Echoes of The Prisoner on the big and small screen.

© Jimmy Driver.

I have noticed a couple of echoes of ‘The Prisoner’ on the small and big screen:

There is a ‘Star Trek’ episode, ‘The Enemy Within’, airdate 10 June 1966. Owing to a malfunction with the transporter, Capt Kirk divides into two people. One of them is nice and kind, but weak. The other one is foul, but forceful.

It is not actually one of my favourite episodes of the series. I suspect there is some rather nasty hidden meaning: the only energetic people are the violent, aggressive ones.

The echo of ‘The Prisoner’ is with ‘The Schizoid Man’, of course. There are 2 men, both claiming to be the real Prisoner in this episode, as there are 2 very different men appearing to be Captain Kirk in the ‘Star Trek’ episode. The bogus or phoney Prisoner is known as Number 12, which is Number 6 times 2, as he is the second Number Six.

I perceive another echo of ‘The Prisoner’ in Jean Genet’s play ‘The Balcony’. ‘The Balcony’ was part of a new wave of European theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, known as ‘The Theatre Of Cruelty’. The phrase ‘Theatre Of Cruelty’ was first coined in France much earlier, by the dramatic critic Antonin Artaud, author of ‘The Theatre And Its Double’. This movement was based on Artaud’s idea that the theatre was a visual rather than a linguistic form of art. The theatre was more closely related to ballet and mime than it was to poetry or the novel. It relied more on the physical movement and interaction of the actors and less on language than earlier European theatre had.

Besides Genet in France, The Theatre Of Cruelty informed the work of Jerzy Grotowski, the director in Poland. He put forward his ideas about the theatre in a book: ‘Towards A Poor Theatre’. It involved the German playwright Peter Weiss, whose work included ‘Marat Sade’ (actually the abbreviated title). Weiss later adopted Swedish nationality. It involved the British director, Peter Brook, who directed ‘Marat Sade’ in Britain in the 1960s. His view of the theatre is put forward in his books, which included ‘The Empty Space’.

Genet actually wrote a number of versions of ‘The Balcony’. He was a playwright in the early part of his career; he abandoned the theatre in favour of non-fiction in his mature work. He was the subject of a book by Jean-Paul Sartre, who called him Saint Genet.

One of the versions of the play formed the basis of a monochrome film in 1963. The film had to be more restrained in its erotic content than the stage play. It starred Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Leonard Nimoy, and others. Patrick McGoohan was later to be a guest star on ‘Columbo’ with Peter Falk, on the small screen (as was Leonard Nimoy).

Most of the action takes place in the premises of a business also called ‘The Balcony’. It is a house of illusions (not necessarily a brothel, as some people have said). The clients pay to play out their fantasies, mainly sado-masochistic ones. Meanwhile, there is a civil war going on outside.

One of the clients want to pretend to be a judge, pardoning a young woman offender for theft. Another wants to play out the role of a bishop hearing a young woman's confession of a number of sins. Another client wants to play out the fantasy of being a general killing a lot of people in the war, with a woman employee of the Balcony as his horse. The Balcony provides customers with their costumes to wear for the fantasies and rooms to play out their scenes, complete with props and backdrops. So it is a sort of theatre within a theatre.

The bishop, the judge, and the general are figures of social and political power. The bishop has a high position in the church hierarchy: he can give orders to people lower down and so on. He also has a high position in the state: he can influence people’s thinking and hear confessions. The judge presides over a court, where he can sentence the defendants to punishments. These punishments include penalties up to and including death. The general also has the power of life and death over other people in warfare. He also has a privileged position in the army.

At the request of the chief of police, the three clients appear in public, wearing their costumes, to be seen by the crowds outside who are involved in this civil war. They put on an act of really being the judge, the general, and the bishop. This is a pretence which is believed by the populace outside. In the original stage play, this public appearance takes place on the balcony. In the film, it takes place in a vehicle. It has an impact on the civil war.

