilder was there in his office with his suspenders, as you call them, his braces, and his bow tie, and his little round face, grinning away, telling the story of his remarkable life and his incredible films, as you know very few directors have mastered so many genres, melodrama with “Sunset Boulevard,” comedy with “Some Like It Hot,” the best drunk movie with “The Lost Weekend,” the best courtroom movie with “Witness for the Prosecution,” and so on and so on. Well, you know, what a genius he was.
At one point he was talking about the women he was working with. He was talking about Marilyn Monroe, and then he said, “Oh, I should say also Marlene Dietrich. I’ve worked with her. She was fabulous in “Witness for the Prosecution.” And Schlöndorff asked some question about the screenplay of “Witness for the Prosecution.”
And Wilder said, “You know, Agatha Christie, terrible dialogue, awful characterization, you know? But she plots like an angel. This story is like a ball bearing. I could work for 10 years, I’d never come up with such a brilliant plot. It’s incredible. And you know I’ve worked with some great writers. I’ve worked with William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and they have fantastic characters, amazing dialogue, but ferkacked the plots. And I tell you this, in Hollywood, in Hollywood, for every Agatha Christie there’s 100 Nobel prize winning novelists.”
And I thought that’s very interesting, and he’s right. Because he then said, “It took me and Izzy Diamond half an afternoon to make the Charles Laughton character a rounded, funny, memorable character rather than a cliché, and similarly to give dialogue to Tyrone Power and various other characters that made it look like a proper film rather than a starchy, British play,” which is what it had originally been.
I hink that is a gift. Most of us find it easy to write dialogue because we’ve all met lots of people, and we can think of amusing lines people say. But to write a story is an amazing gift. Actually, in a lot of my life I’ve cheated. By retelling Greek myths, I’m telling stories on giants’ shoulders. One of my novels was a retelling of “The Count of Monte Cristo” because I just thought it was-
Alan: 31:27 Oh, that’s interesting. I was going to ask you about your novels, and about what you were just saying about plot. It seems to me that if plot doesn’t come out of an understanding of who the people are, it’s more like melodrama. It’s, “this happened.” And it’s also “this happened, and that happened” rather than people making things happen.
Stephen: 31:52 It’s action, and I’m afraid this is where I find it quite difficult, and I’m not gonna make a point that can be accused of being sneering or snobbish about it. But I do find these comic book movies that are constantly on at the moment that are the tent poles of Hollywood. I’m saying, I don’t wanna be a snob or sneer down at comic book movies, which are the ones that prop up Hollywood at the moment. The tent poles as they’re called in the trade, I believe.
But I find them completely uninvolving because I don’t see them as being in any way character driven in the slightest. I only see the action on the green screen, and all kinds of very clever technology, and a few amusing things. Robert Downey Jr. is very funny as the Iron Man person he plays, there’s no question about that. But I can’t get as involved in them as I can in a truly character driven story.
Yet, clearly, I’m in the minority as far as Hollywood audiences are concerned. Has that always been true? I mean, maybe it’s a false memory, but I seem to think that in its grandest and greatest days, Hollywood was producing … even its most popular films were still character led in a way that they don’t seem to be now.
Alan: 33:04 I get that impression too, but maybe it’s just nostalgia.
Stephen: 33:08 A function of our generation, exactly.
Alan: 33:10 Yeah. I mean, why would we … Character is so interesting, why would we give up our interest in character for the sake of seeing flashing lights and explosions?
Stephen: 33:21 Yeah, yeah, exactly.
As Stephen lamented the loss of character in stories, I wondered if that loss told us about who we are – what we’ve become. With all our technical gifts, had we lost touch with an important part of ourselves? Stephen had an answer – about us … now – and it was straight out of a Greek myth… When we come back.
Return after break:
This is Clear + Vivid—and now back to my conversation with Stephen Fry.

Alan: 33:23 I wonder, what does that say about who we are and what we’ve become? You know, you said something in an interview that really caught my attention, when you said the internet is the exact replay of Pandora’s box.
Stephen: 33:42 Yes, well that’s how I remember it. Because I’ve always been fascinated by technology, and in the ’80s I was literally the only person I knew who had an email address. I emailed other people, but they weren’t people I knew. They were just people I knew had an email address.
