Under Bow Bells

Dialogue With Diana Rigg

It is an irony of our modern communications that Diana Rigg became known and admired in many countries through a television series. No actress was ever more dedicated to the living stage, as she has since proved beyond cavil to the delight of countless theatre-goers.

My wife and I first met her when she received us backstage before an evening performance of Abélard and Héloise. A few days later she was coming to us to take part in the dialogue which follows.

The litmus paper which dichotomizes the famous in any walk of life is whether they seek primarily success or achievement. This is by no means a distinction without a difference, although it may appear so to the unreflective.

When I describe Diana as dedicated, I mean that from my knowledge of her, to give a good performance of a demanding part satisfies her ambition more than to win applause by a facile piece of acting. And it is not only on the stage she asks of life deep waters. In the mediocrity of subtopia she would soon die of boredom. And nobody I know is less tolerant of the deadly virtues.

On stage she can be terrifyingly brilliant, as I saw her in the last performance of Jumpers at the Old Vic, out-Marilyning Monroe. But at supper afterwards she was warm, unaffected, fundamentally serious, highly intelligent, emotionally plumb honest, a truly female woman.

Diana is totally uninterested in the ploys of femininity. I imagine that she is devastating to the male who treats her as anything other than a person in her own right.

Yes, I admire her unreservedly. But not merely because she is endowed with attributes which satisfy the aesthetic sense. What I most enjoy in her is a genuine struggle for personal integrity and spiritual freedom. That seems to me before everything else what makes another person worth knowing, although at time it may involve a clash of contraries. 'Without Contraries," said William Blake, 'is no progression.'

McCULLOCH: When my wife and I saw Diana Rigg in Abélard and Héloise - which I suppose is one of the most wonderful stories in history - I thought it was a great triumph for Miss Rigg, because of all historical parts, I would think that Héloise was one of the most difficult. It stimulated my mind so much that I have been thinking about it ever since. Now, tell me, what do you think the real issue is, in this story of Abélard and Héloise?

RIGG: I think, basically, it is about the predicament of Abélard. He belonged to the Civitas Dei, which was an Order whose members, although they didn't take vows of continence, in the eyes of the world were expected to be continent.

McCULLOCH: Let us get the word 'continent' clear. You mean Abelard shouldn't have had anything to do with a woman?

RIGG: No, nothing at all. And he fell in love with Héloise. They had a very deep and very passionate relationship. It seemed that after thirty-seven years of celibacy, he was trying, in fact, to pack everything into the short time they had together. Héloise, on the other hand, understood far more than he did the issues that their relationship would throw up. In other words, she was very modern, she understood that they could not flaunt their love, they could not get married, she was even content to remain, in the eyes of the world, his harlot, and a terrible predicament was set up there: his attitude of wishing to make their love honest and open and hers, in realizing that in so doing he would ruin himself.

McCULLOCH: This was quite clearly a twelfth century problem, wasn't it? Or do you think this is something that could arise in the twentieth century?

RIGG: Oh yes, I think it is still with us. Why, only today, in the papers, the Roman Catholic Primate of Belgium made a statement on celibacy in the Church.

McCULLOCH: But it isn't only in the Roman Catholic Church, is it? I mean, it is quite a common problem. Very often a couple can't marry for some reason - say, for instance, that it will ruin a man's career - and the woman sees it as her job to sacrifice herself. Isn't that what Héloise did, really?

RIGG: I wouldn't call it sacrifice. I think women, in loving totally, are prepared to give everything, and to call it a sacrifice would put it on a pedestal. Sacrifice would suggest giving up something that you care for very deeply. Héloise cared only for Abélard.

McCULLOCH: Yes, but she had to give up a great deal else. Don't you think perhaps you have a romantic view of sex? When all is said and done, what is sex? It is a means of producing the next generation.

RIGG: I don't understand that. I think sex is not simply procreation, I don't think it has been, nor will it ever be.

McCULLOCH: If it is not merely for procreation, what is it for?

RIGG: Well, it is another form of communication, for one thing.

McCULLOCH: Oh, but I can communicate without sex.

RIGG: Anybody can communicate without sex. I'm not saying sex is the most important thing, but it is very, very important.

McCULLOCH: You see, what I am driving at is simply this - I'm agreeing with you really - that what one is looking for in life is a kind of wholeness of personality, fullness of life. Do you agree with that?

RIGG: Yes.

McCULLOCH: Presumably sex, therefore, is one way of achieving this wholeness and obviously, between men and women it must be. In the animal world sex is merely for procreation, but something new has arrived in the nature of sex in the human race - the whole of man's mind. We are a race that, for good or ill, has to make some sort of marriage between emotion and reason. That is what is so important about Abélard, isn't it? He was trying hard to do just that. He didn't succeed, I don't think, do you?

RIGG: No, because he had the machinery of the Church against him.

McCULLOCH: Well, the Church at that time was going through a very important period of its life. It was trying to sweat out of its system the paganism, the whole permissiveness of the Roman civilization which had collapsed. Every age that goes off he deep end about this particular thing, always has to spend a hundred years or so sweating it out of its system, and getting back to a kind of balance. The Middle Ages were precisely such a period and Abélard came up in that situation didn't he?