One of the clients works in a garage; a little transatlantic translation is needed, incidentally: a gas man in the USA doesn't mean the same as it does in Britain. I think it means a petrol pump attendant.

The three clients then gradually realise that they have become what they pretended to be. The gas man and the other customers have really become the judge, the bishop, and the general. Appearance has become reality. Fiction has become fact. Fantasy has come true, because the population of the city believe this act.

At the end, Irma, who runs the Balcony, turns to the audience and tells them to go back to their lives and their beds, where everything is more false than what they have seen in the theatre.

The echo of ‘The Prisoner’ is with ‘Dance Of The Dead’, of course. The episode is playful, but it does gently raise some serious questions. They are questions about social and political authority. They are questions about acting: acting in drama and acting in life.

The Prisoner asks: ‘Why haven't I a costume?’ Number Two replies: ‘Perhaps you don’t exist’. It is as if to say the roles we play in our lives define us: they confer on us our identity and without them we wouldn’t even exist. This is emphatically not the opinion supported by the series; on the contrary, it is presented as an example of social control, in order to be debunked.

During the carnival in the village, there is a court scene. Number Two dresses up as Peter Pan and becomes the defence counsel. Three other characters, familiar from the earlier part of the episode, dress as autocrats from the past. Generals and judges appear a number of times in the series, in other episodes, too.

In the background is a question about social roles and dramatic art: an actor can wear a costume and act as a general; how can we distinguish between that actor and a real general? Are we all actors?

I think ‘The Balcony’ and ‘Marat Sade’ are interesting, bold, and innovative works of the theatre. But for me there is one major problem with them. It is also the problem I have with the Marquis de Sade's own work, such as ‘120 Days Of Sodom’ (and with Arrabal’s one-act play: ‘The Two Executioners’).

Pornography and art are two different phenomena and they perform two different functions. The function of art is to comment on the human experience. The function of pornography is to titillate or to arouse sexually. The two things don't mix well.

There are a number of examples of this. In the cinema of the 1970s and early 1980s there were a number of films that included elements both of pornography and of art. They included ‘Wicker Man’, ‘Sebastiane’, ‘Caligula’, ‘Last Tango in Paris’, and others. I think these films fail because they do two things badly rather than one thing well. They were bad both as works of art and as pornography.

I have identified some common ground between ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Star Trek’. I have identified some common ground between ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘The Balcony’. This begs the question: is there any common ground between ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Balcony’?

As a starting point, Leonard Nimoy appeared in the film and the television series. But his role as Roger in ‘The Balcony’ is quite passionate, whereas Spock in ‘Star Trek’ is famously without emotions (with the possible exception of the first episode, ‘The Cage’).

But there is another echo which is more resonant. In a ‘Star Trek’ episode, ‘Patterns Of Force’, Captain Kirk and Spock beam down to a planet which resembles Nazi Germany. At one point, Kirk and Spock acquire Nazi uniforms to pass themselves off as the other side. They do so by outwitting and outfighting enemy soldiers, needless to say.

As in ‘The Balcony’, there is an emphasis on costume as a way of establishing positions of political power. Later, there is a scene in a cloakroom, where Kirk gives an order to Lieutenant Uhura to acquire a similar costume for Dr McCoy. On being told McCoy has a problem with it, Kirk says: ‘Send him down naked if you have to!’

The cloakroom is a warehouse for Nazi uniforms, a type of costume store, similar to one used for the actors in a studio or backstage in a theatre. So there is an echo here. It is the concept that political power is just an act. The most extreme example of political oppression and institutionalised sadism is made possible by acting. This acting is reinforced by dressing up in clothes for the part.

There are a number of levels of acting in ‘Dance Of The Dead’. An actress puts on a costume to play Number Two. Number Two then put on another costume to play Peter Pan. Peter Pan then plays the Prisoner's defence counsel.

The great gift of ‘The Prisoner’ is its ability to do two things at once. It entertains its audience, but at the same time it gently encourages the audience to think about the rest of their lives.

Jimmy Driver


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