Stephen Fry answers YOUR questions about the arts!


Stephen Fry is one of Britain's best-loved actors. He is also a comedian, author, screenwriter, and director and he is known the world-over for his achievements in the arts. You might know Stephen as the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks, as the former presenter of QI, as General Melchett in Blackadder or from one of his many other television shows and films. You might have have read one of his recent books on the Greek myths. We're delighted to invite him to take your questions on the arts...

What is “art” to you? Do you think it has a definition?
loved_wildcat, Hammond Junior School

“Something made that is not useful?” That sounds strange, indeed contradictory because I think art is immensely important. I’m really echoing Oscar Wilde who said “all art is quite useless” which struck people at the time as very perverse and bewildering, since he was regarded as the High Priest of art, its leading apostle. Was he just being facetiously paradoxical or mischievous? I don’t think so. What he meant, I believe, is that art is above and beyond what we need. We need shelter, yet there is architecture. We need to reproduce, yet there is love. We need calories, fats, carbohydrates and protein, yet there is inspired creative cuisine. We need something to cover our bodies, yet there is high fashion. We need water, and yet there is wine. We humans uniquely create a whole new sphere of made objects or experiences that transcend, that go beyond their function and enter that realm we call art. That’s the best I can do at the moment for a definition.

How do you think the arts can change the way that people look at the world?
lovable_writer, Graveney School

That’s a very interesting question. I’m sorry to drag Oscar Wilde in again, but it’s inevitable when talking about art, since he wrote about it with such depth, penetration and insight. He made the famous remark that “nature imitates art” – again it can seem like a trivial and facile inversion of the more common Victorian assumption that art imitates nature. But he meant this: once a painter like Turner for example had painted a sky or mist in a certain way it changed the way we all saw sunsets and mists. We can now look at a certain sky and say, “oh look how Blake that is.” Or, “what Constable clouds.” Or “Hm, that sky is a rather poor attempt at a Turner.” All artists, writers as much as painters and sculptors see into the heart of things and make us see them anew. So they change reality for us. When a character in a Nabokov novel asks the waiter to bring him a glass of yellow wine, we realise, (which we’ve known with acknowledging all along), that “white wine” is of course yellow. That’s an insignificant example, but it can be seen to stand for the way all artists penetrate the truth of things. They see for us. Not just nature and objects, but behaviour, fate and personality. This is what is meant by imagination. Imagination does not mean “making things up”. When people use the word lazily like that, what they really mean is “fantasy.” An artist’s imagination allows them to imagine what it is to be someone else. To enter into the reality of lives other than their own. If more people listened to artists I sometimes think they might manage to avoid more failure and upset. It’s almost a cliché to observe how every disaster, scandal, fall from grace or over-reaching tyranny in politics today can be found in Shakespeare.

All artists, writers as much as painters and sculptors see into the heart of things and make us see them anew. So they change reality for us.

Stephen Fry

Is there anything you have not done in your career, but that you would still like to do?
careful_science, Faringdon Community College

Oh goodness! Well, one of the first things I did that first propelled me towards performance was writing drama. I wrote one which won a prize at the Edinburgh Festival and kickstarted my whole career really. I’d love to write a play again before I leave life… I sure as hellfire picked a bad time to think about such a thing. Theatre and live entertainment are suffering from the pandemic more than any other creative enterprises, for fairly obvious reasons.

What advice do you have for young people who would like to pursue acting?
genuine_fern, Portobello High School

My usual answer would be “go and see as many plays as you can manage (or afford to)” - but, as in the foregoing answer, that is obviously not possible in the immediate short-term future. The other advice I give is; go and seek out like-minded friends and sit in parks talking acting and theatre. Watch films and the streaming of plays together and talk about who your favourite actors, directors and playwrights are. If you can, put on scenes from your favourite plays. Can be as rough and ready as anything. Outdoors, in a shed or school gym, for free and with no scenery or costumes. Even before you think of auditioning for a drama school or an amateur company, it’s such a good idea to have had experience, even if it is just mounting scenes and small plays for your own pleasure. It’s amazing how much you learn that way. Create your own theatre company. When people see your commitment and passion for acting and drama they know that you really mean it!

Go and seek out like-minded friends and sit in parks talking acting and theatre. Watch films and the streaming of plays together and talk about who your favourite actors, directors and playwrights are.

Stephen Fry

If you could invite any three people from the arts to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
dedicated_tsunami, John Bunyan Primary and Nursery School

Hmmmm …. I’d like a poet, a playwright and a musician I think. The poet? Emily Dickinson would be fascinating. So shy and introspective in her verse, which she kept to herself, but by all accounts she was wondrous company. The playwright, once again I’ll mention Oscar. He must be the most popular answer I should imagine. Everyone knows about his wit, and to bathe in the sunlight of someone’s wit is always a pleasure, but those who knew him said what was remarkable about his conversation was that he never talked down to people. A certain kind of brilliant talker can make everyone else feel ten inches tall, because next to them they’re so inferior. But another kind can make you feel ten feet tall, because they bring up to their level; their wit make you feel cleverer, and by all accounts Wilde was like that. He made people funnier too, because he showed how wit works. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff immodestly says of himself, I am not just witty, but a cause of wit in others. And the musician. I think Franz Schubert the Austrian composer from whose pen so much tuneful, thrilling and beautiful music flowed. By all accounts he was wonderful company. And he could turn to the piano after dinner and improvise and delight us all.

Thank you very much to Stephen Fry for his answers. What's the most important thing you've learnt from them? Add your comments below.

Also, look out for some Thinking Questions based on Stephen's answers on the Hub shortly.

Comments (2)

You must be logged in with Student Hub access to post a comment. Sign up now!