Alan: 34:00 I’m sorry we didn’t know each other then because I had one too.
Stephen: 34:03 Oh, did you? There you are, you see? Then one was able to join things like CompuServe and AOL started up, as you remember. Then in the early ’90s, it all began slowly to take off. I remember as Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web became, you know, much more the way that everybody was looking at the shop windows as it were through the world using web pages, and email got more graphic and more able to be used for all kinds of things.
I thought, “This is the greatest thing that has ever happened. It is all gifted. It’s like an incredible city in which there are free art galleries and libraries and theaters and universities. And people can learn for free, and access all the knowledge and all the information, and all the art and all the science in the world for free. And not only that, they can be in touch with each other.”
Alan: 35:00 It was spectacular. We had such hope. There was-
Stephen: 35:03 Exactly, all the boundaries, and all the border, and all the frontiers between us would melt away, and we would finally understand each other. It would be an end to nativism and populism and the worst kinds of nationalism and so on.
Alan: 35:16 And as soon as we built a bridge to one another, there were trolls living under it.
Stephen: 35:21 That, beautifully put, exactly right. Well, as you probably know, the Pandora myth is that she was sent down as part of Zeus’ punishment to mankind really. She was sent down to live with Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother. Zeus gave her this jar, in fact, it’s often called a box, but that’s an amusing mistranslation from Erasmus in fact, oddly enough.
So whether you call it a jar or a box doesn’t really matter, but she was told not to look in it, and as we know, it’s a bit like the Even myth. She was the first woman and she was curious, and she couldn’t but open the box or the jar. And out flew all these leathery, wheeling, chattering, screeching, creatures flying about in her hair and her ears, and in a great whirlpool.
Up they went and settled down wherever man had habitation, and they were illness and murder, and lies and deceit, and cruelty and barbarism, and all the horrors, and all the terrors of the world which before had been a kind of paradise. Then she slammed the lid back on, not knowing there was one little creature left inside that beat its wings hopelessly against the inside of the jar. And that creature was Elpis, which is hope.
Alan: 36:30 Hope, so in the very story that punishes us for having curiosity to find out what’s in jar or box, there’s nevertheless something left in there that is-
Stephen: 36:43 It’s left in though, it’s trapped inside forever. It’s not allowed out.
Alan: 36:47 Oh, so she has no access to her own hope.
Stephen: 36:50 That’s the hope, hope is imprisoned. Philosophers have taken that in different ways. Nietzsche, funny enough again mentioning him, he saw it as the best part of the myth, the fact that hope was left inside, that that was God showing mercy on us because the one thing that humans should never have, he believed, is hope. Most 19th and 20th century philosophers can’t believe that-
Alan: 37:10 Looking at it from the human point of view, if she only regained her curiosity, as we have-
Stephen: 37:18 Yes.
Alan: 37:19 She would go back into the box and find hope, so that-
Stephen: 37:22 That’s a lovely thought, yeah.
Alan: 37:23 … we would no longer need to be afraid of our own inventions taking over and doing away with us as the robots might we fear someday.
Stephen: 37:33 Well, interesting point, exactly.
Alan: 37:34 We would have hope that we would be smart enough, but do you think we’ll be smart enough to outlive our own intelligence?
Stephen: 37:41 I think we are smart enough to know that that’s a risk. We are smart enough to know that we should be smart enough. But it’s part of the problem of our nature as animals and people of appetite and greed that it doesn’t … Especially at the time, as we’re all fully aware, when there is apparently no locus of authority, no grownups are left, no adults are left on earth anymore.
I mean, goodness knows what’s going to happen when David Attenborough and Her Majesty The Queen die. They’re the last grownups left on the planet. And possibly Alan Alda, so you stay with us forever. Because, you know, at this very time there is no one who’s going to make those sane decisions that we’re smart enough. It only takes one, someone in a greedy country that isn’t regulated, to say, “I can make some money here,” to upset the applecart, you know? That’s the-
Alan: 38:30 We have the tools to act out our worst impulses.
Stephen: 38:33 We do.
