Stephen Fry & Me

Stephen FryStephen Fry Photograph: Steve Forrest for The New York Times

My journey with Stephen Fry began last September with Stephen Fry in America. Stephen had been going through a tough time. He was under medication for bipolar disorder—a psychiatrist’s term for manic depression which has been linked for centuries with creativity (see Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament). Being Stephen, he decided to fight his demons in front of the camera in The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive, away from home in the wilderness of America. The arena Stephen now entered had not been kind to men like him: two actor-comedians had shot themselves to death, while another had jumped off an island ferry.

It suffices to say that Stephen survived both depression and America. The latter gave him the necessary strength to face up to more powerful demons lurking inside him since his childhood.

In Wagner & Me, we see how hard Stephen tries to come in terms with Richard Wagner, the anti-Semitic German, whose music introduced young Stephen, a Jew, to a new world of tension and drama. Once he heard Wagner, Stephen would never be able close his eyes or shut his ears to this mysterious world of mythical powers and demons. The music which once enthralled Hitler and Nazis now constantly haunted post-Holocaust Germany and the Jew in him.

Stephen aims to rescue Richard Wagner by separating his music from the person. Is it possible to separate Stephen Fry from his work? I don’t think so. The battle plays out on a hilltop in Bayreuth. Stephen faces a tremendous opponent and the conflict is of great historical and cultural interest. As with every Stephen Fry production, the battle soon turns out into our hero’s side and we realize this is not the first time Stephen has managed to subvert his project: Wagner & Me reveals more about Stephen than Wagner or his music.

Stephen Fry in America and Wagner & Me both are high on subtle humour. Yet it is impossible to brand Stephen’s sense of humour. His childlike gestures make him endearing, but his comedy is not less varied than his beloved composer’s music. Stephen’s humour scales up and down, and reveals a diverse range of textures and shades which we don’t often see in popular comedy.

During the last ten months since my first encounter with Stephen, I have only managed to scratch the surface of a large body of work which spans three decades of his life. Every time I read, watch or listen to Stephen, it seems necessary to pause and let the ‘humour’ to sink in. Days go by; sometimes months before I return to his work again. He is the sort of person who grows on you bit by bit—a stranger who wants to be your friend and keeps trying to get under your skin. Once he manages to get in, you begin to relish his company. You begin to take delight in his work and success.

I haven’t seen much of Stephen Fry’s work. His most successful production so far to me is Fry’s English Delight, which comes across as a complete departure from Robert MacNeil’s original television production The Story of English (1986), Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English (2003), Seth Lerer’s History of English Language (2008) or his own Fry’s Planet World (2011). A delightful mix of humour and wit, Fry’s English Delight is a radio production packed with his signature commentary. On television, Stephen Fry often doesn’t allow his interviewees enough air time to have their say. On radio, he appears a generous host for a very good reason.

Excerpt from He Said, She Said:

“For men, there is what’s known as hegemonic masculinity which is the heroic, tough, strong, macho type of male that is widely understood to be masculine. But there are lots of other alternatives available to men.

The trouble is in schools today… it seems to very difficult for boys to align themselves with more sensitive kinds of masculinity, because there is very strong ethos that boys gave to prove they are real boys. They have to prove that they are cool. As seen as cool is not to want to do schoolwork, to not concentrate in class, to fool around… And the few boys who do try and listen to the teacher and do what they are asked to do are accused of being gay. That’s the ultimate insult. You want to be cool. You do not want to be gay.” 

— Jennifer Cole tells Stephen Fry

Such a discussion about popular culture doesn’t quite fit the exploration of the English language, and these unexpected turn of events is what makes this series so unique and powerful. While Stephen struggled with his homosexuality, I suffered the cool charade of people around me. Stephen and I now stand in an unexpected point of intersection. I can now understand him better, and he seems to have a good understanding of people who love to read, write and film.

Stephen Fry’s work makes you think and there couldn’t possibly be a better reason to love him.

Stephen Fry: Wikipedia
Stephen Fry: Official Website
BBC: Fry’s Planet Word
The Great Courses: Literature &
the English Language

July 23, 2012

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