Thursday 21 January 2010

Searing Performances

There's a letter in today's Times from Steven Berkoff. Apparently he disagrees with an article a couple of days ago attacking Kirk Douglas's performance in Lust for Life. He says:

Douglas's interpretation was and still is universally acclaimed as one of his bravest and most searing performances.

I have, as the phrase goes, a lot of time for Mr Berkoff. The best theatrical adaptation of a novel I've ever seen was his of The Trial. But that sentence is hideous.

First there's the rather silly rhetorical mistake of claiming universal agreement on a subject. This tack simply can't work in an argument. The whole reason for his writing the letter is that the acclamation is neither universal nor, as he would imply, eternal.

Then of course there's the slightly silly notion of thespian bravery (a form of self-sacrifice not recognised by soldiers, firemen, tiger-wrestlers etc), but that only makes straight the way of the word searing.

There are eight thousand "searing performances" on google. But searing is branding, cauterizing, burning or - originally - withering: to quote, as this blog always does, Lycidas: "Ye myrtles brown with ivy never-sear". The OED even cites a sense of "to make callous (a seared conscience)".

I can guess that Steven Berkoff somehow wants to say that the performance was rather good, but I don't understand how. Was the performance tender? Bombastic? Ranting (as the article he alluded to had claimed)? Subtle? Gelatinous? Turquoise? Could you change the part of speech? Could you say "His performance seared"? Searing is just a nonsense word like iconic or cowardly. It's a word that looks right in a newspaper but that has no meaning. It is, in short, journalese.

And that's what depresses me about the letter. It demonstrates that the draw of journalese is so strong that even a writer of Mr Berkoff's universally acclaimed abilities lets all his verbal dexterity drop just in order to write a letter to the paper.

He even used the word lambast.


  1. did he meant 'soaring' maybe?
    equally idiotic maybe, but more appropriate.

  2. I disagree- I think it means that it is haunting but even stronger, the performance is branded in the mind. Doesn't upset me.


  3. Thank you, Everet, I like the idea of haunting strongly. Locks, I fear it wasn't a typo. There as there are 8,000 "searing performances" on google (I've added in a link). It's simply a cliché.