Alan: 38:34 And we are not so fast at developing tools for the other side of our character it seems.
Stephen: 38:42 It does seem that way, doesn’t it? I mean, I used to think that while everything casts a shadow, so even the internet that seemed wonderful, was like a Pandora’s box, it had a dark side, and when the lid was open, the trolls flew out. I thought, well, that’s because everything, as it does in the physical, casts a shadow. When light hits it, anything that exists, there’ll be a shadow. Everything has this dark side to it.
I remember saying to someone, “The only thing I can think of that is a universal good that has no dark side is anesthetics for dentists.” My friend said, “Yeah, but just think of all those people who have been abused by dentists when they’re under the ether.”
Alan: 39:22 Yes.
Stephen: 39:23 I said, “Oh, you had to say that, didn’t you? You had to ruin even that one.”
Alan: 39:26 And not only that, but I’ve had deep anesthesia that screwed up my memory for the next six months.
Stephen: 39:35 There you are, you see? So everything does cast a shadow. There is no-

Alan: 39:38 And all my Muses went away because my memory-
Stephen: 39:42 Well, that’s an interesting one that. Yeah. That reminds me of a wonderful quotation by W. H. Auden, the poet, and it’s on the subject of mental health, which is a good subject and one that’s very much more talked about now than it ever used to be. He said, “Don’t take away my devils because if you do my angels will fly away too.”
Alan: 40:02 Oh.
Stephen: 40:03 He believes his creativity was predicated on something that was also likely and necessarily would have demons. I think, you know, psychiatrists would argue that’s no way to go around [crosstalk 00:40:17].

Alan: 40:17 Yes, right. That’s a little dangerous, right. There might always be hope left in the box once the demons fly out. I’m interested because we’re talking about communication, and you write so beautifully, and your output is huge as well. I’m interested in your writing process, not what time do you get up and stuff writing, not do you write with a pencil or a pen. I’m interested to know what your thought process is. I get the impression that you subscribe to the same idea that I do, that it’s important to let everything out in the first draft anyway.
Stephen: 41:05 Yes, the painter Miró had a great line when asked about how he made a picture. He said, “I take a line for a walk.” I think a bit like that in a way. I do, definitely, agree that everything has to get out. I mean, after all if you were a sculptor and you were doing the David or something, obviously, you know, let’s say a human form, you wouldn’t start with the toe and try and make the toe exactly right. And, “Oh, look, there’s the nail. There are the little lines on the sort knuckles of the toe, and there’s a few hairs sprouting out between them.” You would just get a mass of clay, and then shape it slowly into a shape that looked like a human. Then you’d refine the foot, and then eventually you’d refine all the little details.
Personally, for me, it’s the same. I have to get words down so that I can attack them, and make them better. But if I … and I think most people … Often, I speak to people, as I’m sure you do, who say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book, and I’ve started,” or a play, or whatever it might be. “I’ve written the first scene or the first chapters, and then I get stuck.”
I say, “Well, that’s the time when you have to keep writing. And it doesn’t have to be as good as you believe those first two chapters are. Because I’ll bet, actually, you’ll throw those first two chapters away. It’ll be the stuff you write afterwards that you keep.”
Alan: 42:20 Most importantly, I think it’s important not to put down the first sentence or the first scene, and then whack away at it trying to make it perfect because there’s then this-
Stephen: 42:32 No, exactly, that’s like making the toe perfect. It’s pointless. You’ve gotta get the shape.
Alan: 42:35 Right, you get lost working on the toes, and you never get the whole figure. I think that Freud, in his associative process, had learned something about writing in the same tome because I think as you let stuff come out, whatever it is, good or bad, and not judge it, there’s an associative process. That with each thing that comes out, it’s hooked onto something else, associatively, that also gets to come out, that you didn’t know was in there. And you’re not in touch with it until it’s all laid out on the paper or on the screen. Now you can hack away at it. I think you have to divide into two modes. One is totally subjective, and the other is totally objective and editorial.
Stephen: 43:30 Yes, absolutely.
Alan: 43:32 You can’t mix them, right?
Stephen: 43:33 Yeah.
