Aldous Huxley to George Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)

In 1949, George Orwell received a curious letter from his former high school French teacher.

Orwell had just published his groundbreaking book Nineteen Eighty-Four, which received glowing reviews from just about every corner of the English-speaking world. His French teacher, as it happens, was none other than Aldous Huxley who taught at Eton for a spell before writing Brave New World (1931), the other great 20th century dystopian novel.

Huxley starts off the letter praising the book, describing it as “profoundly important.” He continues, “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it.”


Then Huxley switches gears and criticizes the book, writing, “Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.” (Listen to him read a dramatized version of the book here.)

Basically while praising Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley argues that his version of the future was more likely to come to pass.

In Huxley’s seemingly dystopic World State, the elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Orwell’s Oceania, on the other hand, keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. At first blush, they might seem like they are diametrically opposed but, in fact, an Orwellian world and a Huxleyan one are simply two different modes of oppression.

Obviously we are nowhere near either dystopic vision but the power of both books is that they tap into our fears of the state. While Huxley might make you look askance at The Bachelor or Facebook, Orwell makes you recoil in horror at the government throwing around phrases like “enhanced interrogation” and “surgical drone strikes.”

You can read Huxley’s full letter below.

Wrightwood. Cal.

21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

via Letters of Note

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2015.

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George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

The Only Surviving Manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost Gets Published in Book Form for the First Time

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake adds a note to the text that became a famous adage about John Milton’s Paradise Lostthe 10,000-line, 17th century blank verse epic about the war between heaven and hell and the failed testing of God’s premium product, human beings. Milton “wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote Devils & Hell,” Blake declared, “because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” The statement inspired “other Romantic and Gothic writers to view Satan as a hero,” the British Library writes.

Blake himself illustrated Paradise Lost in three separate commissions over the course of his career as an engraver and printer. His deep admiration for the poem helped it become a “Bible of the Romantic movement,” writes the manuscript publisher SP Books in their introduction to a rare new book publication of the only surviving manuscript of the work.


Only 1,000 numbered, large format copies of this printing are available. (We do hope a subsequent edition will appear, maybe with a transcription and annotations. But it will not be as beautiful as this sky-blue cloth-covered book with Blake’s full-color illustrations.)

The book preserves the only part of the poem that survives in manuscript: 798 lines from Book One of Paradise Lost. These are not in Milton’s hand — he had been blind since 1652, and the poem was first published in 1667. He conceived the epic in his 50s, his career in government over after the English Civil Wars and the brief period of the Cromwells’ Protectorate ended in the Restoration of Charles II. “Milton composed ‘Paradise Lost’ aloud, in bed or (per witnesses) ‘leaning backwards obliquely in an easy chair,'” Lauren Christensen writes at The New York Times, “memorizing the stanzas to be transcribed in another’s hand.”

These first few hundred lines show why Satan seems so noble to Milton’s readers; speeches by and about him portray his doomed campaign as a righteous assault on heavenly tyranny. The Romantics’ use of Paradise Lost reflects their own preoccupations, while also echoing contemporary suspicions of the poem. “The authorities were concerned,” for example, Tom Paulin notes at The London Review of Books, by an image in Book One describing Satan:

as when the sun new ris’n
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change

Perplexes monarchs.

“According to Milton’s early biographer, the Irish republican John Toland, Charles II’s Licenser for the Press regarded these lines as subversive,” Paulin points out, “and wanted to suppress the whole poem.” It’s surprising he was able to publish at all. Milton had vociferously supported the Puritan revolutionaries who overthrew the king’s father, Charles I, and removed his head. Milton later published several pamphlets in defense of regicide. In 1660, when Richard Cromwell’s Protectorate fell apart and Charles II returned, Milton’s works were banned by royal decree and the poet went into hiding until a general pardon.

Later critics have pointed to Milton’s political writings as evidence that he knew exactly whose party he was of. California State University’s Michael Bryson has gone so far as to argue that Milton was a secret atheist. In any case, he was a passionate believer in the overthrow of kings and the establishment of republics (for which he has become a libertarian hero). Paulin sums up the critical case for Paradise Lost as an allegory for the “lost cause” of the revolution:

Milton knew that the poem he was dictating to his amaneuensis would be scrutinized by the recently restored monarch’s Licenser of the Press, so he coded the English people’s formation of a republic as the creation of the “heavens and earth.” The idea passed the censor by, just as it has passed by many readers, but it was nonetheless Milton’s founding intention in composing his epic.