RIGG: When you say 'get back to a kind of balance', what do you mean, precisely?

McCULLOCH: I think we have to work out for ourselves what freedom really means. You see, the Victorians got us into a straitjacket and not only the Victorians - we are suffering from the whole inheritance of puritanism. Now, sensuality is a good word. By sensuality, I mean the satisfaction of the senses. I am a very sensual person. I love good things, and I think that is right. But obviously if you are going to satisfy the senses, you have got to develop a kind of taste and a discipline.

RIGG: In order to satisfy the senses, I would imagine, you have to have a spectrum of experience, and experiment and discriminate for yourself, surely? This is what they now call permissiveness.

McCULLOCH: No, what they now call permissiveness - well, they're all over the place, aren't they? A very delightful girl said to me the other day, 'The real problem for our generation is that we have got too many choices and we are bewildered'.

RIGG: I think that is a tragedy - that she should feel bewildered, I mean. In my adolescence I had very little choices.

McCULLOCH: I think you were probably lucky! The real point, surely, is that we ought to be able to train human personality so that it knows where the satisfaction of the senses lies.

RIGG: No, you can't possibly do that because people are individual. You can't train a mass of individuals. Discovering one's sensuality is something which is a very, very personal process. You can't make rules that apply to everybody.

McCULLOCH: Why not? Alec Douglas-Home said something very important in that pulpit once. He said, it seemed to him that what mattered was that one should ask oneself whether one's course of action wil harm anybody else. Isn't that a rule that applies to everybody?

RIGG: That is a humanist rule; it's not necessarily a sensualist rule.

McCULLOCH: Oh yes it is. It applies everywhere, I think. The question is, whether what I do does harm or good. Abélard, when he crashed into Fulbert's house, surely did a terrible thing. You see, I think that what Abélard hated himself for was what he did to Fulbert - you know, he went to this old man who loved his niece, and he got himself taken into that house, and he abused his hospitality, didn't he? He seduced the niece. Roughly speaking, that is what we would say today. Well, that was his problem. He hated himself for doing that. And Héloise understood that.

RIGG: That was the pedestrian problem - a problem of embarrassment, of good faith that he had destroyed. But he had a far greater problem, in fact, which was that of the man who discovered the sensual life and couldn't reconcile it with his intellectual life. Once or the other had to be sacrificed and he sacrificed his intellectual life.

McCULLOCH: I'm not sure that you're not over-simplifying: I think it was deeper than that. I think he knew a lot about the sensual life. A man can't get to thirty-seven with the brain that he had without knowing a great deal.

RIGG: Well, it must have been a vicarious knowledge, mustn't it?

McCULLOCH: Anyhow, he fell in love with this beautiful girl, and I think, knew that he either had to say yea to it or nay. He said yea, but he did it in such a way that he betrayed himself in doing so. And I think that good sensuality is when you can keep your integrity and enjoy your senses. And this is what the young today are looking for, aren't they? The formula whereby you keep your integrity and enjoy the senses.

RIGG: I don't think 'integrity' is a word which would mean very much to them, do you?

McCULLOCH: Oh, I think they're looking for integrity like mad. I don't think they've found it but I think they are a deeply sincere generation. And they are looking desperately. But there is another word that comes up in the Abélard and Héloise story, and that is the word 'chastity'. In these days, as you know, chastity is a bad word, something you run away from. But surely all it means is that you keep yourself with integrity in a situation; you don't betray yourself. Abélard did, and he hated himself afterwards.

RIGG: Chastitiy means that? I thought it meant...

McCULLOCH: Oh yes, I know, you thought it meant just not going to bed with somebody outside wedlock.

RIGG: No, no, no. I thought that chastity meant a very strict discipline where maybe your desires might lead you in one direction, and you disciplined yourself so that you didn't take - for instance - that second helping of whatever is is, or your second glass of wine. That is chastity.

McCULLOCH: Yes, but chastity means even more than that. It means emotional honesty, and I think if you can keep emotional honesty - it's very difficult to do - but it is surely the best thing that you can do, isn't it?

RIGG: Indeed, but the wheel has come full circle now, because our discussion fifteen minutes ago was about sex and sexual attitudes as they are now, and I would say that emotional honesty is perhaps one of the strongest factors in the sexual attitudes of today.

McCULLOCH: I am absolutely with you. I think that you cannot divorce sexual life from personal integrity. This is where your play raises the great questions again and it is important for that reason. Why do we do certain things, how do we really express honesty in them? Why couldn't Abélard and Héloise have gone off and got married, that is the first questions.

RIGG: Simply because he was a man who was, before he met her, committed to a course in life which did not admit cohabitation with a woman, did not admit loving a woman or giving her a child.

McCULLOCH: Should there ever be any situation in human life where you cannot marry a woman you love?

RIGG: I would have thought not ever.

McCULLOCH: So would I. That is why I am against a rule of celibacy. I think it is wrong and I hope the Archbishop of Belgium will get his point. It is important for the Roman Church. But, at the same time, don't let us rise away on that. The attempt to be a priest and be married is a jolly difficult one.