Alan: 43:33 Now, you could help me with something. There’s a myth or a story whose origin I can’t figure out. About 40 years ago, I read in article that I can’t find anymore, that there’s this story of this shepherd who keeps his goats in a cave. He has a big rock guarding the cave during the night. At daylight, he lets the goats out, but he only lets the weakest, scrawniest, least useful goats first, so that if anybody’s out there throwing rocks at them, they won’t hit his valuable goats first, and he’ll save the best.
To me, that’s the string of associations coming out of the cave. You have to let them all out, the good and the bad, before you can be editorial and throw rocks at it. Have you ever heard that myth? And do you know where it-
Stephen: 44:30 I haven’t, but I like it.
Alan: 44:31 I wonder where it comes from.
Stephen: 44:31 It makes, it comes from sense. Yeah.
Alan: 44:34 I thought it came from Freud, but I can’t find it in Freud’s writings, but isn’t that an interesting idea about how you can’t editorialize, you can’t batter what you’ve written until-
Stephen: 44:49 Yes.
Alan: 44:50 … you’ve had a chance to let it all out?
Stephen: 44:52 And it’s … the famous Hemingway quotation is not dissimilar to that as an idea, which is that you can write drunk, but you have to rewrite sober. The first thing that comes out can be all part of some flurry of emotion and madness, and all the rest of it. But when you editorialize, then you’ve gotta be stone cold sober, and use reason, and allow the connections to form in the different ways like that. I don’t know if that’s the same idea, but it’s a good quotation.
Alan: 45:22 When you rewrite, do you become the reader, or do you just please yourself? How do you think about that?
Stephen: 45:32 That’s such an interesting question. I think, to some extent, I do become the reader. I often rewrite best when I’ve had to print what I’ve got because, obviously, since the ’80s we’ve mostly a lot of us have written entirely with keyboards and screens, and all both the luxury and self indulgence that a word processor allows. But I find that if I print it out, and then read it out loud, that’s when I’m at my best in hearing it. Maybe that’s because I am picturing myself reading it to someone, and I’m suddenly hearing what sounds hollow and false, and what sounds real, and what’s sounds overdone, and so on.
Alan: 46:08 And you do that even with a novel?
Stephen: 46:11 I do, yes. Yeah, yeah. What I can’t really do is print it out and just have a pen and read it because my eyes start to swim, and so I find reading it out loud is the help for me. Also, I do love the rhythm in language. I think it’s an important part of it even in prose of any kind that’s there to try and persuade, seduce, beguile, charm, or delight a reader.
There is a sound element to it, and most readers vaguely hear it tinkling in the back of their head whether there’s a rhythm or an accidental rhyme that’s ugly and inelegant. You have to get rid of those, I think. Certainly, my favorite writers always have a kind of music to them. It can be a very stark and bleak music in some cases, writers who are not ornamental, but it’s nonetheless a kind of music.
Alan: 47:10 I wonder if actors have a special sense of the person reading it, or the person hearing it, not because we’re accustomed to playing in front of an audience so much as playing with other actors who we have to respond to.
Stephen: 47:29 That’s a very good point, isn’t it? I wonder if that’s true. I mean, I certainly attended to some rules that I’ve picked up, not rules, but sort of processes that I’ve picked up over the years. P. G. Wodehouse, I remember reading once he said in a letter or maybe in one of his essays, he said that his experience in musical theater in New York in the teens and early ’20s when he … or well through the ’30s, when he wrote a lot of Broadway shows, he wrote books, and sometimes the lyrics with Gershwin and Kern and, you know, the greats. He said, “When I write a novel, I like to think of each character as the most brilliant actor available on Broadway, and therefore-”
Alan: 48:17 Oh, played by the most interesting actor.
Stephen: 48:20 “And therefore the most expensive. So if I’m going to bring him in chapter two, he’s paid his full fee, so he might as well be used in chapter seven and chapter 12, and chapter 14.” He finds this right because it means his plots have a wonderful symmetry and economy. He doesn’t waste characters. They will return and they have a role. It gives that terrific sense to his comedies, that they have this [crosstalk 00:48:46].
Alan: 48:46 So when the bellboy rings the bell, and says, “A message for you.”