The charge that Milton made Satan a hero is hard to ignore when, reading Book One, we find the poet giving the Chief of Fallen Angels the best lines, as anyone who’s read Paradise Lost will remember. If you haven’t, just see the classic example below.

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

Learn more about this rare manuscript edition at The New York Times‘ review and purchase one (if one remains) at SP Books.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Introduction to Stanislaw Lem, the Great Polish Sci-Fi Writer, by Jonathan Lethem

Who was Stanislaw Lem? The Polish science fiction writer, novelist, essayist, and polymath may best be known for his 1961 novel Solaris (adapted for the screen by Andrei Tarkosvky in 1972 and again by Steven Soderbergh in 2014). Lem’s science fiction appealed broadly outside of SF fandom, attracting the likes of John Updike, who called his stories “marvelous” and Lem a poet of “scientific terminology” for readers “whose hearts beat faster when the Scientific American arrives each month.”

Updike’s characterization is but one version of Lem. There are several more, writes Jonathan Lethem in an essay for the London Review of Books, penned for Lem’s 100th anniversary – at least five different Lems with five different literary personalities. Only the first is a “hard science fiction writer,” the genre originating not with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but “in H.G. Wells’ technological prognostications.”


Represented best in the pages of Astounding Stories and other sci-fi pulps, hard sci-fi “advertises consumer goods like personal robots and flying cars. It valorizes space travel that culminates in successful, if difficult, contact with the alien life assumed to be strewn throughout the galaxies.” The genre also became tied to “American exceptionalist ideology, technocratic triumphalism, manifest destiny” and “libertarian survivalist bullshit,” says Lethem.

Lem had no use for these attitudes. In his guise as a critic and reviewer he wrote, “the scientific ignorance of most American science-fiction writers was as inexplicable as the abominable literary quality of their output.” He admired the English H.G. Wells, comparing him to the inventor of chess, and American Philip K. Dick, whom he called a “visionary among charlatans.” But Lem hated most hard sci-fi, though he himself, says Lethem, was a hard sci-fi writer “with visionary gifts and inexhaustible diligence when it came to the task of extrapolation.”

Much of Lem’s work was of another kind, as Lethem explains in the short film above, a condensed version of his essay. The second Lem “wrote fairy tales and folk tales of the future.” The third, “wrote just two novels, yet he could easily be, on the right day, one’s favorite.” Lem number four “is the pure post-modernist, who unified his essayistic and fictional selves with a Borgesian or Nabokovian gesture.” This Lem, for example, wrote the very Borgesian A Perfect Vacuum: Perfect Reviews of Nonexistent Books.

Lem number five, says Lethem, is “another major figure,” this one a prolific literary essayist, critic, reviewer, and non-fiction writer whose breadth is staggering. Rather than confining him with the label “futurist,” Lethem calls him an “anythingist,” a point Lem proved with his 1964 Summa Technologiae, a “masterwork of non-fiction,” Simon Ings writes at New Scientist, with the ambition and scope of the 13th-century Aquinas work for which it’s named.

This fifth and final Lem “will be a fabulous shock to those who know only his science fiction,” writes Ings. Only translated into English in 2014, his Summa presages search engines, virtual reality, and technological singularity. It attempts an “all encompassing… discourse on evolution,” commented biophysicist Peter Butko, “not only… of science and technology… but also evolution of life, humanity, consciousness, culture, and civilization.”

The last Lem makes for heady reading, but he imbues this work with the same wit and wickedly satirical voice we find in the first four. He operated, after all, as Lethem writes in his essay celebrating the Polish author at 100, “in the spirit of other Iron Curtain figures who slipped below the censor’s radar by using forms regarded as unserious.” Yet few have taken the form of science fiction more seriously.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Special New, Two-Volume Collection of Philip K. Dick Stories Comes Illustrated by 24 Different Artists

Philip K. Dick’s multiple worlds have appeared in increasingly better editions since the author passed away in 1982. In the 21st century, respectable hardbacks and quality paper have fully replaced yellowed, pulpy pages. Maybe no edition yet is more attractive than the Folio Society of London’s two-volume hardback set of Dick’s selected short stories, illustrated by 24 different artists and including tales that have survived film adaptations, for better and worse, like “Paycheck,” “The Minority Report,” and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” The books will set you back $125, but that’s a small sum compared to the price of an earlier, four-volume Complete Short Stories, published in a limited edition of 750, day-glo, hand-numbered copies. These sold out in less than 48 hours and now go for $2,500 in rare online sales.

