What was the first West End play you ever saw?
I went to Kingston Grammar School, and there had been an old boy called R. C. Sherriff who wrote a wonderful play called Journey’s End, about the First World War. He used to take parties of boys to see his plays in London, including Miss Mabel, one of those murderous-old-lady-plays, like Arsenic and Old Lace. That was probably the first straight play I saw.
Is there one play that’s had an inordinate influence on your own work?
With Democracy, if I had a model in mind, it was Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos.
You must like German speakers: Wittgenstein was your favorite philosopher.
Well, I studied philosophy at Cambridge, and Wittgenstein had been a professor. He died in 1951, and I arrived in 1954, but his influence was extremely strong. He was a charismatic teacher and a terrible bully. Although I think he’s one of the greatest philosophers there ever was, I am very pleased I didn’t know him personally.
As a child, did you see anything that frightened you?
A B-feature, an innocent cowboy film I saw when I was a child. Somebody mentions that the herd on the next ranch had foot-and-mouth disease and they had put the herd down. I wept all night after that, and my parents said, “What’s the trouble?
” “They killed all the cows!” You can never tell what’s going to upset people.
Were there any authors you admired in grade school?
Well, there’s all the authors everyone admires, Flaubert and Stendhal.
What literature affected you in university?
Obviously Chekhov, because eventually I came to translate most of Chekhov’s plays. But there are so many absolutely magnificent writers: uh, perhaps, um, Turgenev.
You read these in Russian?
Yes, of course, yes, yes.
Is there anything people would be surprised you like?
I think my tastes are all very simple and straightforward.
No interest at all in pop culture.
Ever watch TV?
Not very much, no.
I am, I would say, yes, passionate about music.
Yes. Well, I’m very blank on Liszt. A pianist I greatly admire, Alfred Brendel, is a great admirer of Liszt, and it means absolutely nothing whatsoever to me. It sounds mere bombast. But this must be something missing in me.
Erm, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis. I’ve liked novels by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and I’m fond of Richard Ford.
What do you admire in them?
Oh, dear. I’m not a literary critic. I just like the bloody things.
Is there an artistic approach you consider your antithesis?
I am not so strong on trying to make the audience feel guilty. They feel guilty enough already.