Stephen: 48:52 Exactly.
Alan: 48:53 You give him a life. You don’t just have him be a function-
Stephen: 48:56 Exactly. I think that’s one of the things we adore about Dickens. I think Dickens has that too. You always feel once he’s hit upon a character with a way of speech and their mannerisms, he’s not gonna let them go. He’s having too much fun with them.
Alan: 49:08 So speaking of actors and writers. Where do you find yourself on the spectrum of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?
Stephen: 49:16 I’m pretty straightforward on that. I’m a Straightforwardian, I believe it was William.
Alan: 49:20 A Straightforwardian.
Stephen: 49:22 Yes, that’s to say not an Oxfordian or a Baconian. In fact, this is done me rather good because some years ago I went to see the wonderful actor Mark Rylance in a play called “Jerusalem,” which was a magnificent performance, one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen on stage. Indeed, many people thought so. It won every award available. We went for dinner afterwards, and Mark is known to be not … he’s not an Oxfordian. He doesn’t believe it was de Vere the Earl of Oxford who wrote them, or that it was Francis Bacon, or Marlowe, or any other known. But he just says, “You know, we can’t quite be sure. It seems unlikely that it was this man from Stratford.”
And I started to get very hot under the collar about it. It was my specialist subject at Cambridge when I was at university, it was Shakespeare. I regarded myself as not an expert, but I certainly, you know, I knew all the evidence for Shakespeare’s existence. I was impatient with ideas like, you know, he never mentioned books in his will. I say, “Well, yeah. My uncle who died had a vast collection, whilst he didn’t mention them either. He left everything to his wife, and that obviously included the books. Why would he need to mention them?”
I said, “Look at other wills people have left. They don’t mention their books either, so let’s be real about this.” Of course, it’s so hard to prove a negative. It’s so hard to disprove a wild theory like flat-Earthers can be extremely stubborn. I regard non-Shakespearean Shakespeareans as flat-Earthers really.
Anyway, the argument got so intense that Mark started laughing. He said, “My goodness,” he said, “I didn’t know you even liked Shakespeare.” I said, “Oh, I am passionate about it.”
He said, “Well, when did you last play any Shakespeare?” I said, “No, university was the last time I played. I played with Emma Thompson, my dear friend Emma Thompson. We were in a production of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well.'”
He said, “Well, if you were to play a character in Shakespeare, now professionally as a proper actor, who would you play?” I said, “Well, I suppose if I was to put my foot in the water, my toe in the water, I’d probably start with character that would suit me, so I’d probably choose a pompous ass like Malvolio.”
And he looked across at his wife who was there, and said, “I don’t believe it.” I said, “Why, what’s this?” He said, “Well, we’re just about to start a production of “Twelfth Night,” and we don’t have a Malvolio. It’s gonna start in two months time, will you do it?”
I said, “Are you seriously offering me?” He said, “Well, it’s not my place to offer it without permission from the director, but if I arrange for you to go and see the director, would you do that?”
So, literally, the next day, I called up the director, him and i chatted, and I went to see him. And I played Malvolio. We did it at the Shakespeare Globe, and then in the West End, and then on Broadway.
Alan: 51:57 And I saw it when you did-
Stephen: 51:57 Nominated-
Alan: 51:57 Nominated-
Stephen: 51:59 You very kindly came to see it, yes.
Alan: 52:01 Yeah, well, I saw it on Broadway. It’s shocking to me to hear you hadn’t played Shakespeare since school because, for me, that was the best Malvolio I had ever seen including, including Laurence Olivier’s about 60 years ago or more, and that may not for some people who don’t value Olivier, they may not be a tremendous compliment, but it’s the best one I’ve ever seen.
Stephen: 52:30 Well, thank you.
Alan: 52:30 It was just extraordinary.
Stephen: 52:32 I was so lucky. I mean, the director Tim Carroll, who’s become a great friend, he was remarkable. And to be on stage with Mark Rylance, who really is a phenomenon.
Alan: 52:40 He’s-
Stephen: 52:40 As you know, it was an all-male production, so he was playing Olivia.
Alan: 52:43 He’s amazing. He really is amazing.