In death Dick has achieved what he sought in his writing life: success as literary author. He thought he would eventually publish his realist fiction to earn the reputation, vowing in 1960 that he would “take twenty to thirty years to succeed as a literary writer.” Instead, he’s famous for great fiction that just happens to use the idiom of sci-fi to ask, as he wrote in an undelivered 1978 speech: “What is reality?” and “What constitutes an authentic human being?”


We tend to associate these existential, pre-post-modernist questions with novels and novellas from the 60s and 70s that communicate Dick’s paranoid worldview — works nominated for a Nebula Award, for example, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the source for the best of the film adaptations, Blade Runner.

Dick first won fame in 1963 when he was given the Hugo Award for The Man in the High Castle, a book that exceeds the boundaries of genre to become, unmistakably, a PKD original. His earlier stories, on the other hand, written throughout the 1950s when the author was in his twenties, tend to follow the conventions of the hard sci-fi of the time, with the same themes of space travel, robotics, and other futuristic technology that predominate in Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Superficially, there might seem little to distinguish Dick’s early stories from other writing of the time published in pulps like Science Fiction Quarterly, Galaxy Science Fictionand IF

But the early stories show the unmistakable touch of the later novelist. There are the flashes of humor, absurdity, deep insight into the human psyche, and the warmth and empathy Dick’s narrative voice never lost even in his most bizarre fugues. In his first published story, “Roog,” sold in 1951, Dick imagines a dog who believes the garbage men come to steal the family’s food, leaving only the empty metal storage can behind. “Certainly, I decided,” he writes, “that dog sees the world quite differently than I do, or any humans. And then I began to think, maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans.”

It’s a short leap from these thoughts to the idea that there might be no singular reality at all to fight over. Back then, he says, “I had no idea that such fundamental issues could be pursued in the science fiction field. I began to pursue them unconsciously.” His unconscious led him, in 1954’s “Adjustment Team” — the source of a less-than-great film — to imagine another dog, one who talks and interferes in human affairs (a detail omitted, thankfully, from The Adjustment Bureau). Dick’s early stories often featured comical animals — such as the Okja-like Martian pig in “Beyond Likes the Wub,” a highly-intelligent creature capable of telepathy and deep feeling. While he would turn his attention from animals and aliens to androids, alternate realities, and altered states of consciousness, Dick always had the ability to turn the genre of science fiction into a literary tool for the most daring of philosophical investigations.

Learn more about the two-volume Folio Society Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Enter the Franz Kafka Caption Contest for a Chance to Win a New Book of the Author’s Drawings (Until June 13)

Imagine if Franz Kafka were charged with picking the winning entries in The New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest.

The punchlines might become a little more obscure.

If that idea fills you with perverse pleasure, perhaps you should toddle over to Yale University Press’s Instagram to contribute some possible captions for eight of the inky drawings the tortured author made in a black notebook between 1901 and 1907.

The intended meaning of these images, included in the new book, Franz Kafka: The Drawings, are as up for grabs as any uncaptioned cartoon on the back page of The New Yorker.

In Conversations with Kafka, author Gustav Janouch recalled how their significance proved elusive even to their creator, and also the frustration his friend expressed regarding his artistic abilities:

I should so like to be able to draw. As a matter of fact, I am always trying to. But nothing comes of it. My drawings are purely personal picture writing, whose meaning even I cannot discover after a time.

Kafka seems to have gone easier on himself in a 1913 letter to fiancée Felice Bauer:

I was once a great draftsman, you know… These drawings gave me greater satisfaction in those days—it’s years ago—than anything else.

Artist Philip Hartigan, who referenced the drawings in a journal and sketchbook class for writing students nails it when he describes how Kafka’s “quick minimum movements … convey the typical despairing mood of his fiction in just a few lines.”

You have until June 13 to make explicit what Kafka did not by leaving your proposed caption for each drawing as a comment on Yale University Press’s Instagram, along the hashtag #KafkaCaptionContest.

Winners will receive a copy of  Franz Kafka: The Drawings. Entries will be judged by editor Andreas Kilcher of and theorist Judith Butler, who contributed an essay that you might consider mining for material:

Was it a muffled death? Or perhaps it was no death at all, just a tumbling of intercourse, a sexual flurry?

Yes, that might go nicely with Kafka’s drawing of a seated figure collapsed over a table, below.

https://images.app.goo.gl/mGfZzLcpRXuyqqU68

Some alternate proposals from contest hopefuls:

I needed to bathe my battered knuckles with my tears.