RIGG: Yes, but I would have thought that with the knowledge of a relationship with a woman, and the weakness and problems, his attitude towards the people who came to see him would be far more realistic, far more humane.

McCULLOCH: I agree. And I think it important for a man to have a woman to interrupt his airy-fairy; keep him earthed, so to speak, as you are doing! But at the same time, if you are trying to get integrity of a very high order - which they were in the twelfth century - a woman is a distraction, and interruption in the attempt to get an intense purity of motive. I think we have seen through that, now. It was a negative, wasn't it? But we haven't yet found a positive way, not quite. I mean, in the Church, we have married clergy, and on the whole they perform good service in the community, but it is still true to say that the fact that the priest has a wife, makes people very often not come to him, you know, because - well, because wives are often so close to their husbands, and I suppose there is a fear that husbands might betray the seal of the confessional, or something.

RIGG: I wouldn't have thought so.

McCULLOCH: No, but this is what people feel. Do you see what I mean? It is still not solved.

RIGG: But might not a married priest - providing, of course, that the relationship was a good one - have a two-fold force? Because he would have the feminine force as well as his own male force and, I would have thought, for a person in need of help or cousel, that would be the perfect man to go to.

McCULLOCH: Would you say that women should be priests?

RIGG: I think this is questionable. I hate to be sort of feminist about this or anti-feminist but I would never go to a woman priest for advice or counsel. I think very few women would.

McCULLOCH: Would you rather have been educated by a man rather than a woman?

RIGG: Yes.

McCULLOCH: I think you are right. I think that where we are lacking at the moment in our education, is that we don't give enough attention to the cross-reference, as it were - that men and women should educate both boys and girls. You agree about that?

RIGG: Yes, very much. I think for a child - for a young girl - the observation of man and male, and the opportunity to talk and communicate on an asexual level is terribly important. And this would apply to boys also, being taught by women.

McCULLOCH: May I ask you this? At the moment, the great worry of a great many people is that sex gives out, as it were. I mean, there are various reasons, why a sexual relationship becomes out of joint or doesn't work any more, and people think that is the end of the line. Do you believe that?

RIGG: No, I don't think it is true, but there again, it is up to the individual. I couldn't begin to talk or philosophise. I know what I feel and it is quite personal and quite profound. I think you have to discover a way for yourself. Nowadays two people confront each other initially, and then perhaps go away and make love quite soon, after the first, second or third encounter. And it is only after that sexual obstacle has been overcome - in other words, once they have realised each other physically, sensually - that the relationship starts and develops. This is complete inversion of what it was some fifty or sixty years ago.

McCULLOCH: But supposing it doesn't develop?

RIGG: Then it is called a mistake, just as marriage can be a mistake.

McCULLOCH: But does this affect the integrity of the person?

RIGG: Not at all. It seems to me that they have got their priorities right.

McCULLOCH: I'm not trying to be dogmatic at all, I'm just interested. You might make an awful lot of mistakes on the way. I meet people who have made too many mistakes and have never got anywhere. Had they gone the other way about it...

RIGG: How can you possibly have total companionship which is not based on a sexual knowledge of each other? You were talking about companionship afterwards.

McCOLLUCH: Well, you see, I think it is the other way round. One meets somebody and one goes gradually towards the physical expression. You are saying that you get the physical expression over first.

RIGG: Because it is an obstacle.

McCULLOCH: I just don't believe that. It may be an obstacle for you, but it wouldn't work like that for me. I think this is the most deep and intimate relationship there is, and you come to it very slowly. That is to say, you get to know the person in very many ways, first.

RIGG: That would set sex, the sexual experience, as a pinnacle. I do not think of sexual experience as a pinnacle. I put the intellectual and the emotional experience as a pinnacle. Sex, after all, is a quite easy-to-attain commodity. To be utterly modernistic about it, it is presented everywhere: on hoardings, in advertisements, films; this is a fact. Therefore what must be rich and rare after that is the personality, is the love, the soul, the spirit or whatever it is, of the person.

McCULLOCH: I think you are right, absolutely right. I think the rich and rare thing is what you have described it - the mystery of two persons in relationship. But although there are rare people, like Abélard and Héloise, who could achieve complete sexual harmony the first time they ever saw each other, they are very rare and to put that down as the norm would be disastrous. Héloise and Abélard were very deep people already, and they met instantly and deeply, but most people only meet tangentially and casually, and to start off with sex at that point seems to me the most utter bathos and the most dangerous of activities. Sorry! I'm preaching at you.

RIGG: Describe what you call the 'casual' surroundings?

McCULLOCH: Well, if I meet a girl on a night out, or something, that would be casual. I would want to know her much, much more before I would get anywhere near intimacy of that kind.

RIGG: Would you? How would you know that i wouldn't be another story of Abélard and Héloise?

McCULLOCH: Well, I hope I would recognise it if it were! I hope your play will make people start arguing about this, because it seems to me the most valuable point of departure, so to speak, in the modern world. We've got to learn again, I think, how to know each other at depth and I don't believe you do it by diving in at the deep end first - you generally drown!

RIGG: I don't think so - no.

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