So, I don’t wanna keep you. I know you have to go an event tonight where you have to make up something to say.
Stephen: 52:54 I do.
Alan: 52:55 I think this broadcast actually proves that you don’t have to make anything up. You just get up open your mouth and start talking to the people who are there who will be delighted to hear you. But before we go, before we go, we always end our show with seven quick questions. They’re basically, roughly, something to do with communication. They just ask for seven quick answers.
Stephen: 53:20 Okay.
Alan: 53:21 Are you game?
Stephen: 53:22 I’m very much game.
Alan: 53:23 Okay, number one, what do you wish you really understood?
Stephen: 53:28 Mathematics.
Alan: 53:29 Ah. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Stephen: 53:35 That I’m much simpler than I appear.
Alan: 53:39 What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Stephen: 53:47 There are so many. I was inclined to say, “Would you like to sleep with me?” Because I have such a low opinion of my physical self that I would find that a remarkable question. But that’s just too, too deliberately self deprecating I think.
Alan: 54:04 Well, that’s the strangest answer I ever got. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Stephen: 54:15 Being one myself, I have to be very much on the alert for other people’s signals to tell me to shut up. But generally speaking, I stop a compulsive talker by saying, “Oh, stop, stop, stop. I’ve just had this extraordinary thought.”
Alan: 54:31 Oh, what a wonderful way to do it. That’s so interesting. Well, I’m gonna remember that.
Stephen: 54:36 And usually flattery is the answer because you can say, “Something you said has just made me think of something else.”
Alan: 54:40 Yeah, that’s very helpful. I have actually done that. So, next, is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Stephen: 54:52 Well, I mean, it is hard, and I know this, people are gonna groan, but your current gangster in chief, I’m afraid arouses nothing in me but … I’m sure like many Americans, I wake up in the morning with a sort of feeling of hot lead in my stomach, a kind of weight of despair that such a brutal, foolish, unsympathetic person [crosstalk 00:55:18] in this great office.
Alan: 55:20 Number six, let’s move on to number six.
Stephen: 55:21 Yes, sorry about that. Are any Republicans listening?
Alan: 55:25 How do you like to deliver bad news? In person? On the phone? Or by carrier pigeon?
Stephen: 55:34 It would be on the phone I suspect. In person, well, yeah, generally speaking it has been. When friends, people I loved have died, or had an accident or something, I’ve tended, where necessary, if I felt I’ve had to inform somebody that hasn’t been informed. It wouldn’t be a text. I can tell you that, right? That’s somewhat brutal.
Alan: 55:57 So the pigeon is out?
Stephen: 55:58 Yeah, pigeon is out too.
Alan: 56:01 The last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Stephen: 56:09 I think meanness. I mean meanness of spirit, not of money necessarily. But unkindness. Seeing someone I trusted being really unkind, I’m very … There’s a character in Chekhov who’s like this. Is it Masha in the … not the Masha in the “Three Sisters,” but the one in “Uncle Vanya” who says, “I can’t bear rudeness.”
I remember seeing an actress play it so brilliantly because she did that wonderful Chekhovian thing. She actually wanted to tell her. Said, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I actually can’t bear people being rude.” She said it in such a straight way that I thought, “Oh, that’s what Chekhov means with all those lines like that.” It’s not like, “I can’t bear rudeness. I don’t like people being rude,” you know, when actors obviously … She really meant it, and I thought, “Yes, I’m actually the same.”
I’ve actually had to end lunches where there was a producer friend of mine who was just monstrous to waiters. I’ve had to say to him, “I can’t eat with you if you talk to waiters like that.” That is not heroic on my part. It’s not that I’m some sort of Communitarian Socialist who believes that we should invite that waiter to sit down and join us at the meal. I just think you could treat them nicely. I find it very hard to like someone like that.
Alan: 57:23 Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’m sorry it can’t go on longer.
Stephen: 57:28 Me too, Alan.
Alan: 57:29 Next time I’m in London, I’m gonna call you up, and we can continue it.
Stephen: 57:32 It’s a deal, absolutely.
Alan: 57:34 Great. Thanks so much, Stephen.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

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