He studied his newly acquired rare stamp with a powerful loupe.

How can I make sure that all my letters and papers will be destroyed after my death? I know – I’ll ask my closest friend to take care of it!

This last is a reference to Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, who defied Kafka’s explicit wish that all of his work be burned upon his death, save The Metamorphosis, and five short stories: The Judgment, The Stoker, In the Penal Colony, A Country Doctor and A Hunger Artist.

Brod cut Kafka’s drawing of the standing figure, above, from his sketchbook and kept in an envelope with a few others. Some of the current caption suggestions for this haunting, never before seen image:

my face is an umbrella to my tears

I couldn’t face myself.

I am the Walrus goo goo g’joob

https://images.app.goo.gl/e6v8xbuRin3qWcS56

Of the eight drawings in the caption contest, Drinker, may offer the most narrative possibilities. A representative sampling of the inventiveness that’s come over the transom thusfar:

I, period

Angered by the impudence of the cabernet, i had only the courage to berate its shadow

Waiter! There’s a roach in my wine.

Enter Yale University Press’ Kafka Caption Contest (or get a feel for the competition) here. Entries will be accepted through June 13. Full contest rules are here. Good luck!

Explore the drawings and other contents of Franz Kafka’s black notebook here.

Purchase Franz Kafka: The Drawings, the first book to publish the entirety of the author’s graphic output, here.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Haruki Murakami Jazz Mixes: Hear Playlists of Jazz Pieces Namechecked in Norwegian Wood and 1Q84

Haruki Murakami has long since broken with the traditional model of the novelist, not least in that his books have their own soundtracks. You can’t go out and buy the accompanying album for a Murakami novel as you would for a movie, granted, but today you can even more easily find online playlists of the music mentioned in them. A die-hard music lover, Murakami, has been name-checking not just musicians but specific songs in his work ever since his first novel, 1979’s Hear the Wind Sing. Eighteen years later, he titled a whole book after a Beatles number; the tale of yearning and disaffection in 1960s Tokyo that is Norwegian Wood would become his breakout bestseller around the world.

When Norwegian Wood first came out in Korea, where I live, it did so as The Age of Loss (상실의 시대). That title is still referenced in the video above, an hourlong mix of songs from the novel posted by the Korean Youtube channel Jazz Is Everywhere. (This doesn’t surprise me: here–where Murakami’s many avid fans in Korea refer to him simply as “Haruki”–more of his work has been translated into Korean than ever will be into English.) Selections include the Bill Evans Trio’s “Waltz for Debby,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado,” Thelonious Monk’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” and Miles Davis’ “So What.” More recently, Jazz Is Everywhere put up a mix of songs from Murakami’s 2011 novel 1Q84, featuring the likes of Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington.

These mixes focus on jazz, one of Murakami’s most beloved genres; as is well known, he even ran his own jazz bar in Tokyo before turning novelist. (Its name, Peter Cat, now adorns a book café here in Seoul.) But the 1Q84 mix ends with Leoš Janáček’s decidedly un-jazzy Sinfonietta, a somewhat jarring orchestral piece that became an unlikely hit in Japan soon after 1Q84‘s publication. This only hints at the variety of Western music of which Murakami has made literary use, much as he has transposed the techniques of the Western novel (a translator from English in his spare time, he has also produced a Japanese version of The Great Gatsby) into his native language. An eclectic, improvisational, and often understated style of storytelling has resulted — which, much like jazz, has proven to know no cultural boundaries.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Margaret Atwood Releases an Unburnable Edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, to Support Freedom of Expression

When first published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale drew acclaim for how it combined and made new the genre conventions of the dystopian, historical, and fantasy novel. But the book has enjoyed its greatest fame in the past decade, thanks in part to a 2017 adaptation on Hulu and a sequel, The Testaments, published two years thereafter. It’s even become prominent in mass culture, frequently referenced in discussions of real-life politics and society in the manner of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451.

Like George Orwell and Ray Bradbury’s famous works, The Handmaid’s Tale also seems at risk of becoming less often read than publicly referenced — and therefore, no small amount of the time, publicly misinterpreted. The only way to fortify yourself against such abuse of literature is, of course, actually to read the book. Fortunately, The Handmaid’s Tale is now widely available, unlike certain books in certain places that have been subject to bans. It is against such banning that the latest edition of Atwood’s novel stands, printed and bound using only fireproof materials.


“Across the United States and around the world, books are being challenged, banned, and even burned,” says publisher Penguin Random House. “So we created a special edition of a book that’s been challenged and banned for decades.” This uniquely “unburnable” Handmaid’s Tale “will be presented for auction by Sotheby’s New York from May 23 to June 7 with all proceeds going to benefit PEN America’s work in support of free expression.” You can bid on it at Sotheby’s site, where as of this writing the price stands at USD $70,000.

Penguin has experimented with physically metaphorical books before: the paperback edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, whose cover becomes less “censored” with use. More recently, the graphic design studio Super Terrain published Fahrenheit 451, its title long a byword for book-burning, that only becomes readable with the application of heat. But it’s Ballantine’s 1953 special edition of that novel, “bound in Johns-Manville quinterra, an asbestos material with exceptional resistance to pyrolysis,” that truly set the precedent for this one-off Handmaid‘s tale. Those making bids certainly understand the book’s place in today’s cultural debates — but let’s hope they also intend to read it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Master Class on Macbeth’s Final Monologue

If only we could have had a teacher as insightful as Sir Ian McKellen explain some Shakespeare to us at an impressionable age.

Above, a 38-year-old McKellen breaks down Macbeth’s famous final soliloquy as part of a 1978 master class in Acting Shakespeare.

He makes it clear early on that relying on Iambic pentameter to convey the meaning of the verse will not cut it.


Instead, he calls upon actors to apply the power of their intellect to every line, analyzing metaphors and imagery, while also noting punctuation, word choice, and of course, the events leading up to the speech.

In this way, he says, “the actor is the playwright and the character simultaneously.”

McKellen was, at the time, deeply immersed in Macbeth, playing the title role opposite Judi Dench in a bare bones Royal Shakespeare Company production that opened in the company’s Stratford studio before transferring to the West End. As McKellen recalled in a longer meditation on the trickiness of staging this particular tragedy:

It was beautifully done on the cheap in The Other Place, the old tin hut along from the main theatre. John Napier‘s entire set cost £200 and the costumes were a ragbag of second-hand clothes. My uniform jacket had buttons embossed with ‘Birmingham Fire Service’; my long, leather coat didn’t fit, nor did Banquo‘s so we had to wear them slung over the shoulder; Judi Dench, as Lady Macbeth, wore a dyed tea-towel on her head. Somehow it was magic: and black magic, too. A priest used to sit on the front row, whenever he could scrounge a ticket, holding out his crucifix to protect the cast from the evil we were raising.

The New York Times raved about the production, declaring McKellen “the best equipped British actor of his generations:”

Mr. McKellen’s Macbeth is witty; not merely the horror but the absurdity of his actions strikes him from the outset, and he can regard his downfall as an inexorable joke. His wife pulls him along a road that he would travel anyway and he can allow himself scruples, knowing that she will be there to mop them up. Once her prosaic, limited ambition is achieved, she is of no more use to him and he shrugs her off; “she would have died hereafter” is a moment of exasperation that dares our laughter.

What fuels him most is envy, reaching incredulously forward (“The seed of Banquo kings?”) and backward to color the despair of “Duncan is in his grave.” The words, and the mind behind them, are rancid, and it is this mood that takes possession of his last scenes. Everything disgusts him, and his only reason for fighting to the death is that the thought of subjection is the most disgusting of all.

McKellen begins his examination of the text by noting how “she would have died hereafter” sets up the final soliloquy’s preoccupation with time, and its passage.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

McKellen makes a true meal of  “out, out, brief candle”,  relating it to Lady Macbeth’s final appearance, the fools proceeding to their dusty death earlier in the monologue, and Elizabethan stage lighting.

He speculates that Shakespeare’s description of life as a “poor player” was a deliberate attempt by the playwright to give the actor an interpretive hook they could relate to. In performance, the theatrical metaphor should remind the audience that they’re watching a pretense even as they’re invested in the character’s fate.

The production’s success inspired director Trevor Nunn to film it. McKellen recalled that everyone was already so well acquainted with the material, it took just two weeks to get it in the can:

The claustrophobia of the stage production was exactly captured. Trevor had used a similar technique with Antony and Cleopatra on the box. No one else should ever be allowed to televise Shakespeare…There is so much I was proud of: discovering how to play a soliloquy direct into the eyes of everyone in the audience; making them laugh at Macbeth’s gallows humor; working alongside Judi Dench’s finest performance.

For more expert advice from McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley and other notables, watch the RSC’s 9-part Playing Shakespeare series here.

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and creator, most recently of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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